Review: Your Lie in April

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Music is a terrible thing…If you hear a marching band, you march, if you hear a waltz, you dance, if you hear a mass you take communion. It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism. So now, what was in my mind when I wrote this? Hmm? A man is trying to reach his lover. His carriage is broken down in the rain. The wheels stuck in the mud. She will only wait so long. This is the sound of his agitation. “This is how it is.” The music is saying “not how you are used to being, not how you are used to thinking…but like this.”

Beethoven, Immortal Beloved (1994)

Note: Almost all quoted dialogue is from the English dub as I feel is not only a faithful adaptation of the intended script but also an eloquent localization which flows more naturally when spoken in English. The result is very poetic.

Within the medium of anime, there is a genre called slice of life. Think of it as weekly dramas or sitcoms. They do not usually incorporate any fantastical elements like magical battles or big robots fighting each other. The is no world saving. What usually makes it stand out as a success is a cast of characters that draw the audience into their personal stories how they interact with others.

Every season, there are dozens of anime series that come out encompassing different genres. The slice of life genre has its fair share of titles and of course there will be ones that rise to the top in terms of quality. Every once in a while, there are titles that not only rise to the top of its genre, but rises above all other shows in the medium to become true works of art. Let us look, with some minor spoilers, at the beauty of Your Lie in April.

In Your Lie in April, Arima Kosei was a former prodigy pianist who was on the track to being a star. One day, after the death of his mother, he suddenly stopped playing in the middle of a performance. His two best friends are Tsubaki Sarabe, a tomboyish girl who has known Kosei since they were little children, and Ryota Watari, captain of the soccer team who likes to think of himself as a playboy and likes the company of girls he considers cute. By the way these kids are the most poetic and articulate middle-schoolers ever. The series is very well produced and is absolutely beautiful to see. It is captivating and will break your heart more than once during the 22 episode run.

Kosei’s for the last few years has been basically wading his way through life after the death of his mother. He emotionally broke down in tears on stage. It is soon evident that the reason for this is that he’d been emotionally and physically abused by his mother to become a great pianist. Critics labeled him the human metronome, someone who plays pieces exactly as they were written.

When he first meets Kaori Miyazono, a fellow student, he is intrigues by her free spirit attitude. Ostensibly he and Tsubake are the tag alongs for a introductory meetup between Kaori and Watari because Kaori apparently likes Watari. It turns out that Kaori is a violinist and that she is on her way to a competition. In competition, the players are assigned a set piece that is supposed to be played as it is written. In this case it is the Kreutzer by Beethoven a piece for Violin and Piano. All the other pianist play well and according to the way it is written, but when it is Keori’s turn to play the Kreutzer, it is not as it is written. It is paced differently and alive with flourish and passion. This annoys the judges who mark her down, but it wows the audience. But is the fictional above quote from Immortal Beloved can be taken at perspective, it is like a heart agitated and exited.

While at a cafe together, Kousei shows some kids how to play Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but he stops in the middle and leaves after improvising. He confesses to Kaori later he can not hear the notes of his own playing once he starts to concentrate. Kaori knows that Kosei used to be an accomplished pianist and is determined to bring his talents out again. His other friends are all for this as they know he’s been aloof, merely content at coldly transcribing pop songs to sheet music for piano. “For people like us, life without music is death.” she tells him.

She tries to convince him to be her accompanist for the next competition. He is constantly surrounded by the planned piece, with either sheet music taped to his text books or the music playing over the school’s PA system. Up until the day of the competition, he still refuses. “You’ll have me this time,” Kaori tells him. “I know you can’t hear your own notes and that you’re all kinds of rusty. I know all of that. And I want you with me anyway. Maybe we bomb out there. Maybe we step off that stage in defeat. We are going to play. If there is a crowd and a chance to play, I’m taking it. I’ll give it everything I’ve got. And the people who hear, they’ll never forget me. Part of me will echo in their hearts forever. I think those moments are why I’m alive. I was put on this earth to make music, and so were you. So please, be my accompanist. Believe in me, even a tiny bit.”

In his first public appearance since he broke down, he is unable to keep up with Kaori’s free spirited and lively playing. He starts off well, but haunted by the memory of his mother who literally beat it into him to him, he becomes lost. His ability to hear the notes, once again leaves him as he loses confidence. He ends up halting completely.

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The competition is over for them, now. But Kaori merely gives Kosei a look and says “Again?” She starts from the top and once again he tries to follow. We hear her thoughts as if he were communicating with him telepathically. “It’s dark and we can’t see where the road leads, but trust in me and take another step. The stars will light our path however faintly. I know they will. Come on, our journey awaits.” At this point she’s just playing to play. “She moves me forward, relentlessly, like a heartbeat. Her music is everywhere.” he thinks to himself as he unleashes himself on the keys not as an accompanist but as a soloist. One of the judges observes it is like observing a musical brawl.  Yet, there is so much spirit and bravado that even though they are now out of competition, they have the audience enthralled, resulting in a rock concert style standing ovation. “The cool dry air, the sent of dust, my journey has begun,” says Kosei to himself.

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Yes, they were disqualified, and their performance was technically a train wreck, but slowly Kosei begins to open up and try to come to grips with the inner pain he still carries from his mother’s treatment of him.

It is clear right away that Kosei is attracted to Kaori not just for her musical abilities but for how he makes him feel more alive than he has in years. “The girl who likes my best friend,” he even thinks. Yet, he also knows his best friend likes her and she likes him. Yet, Watari doesn’t have a bone of jealousy in his body and encourages him to be play with Kaori. Of course, Watari is a good hearted playa, so of course he’s got another girl. And as par for the course with standard anime and melodrama tropes, Tsubake as been developing feelings for Kosei too.

As dramatic as the subject matter is, there are great moments of comedy between the characters, much of it slapstick and stylized in chibi transformations where the characters become mini caricatures of themselves. Much of that slapstick humor comes at the expense of Kosei, though as he is often kicked, slapped and yelled at by caricature versions of his friends. This is of course played for laughs and stands in total contrast to the flashbacks of when his mother would abuse him both verbally and physically. This may be more disturbing to some than others and some of you may not see the difference between the slapstick chibi violence and the  memories of Kosei’s past.

Kaori manages to talk (i.e. trick) Kosei into entering a competition featuring Chopin’s Wrong Note Etude. As the layers of Kosei’s old pain is peeled away, the scabs are exposed. Hidden within his pain was the belief that if he were a better piano player, his wheelchair bound and sick mother would get better. Yet, we are still watching the deconstruction of a young boy who is dealing with repressed pain, maybe even depression. Kosei’s memories come flooding back during the competition as he faces down the looming presence of his mother’s shadow, and looks toward Kaori for his inspiration.

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In many ways, Kosei shares SOME qualities with Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion in that he has led a traumatized life. His pain and trauma stem from merely wanting approval and acceptance from a parent. Yet, he evolves beyond being the human metronome. He has learned to play with heart and love. It even inspires his old competition rivals.

Some of the elements that make the simplest of stories succeed and resonate is of course is in the execution. Your Lie in April is an absolutely beautiful modern anime with warm colors contrasted with the stereotypical flutter of falling cherry blossom leaves. You can tell that this show was not skimped on. Much of the musical performances on piano and violin look rotoscoped which gives it a look of authenticity.

And of course, the music is from some of the greatest classical composers of all time. On hand are Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Kreisler, and Mozart. The original music is good and as well and has a top notch opening song by the group Goose House.

The writing, once you accept the fact that these are the most eloquent middle-school kids in the world, is beautiful. The dialogue when it is not being comedic, is near poetic in the English dub or even when reading the subtitles. The writing works in subtle and complex ways of proving a narrative and advancing some important themes. Kosei may be just be one boy in an average middle-school. But his story just doesn’t effect himself, his success and failures relies on and effects all those around him, from his rivals to his best friends. His joys and sorrows (which are also two musical pieces used, Love’s Sorrow, Love’s Joy) are deeply connected to everyone.

Your Lie in April teaches us is that we matter to our friends and our joy brings them joy. We need personal connections not only to live but to lift each other up. Koari is the greatest personification of that. We can probably relate to those points in our lives where we fee down, with low feelings of self worth. We are not good enough, we can never live up to what is expected of us. So when Someone like Kaori comes along saying something like, it’s all right, be what you are, live like there’s no tomorrow, it is a wish many of us desire over most difficult of times in our lives.

Your Lie in April has more than its fair share of melodrama beyond what was already mentioned. Some of the supporting characters do not have much of a story arc outside of Tsubake. Kaori’s back story is revealed even slower than Kosei’s and it is not until the final episode 22, the finale that we learn her story fully. And we also find out the significance of the title, Your Lie in April. I’ve known grown men to totally break down in tears by the end of the series.

The beauty of the series is not just the gorgeous art but in the main characters. While some may feel like there is too much internal monologues of Kosei and a few others, it actually allows us to enter into not only their personality but  their souls. It makes the show all the more compelling and we end up rooting for Kosei to succeed.

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I am an unabashed fan of this series and have watched it several times. It is filled with beautiful animation, classical music, exceptional English dubbing, and poetic writing. It says to the audience, you don’t have to go through life alone, there are people who care for you and even love you. Highest Recommendation

Final Score: 9.5/10

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Review: The Rising of a Shield Hero Season 1

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In various anime the theme of being transported into another world, under the sub-genre called isekai, is not especially knew, of course. One of my favorite ones was The Vision of Escaflowne from 1996. Modern isekai, for better or worse, have lately been following the formula of not merely transporting the main character or characters from their ordinary mundane lives and depositing them into a fantasy world. Most new isekai now transports the character to a fantasy RPG gaming world — with stat sheets and leveling up quests.

Most of these shows are trash in my opinion. One show I managed to catch last year, and I’ve mentioned in my coverage of Crunchyroll Expo 2018, was a preview of The Rising of the Shield Hero. This particular show stands above the generic isekai that has lately flooded the industry. Based on a series of light novels by Aneko Yusagi, the anime had a bit of internet controversy which we will get to later but it turns a few fantasy cliches on its head while still following some standard tropes. There is also a series of manga that is adapting the light novels.

Naofumi Iwatani is an otaku college student. One day in the library, he stumbles upon a copy of a book called The Record of the Four Holy Weapons. Believing it is a standard light novel, he begins skimming through it. He sees a description of a world that summons four heroes from another world to battle great waves of evil. He smirks how cliched it is when the heroes are described as a Sword Hero, a Spear Hero, and a Bow Hero. When he gets to the section detailing the different heroes, the entry for the Shield Hero is blank. So of course, magic light happens and he gets yanked out of the mundane world and into another world.

Upon arrival, Naofumi meets the other summoned heroes who are apparently not only from alternate eras of Japan, but from alternate histories as well. For this first season, that fact hasn’t come into play. Each of the other heroes are armed with their perspective weapons. Naofumi is armed with, you guessed it, a shield. In most games, the shield person is a bit useless and has no offensive capabilities.

It seems that the summoned heroes have no choice but to help the kingdom defeat the monstrous hoards that threaten the kingdom in waves. Their only way of returning is by winning. Not only that, they are low level heroes with zero experience. Yes, in the corner of their vision is their stat sheet which tracks their levels and skills. It is determined that they must level up before the first wave arrives and must do so separately. They are each allowed to recruit a party to join them in their leveling up quests.

Unfortunately for Naofumi, no one chooses to join his party initially. Myne, daughter of the King does decide to join him though and they set out to into the world. He acquires some low-level armor and a bit of coin. And after what he feels is a successful day of adventuring and slaughtering orange balloons, he relaxes with a few pints and spends the night in a tavern.

The next morning, he is arrested and accused of a crime he did not commit, the attempted rape of Myne. While in the court of the king, and in front of the other heroes, it is apparent that not only are the charges false, but a set-up my Myne to discredit him.

Controversy One – Let me take a bit to address this as when this episode first aired, there was quite a bit of internet controversy over the idea a false rape charge. Rape is a very  serious real world horror. In this era of Me Too, something like this is sure to generate controversy. And as far as storytelling is concerned it gives  insight to the personality of Myne, who will go on to be one of the most disliked anime character in years. I don’t believe the creator or the producers were trying to make any sort of statement other than to portray Myne as an evil and devious person. If you can get by that, then the anime is worth watching.

No one believes in Naofumi’s innocence and yet, because of his status a the shield hero he can not be imprisoned, executed or even sent back to his world. Instead, he is ostracized as world spread about him about being some sort or monster.

Here is where the show becomes something special. By the second episode, Naofumi is despised and outcast. He is alone and has the entire world hating him for a crime he did not do. One of his few sympathizers is the weapons and armor shopkeeper, who ends up lending him some armor. Since no one is willing to join him, he resorts to acquiring a slave since he can not trust anyone (in this world, slavery is not outlawed, but still looked down on. They are also bound by a spell that ensures obedience.) But because he can not use offensive weapons, he trains his newly acquired slave, a demi-human named Raphtalia to be his sword to his shield.

Controversy Two – Being American, slavery and it’s legacy are hot issues to this day. However, outside of the United States and historically, slavery was treated differently. That is not to say that it was a positive thing to be a slave. In fact, the show even has the most dislikable characters despise slavery. For a much more in depth analysis of the subject, I recommend this well written and unique (it’s a Christian anime website — that’s unique!) and lengthy article at Beneath the Tangles.

As the season progresses, Naofumi’s character arc undergoes quite a change as he acquires more party members. His distrust of everyone around him makes him a perfect anti-hero and at first he does not care about his quests other than a means of leveling himself up and fulfilling his duty as the shield hero so that he can go back to his own world. As time goes on, mostly under the influence of Raphtalia, Naofumi not only begins to trust, but to become concerned for the common folk of the kingdom.

Before long, it seems that Naofumi is left to clean up the mess left after the other heroes. When the bow hero slays a dragon, its rotting corpse begins to spread disease. He ends up ridding the town of the disease and killing the not-quite-dead dragon.

There is much to like about the series, especially the supporting characters. Well, some of the supporting characters are outright despicable. Even though it relies heavily on the tropes of the genre it is trying to subvert, it has enough original elements in it to rise above the average dropped into another world anime. Not everything is straight forward or as what initially as it seems as the later episodes in the season hint at a deeper complexity to the world than what has been seen so far.

Though we mostly follow the exploits of Naofumi, he crosses paths a few times with the other heroes. But being blinded by Naofumi’s reputation and the lies about him they are not automatically trusting of him, even if they do have the same goals. Although, Ren (sword hero)and Itsuki (bow hero)come across later as more open minded and interested in seeking the truth. Motoyasu (spear hero), however, pretty much stays a douche throughout the season.

This is not a grimdark fantasy like Berserk, however and for good or ill it does have it’s lighter moments, mostly involving Naofumi’s companions. But as the season progresses, he does lighten up a bit. And a par for the course, there is a healthy dosage of cute contenders for best girl. The animation is definitely top notch, with well done battle scenes and a unique magic system that does not seem to b confined to any one class. The music by Kevin Penkin is appropriately epic.

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The final episode of the first season ends on both a good closing point and a cliffhanger which is a foreshadow for things to come. At the time of this writing, there has been no announcement for a second season. So if a second season does not happen, even though there is no indication of that, the first season is definitely worth checking out. Recommended

Final Score: 8/10

 

Anime Retrospective: The Vision of Escaflowne

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The Vision of Escaflowne came out in 1996 and it stood out for several reasons. It was not the first mecha, or robot anime, that was retro or took place in a non-modern setting, but it did it incredibly well. It had Steampunk elements with its blend of giant robots battling it out and medieval settings and fantasy tropes. Normally this would have been a perfect scenario for a cliched male protagonist. The Vision of Escalowne turned that on its head by not only having a girl as the main character but also making it a robot fighting anime with romance. With music composed by Yoko Kanno and Hajime Mizoguchi, The Vision of Escaflowne would go on to become a classic in anime history.

The premise seem almost cliched now. Hitomi is a typical high school girl with no care other than running track and her school crush who she has of course not confessed to yet.  She is popular, studious, and relatively independent for a high school girl. She likes to tell fortunes with tarot cards for her friends and actually has a slight ability to see the future. But lately she has been plagued by visions of another world that is not her own. While out at the track, preparing to confess to her crush, when a dragon suddenly appears on the school grounds. Fighting it is Van, who it turns out is from a world called Gaea.

Once there, she becomes embroiled in a war raged by the empire of Zaibach against the many other nations of the world. The inhabitants of the world are a rich and diverse melting pot of races, and species. The different nations each have their own distinct history and culture.

And of course there are the fighting mechs called Melefs which are about four meters tall and Guymelefs which are about ten meters tall. These are basically specialized armor for elite fighters and look really damn good in action.  Check out the video clip below for a sample.

Van, who we are introduced in earlier is s prince about to inherit the kingdom of Fenalia, must deal with the aftermath of the destruction of his kingdom by Zaibach and learn to control the Guymeleth called Escaflowne which is powered by the heart of the dragon that he had slain with the hep of Hitomi. Escaflowne is not just any sort of mech – it is powered by the heart of a dragon afterall. It can transform into a flying mech-dragon. That alone is worth checking out.

But the storytelling is definitely a complex mix and stands above the generic idea of good guys vs, bad guys. Hitomi may start of as a typical high school girl and a little too damsel in distress in the beginning but her character growth through the series is believable. The romantic triangle that she is involved in may be a bit off-putting. Cuz we know it’s always meant to be Hitomi and Van.

The production and storytelling really do hold up considering the age of it. And yes, it is hand drawn animation with may seem jarring to some of you youngins but because it is done traditionally and still looks as good as modern anime, it shows the quality and the care that went into the making of it. This show is a classic in animation even in an age where it seems almost every other anime is about someone getting transported to another world, this stands above that because it does not rely on gaming tropes but good storytelling and characters to

The Vision of Escaflowne is available to stream subtitled on Crunchyroll and dubbed on Funimation Now. Note that these are remastered episodes of The Vision of Escaflowne and some episodes are extended. Funimation created a new dub for this release. I prefer physical media, however, and fortunately it is available as a series box set. The series set does have some of the non-extended episodes in the original Bandai dub available as an alternate track for those who prefer it. I do find the new dub serviceable but there are a few voices I prefer from the old dub.

Final Score 8.5/10

Review: A Silent Voice

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Let’s get this off my chest. A Silent Voice was totally snubbed at the 2018 Oscars! Boss Baby and Ferdinand? Really? Coco was a phenomenal film and probably deserved the win, but still, fuck the Academy and their nominating process. A Silent Voice is not only a great animated film with heart and emotion, it is great film that addresses real world issues that transcend cultures. And for those that heap scorn on Japanese animation as a legitimate medium of art, I would gladly hold this movie up as an grand example of fine animated film that is not done by Studio Ghibli.

A Silent Voice is a personal story about regret, redemption, and above all friendship. Many of us probably regret some things we did in our youth. I know I do. And we seldom get to make up for it. Shoya was 12 years old when he took a path that deeply effected his life and many around him. Now, six years later, he seeks to turn that around.

While in elementary school. Shoya is a class clown, and wild, jumping off low bridges into rivers with his friends, raising hell as many kids do at that age. One day, a new girl transfers into his class named Shoko. She uses a notebook to communicate because she is deaf. Unfortunately, this opens her up to not just teasing but straight up bullying led by Shoya. Even though their teacher sees it going on, he intervenes with disinterest. Yet dispite all this, Skoko does not complain. In fact she tries to use sign language and her limited ability to speak to ask Shoya ” Can you and I be friends?” Shoya just thinks she’s a freak. It isn’t until Shoko’s mother suspects something because she keeps losing her hearing aids that the school becomes involved. Shoya is forced to transfer out. And because of this particular shame and the teacher especially pointing Shoya out, he himself is targeted for bullying by the other students that were formally his enablers.

Now, a senior in high school, we see that Shoya is getting his affairs all in order. He’s closed out his bank account, sold everything, quit his job, marked off days on his calendar, and left his money next to the bed of his sleeping mother with a thank you note. The last thing he was going to do was return Shoko’s notebook to her which he still had from when they were young. But upon finally catching up to her to return her notebook he blurts out the sign language that he had learned, “Can you and I be friends?” This was not something he had planned on saying. His return of the notebook was supposed to be his last act of squaring his debts before suicide. Yet it will set him and us on a journey about redemption, love, friendship, and forgiveness.

Shoya, in the years since Shoko had to transfer schools, was ostracized by classmates, and subsequently labeled a bully which would follow him around to the present day. He grows up with no friends and even has trouble looking people in the eye. He actually starts a friendship with Tomohiro, a fellow student and social outcast himself. Yet he will go on to be come a great friend to Shoya when he needs it. Tomohiro is a pure soul of a person who does render judgments on anyone and is very protective of Shoya.

One of the plot points of Shoya’s burgeoning friendship with Shoko is her wish to want to reconnect with other classmates from when they were in elementary school. Shoya is a little reluctant in trying to reconnect yet is willing to do so, though it works for the most part, except for one girl, Naoko, who still dislikes Shoko and blames her for breaking up the fun group of kids that they once were.

The results will bring back up old memories of not just those that participated in bullying but also comments on those who were either enablers, or those that were complacent. Falling in between and walking a thin line is Miyoko who also transferred after Shoko did because the bullying made her upset. Reconnecting with Shoko, it turns out that she also had been learning sign language over the years and has always felt bad for running away instead of supporting her.

There is an incredible depth to this film that transcends the anime medium and elevates it to genuine art. The production by Kyoto Animation is full of color and subtle lines of beauty based on real locations in Japan. The music is subdued and at times sparse with a solo often melancholy piano. Outside of the opening title sequence using The Who’s “My Generation,” there is one other song performed by Aiko called  “Koi wo Shita no wa” (恋をしたのは).

Director, Naoko Yamada’s previous work has mainly been in slice of life animes like Clannad and K-On, and it is that experience of character focused anime that and glimpses of everyday life that offer subtle yet significant insight into the personalities of the gathered ensemble.

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What stands out though, is the phenomenal voice work by both the Japanese cast and the English cast. I would like to think that the performers knew that not only did they have a really good story and script to work with, they also knew that they were participating in something that was special and significant.

If you listen to the English dub, the performance by Lexi Cowden (listed on IMDB as Lexi Marman) as Shoto is particular emotional, even wrenching, as Lexi is deaf herself. She has said in interviews she reached into her own past experience of being bullied while young to render her performance. And while we are all the better for it, we also feel her pain as she haltingly and desperately says, “I’m trying to do my best.”

Robbie Daymond as Shoya, may be best known as the re-dub actor of Tuxedo Mask for Sailor Moon and Mumen Rider for One Punch Man, portrays a reserved and damaged young man teetering between self loathing and depression.

Be warned, there are points in the movie that may be difficult for people to watch, especially the bullying that occurs in the early parts during the flashbacks to elementary school. But beyond that it is ultimately a beautiful complex film that tackles me heavy subjects. It is told using the medium of animation that allows for some great artistic expression, especially with the symbolic POV of Shoya who when he sees faces of others, he just sees X’s on their faces, until he begins to make a connection to them.

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A Silent Voice is adapted from a manga by Yoshitoki Oima. As complex and layered as the anime is, the manga is even more so delving more into the side characters and their relationships to each other and their background. Certainly Naoka’s and Miyoko’s relationship as high school classmates. Tomohiro’s side story of an aspiring young film-maker is especially well fleshed out. The film does a very good job at the adaptation but if you are looking for more, the manga is available in both print and digital versions.

It had actually been a long road for A Silent Voice to make it to us. It received several limited theatrical runs in the United States, but was held up for a long time in home release.  It did receive a UK Blu-ray release in 2017 which I had imported because I had a region free player. But it was not until 2019 that it received a release stateside. Presumably it was a rights issue over the usage of The Who’s “My Generation.” Nevertheless not only can this remarkable piece of art be appreciated on home media, it is also available across digital services and is currently available to stream on Netflix.

There are few films that can take on, let alone, balance the heavy themes as well as A Silent Voice. It is a genuinely emotional and handles its complex subject matter with nuance that I don’t think can be found a live action equivalent. I have no reservations about giving this film my Highest Recommendation.

Final Score 9/10

Why Violet Evergarden is One of the Best Seasonal Anime in Years

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In the piles of anime that come out seasonally it can be easy to overlook some of the good ones. For me, there is just too much anime to stream and watch on Blu-ray and my backlog is huge. And sometimes I’m just not in the mood for certain things. So it’s easy to just start off with the latest moé blob show and complain how current anime is in a quagmire of overly cute lolis, isekai, and shonen trash.

And then Violet Evergarden comes along to to show that anime can be original, emotional, and yes beautiful.

Violet Evergarden is a thirteen episode anime series (plus one bonus OVA) presented by Netflix. Produced and animated by Kyoto Animation, a studio with a track record of high quality titles such as the Full Metal Panic series, Clannad, and the beautiful A Silent Voice, It is an anime that maintains feature film quality in every episode.

The world is one that is similar to early 20th century, post World War I Europe. And that world is just recently recovering from a devastating long war. The differences are subtle, ch as the written language and the technology. And of course it’s history is different.

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We first meet the main character, Violet recovering in a hospital from war injuries that has left her without both hands. She is fitted with mechanical prosthetic hands that give her full motor function. Her last memories are of watching over her severely wounded commanding officer Major Gilbert Bougainvillea. One of the last things he says  to her are “Live and be free.” Violet, having been in the army since she was a child,  is used to following orders and has always carried them out without question and often lethally. She believes her purpose is to only be a military tool. But the war is over and she knows no other life. She has a certain naive quality to her about anything outside her world of military service though.

Claudia Hodgins, a friend and comrade of Major Bougainvillea takes Violet in and gives offers her a job, initially as a postal carrier for his company, a postal service. They write and deliver letters at the request of clients who don’t know how to write. She ends up wanting to be a “Auto Memory Doll.” A service where a person not only writes what a person says to be written, but must see what is in the person’s heart for their true meanings. Normally, people become Auto Memory Dolls, because they understand three words, according to Claudia, but Violet wants to become a doll, because she wants to understand the meaning of those three words, “I love you,” the last thing the Major said to her.

The next handful of episodes are concerned with development of several members of the postal service. The series itself is episodic in nature, yet should be seen in sequence for the development of the main character of Violet as she becomes more in tune with not only her job, but her abilities as an auto-memory doll. The supporting characters are also unique in each of their personalities and have their own back stories that are revealed as the show progresses.

Every episode, though self-contained, is a piece of character development for Violet. It becomes clear that when people say they don’t know how to write, it is more of an analogy that they don’t know how to express themselves from the heart. Almost every episode conveys the importance of communicating inner feelings. And it is the auto-memory dolls, ghost writers for these clients, who draw out a person’s true meaning and feelings while sitting with them taking and listening to their feeling.

One of the most unique and beautiful episodes is a of a playwright who is suffering from writer’s block. By this time in the show, she has been able to connect more emotionally with others and  and grown as a an auto-memory doll in her ability to convey a client’s emotions to paper. Through several days of Violet’s time with the writer, we realize that he is suffering from a great loss that he has yet come to grips with. We are also beginning to know more about Violet’s bloody past when she dispatched enemies without question and with dispassion.

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By the time you get to episode ten “Loved Ones Will Always Watch Over You,” you would have been exposed to peak emotions as it is deals with family love, death, loss, and the eternal love a mother will have for her child. And as much as the ending is telegraphed, the emotions still hit you like a ton of bricks by the end. Episode ten even became a YouTube meme as there are dozens of episode ten reactions posted on the video channel of people reacting to the episode live.

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As the series winds up, Violet’s history unfolds as well. Her sad story as a tool of war is explored more as well as her relationship with the Major. And as the series unfolds, she not only becomes more in touch emotionally but must eventually come to terms that is of no surprise to us, that the Major is never coming back even though his body was never found.

Not just every episode, but every minute, every shot of the series is an example of high quality animation that you would usually find in high budget feature anime films. The music, by relative newcomer Evan Call, is not only beautiful in its work but is remarkable for its ability to carry emotion whether it is in scenes of lyrical beauty or intense action.

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Violet Evergarden is anime storytelling that does not fall into typical genre categories. It is not an action show, a romance, nor cute girls doing cute thing, or even a slice of life, and definitely not any of the dozens of isekai shows out there. It is instead good storytelling set in a near fully realized alternate world. Though some of the themes can be mature, it is handled with care and not gratuitous, especially when addressing the impact of war and the effects of its violence on people.

Violet Evergarden streams on Netflix in both the original Japanese language with English subtitles or in a well done English dub. You would be fine with streaming it either way. It also comes Highly recommended.

Alita: Battle Angel is Manga to Film Done Right

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For decades, James Cameron, who was once a wunderkid of Hollywood with successes such as Terminator 2, Aliens, and Titanic, had been sitting on the rights to a manga and anime called Battle Angel Alita. And it seemed like it would never be made. Well it has been a long road but it has finally arrived to us with Robert Rodriguez directing.

The source material is a manga series by Yukita Kishiro that began in 1990. And even though the original run called Battle Angel Alita runs 9 volumes (a manga volume will comprises of several chapters with a page count of about 200 pages per volume), the sequel series runs an additional 18 volumes (15 of which have been collected into 3 in 1 omnibuses). Mars Chronicle is a series currently running. Suffice it to say it is a long running series.

A short anime adaptation was made in 1993 which covered major events of the first 2 volumes. It was through the anime that Guillermo del Toro introduced James Cameron to a video of the anime and it prompted him to read the manga. The rest of the story is a couple of decades of development and when Avatar and development of its multiple sequels got in his way, Cameron eventually asked friend Robert Rodriguez to take over directing duties.

Now, live-action anime and manga adaptations in the west has not had a good track record. The failed Dragonball movie comes to mind and most recently the uninspired Ghost in the Shell movie barely covered production costs (whitewashing was the least of its issues). Speed Racer, though unabashedly embracing its anime roots was a box office failure. Netflix’s own adaptation of Death Note was met with critical and fan disdain.

Japan is not immune to doing bad anime adaptations. Attack on Titan and Full Metal Alchemist were both projects that failed to impress.

So after 20 years of development limbo and following in the footsteps of other US manga to live-action failures, does Alita: Battle Angel succeed?  As far as box office, time will tell as it’s nearly $175 million budget shows and marketing campaign can’t be cheap either. As a movie, though, it is a glorious and exciting film filled with action and eye-popping special effects not just in the action sequences but in the simple creation of the main character of Alita herself. Weta Digital, the company made famous by their work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings goes above and beyond in the creation of Alita.

This would not have been possible to believe without the break-out performance by Rosa Salazar in a role that is guaranteed to make her star. Across the spectrum, she is being praised for her work, and rightly so.

As Alita: Battle Angel begins, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) is wandering through a scrapyard beneath the floating city of Zalem, combing for spare parts. There he finds a humanoid head and upper torso. Though it is a cyborg construct, he finds that the human brain is still alive. Taking it back to his clinic where he is a local doctor who helps repair many of the cybernetic prosthetics of the citizens of Iron City, he attaches her head to a cybernetic body that he intended to make for his dead daughter.

She awakes with no memory of who she is or where she came from. Dyson names her Alita after daughter. So it is obvious right away that he become her father figure. It is also one of the most drastic departures from the manga.

As far as science-fiction action movies, this movie is pretty dense on plot. And depending on other critics, either it’s too much story, or too little story. So what do we know? Along with discovering who she is and her place in the world she has awakened in, she realizes that she has an instinctual attraction to conflict and that she is trained in a deadly form of combat that has not been used in 300 years.

One night, she discovers that Dr. Ido has been spending his nights as a hunter warrior, a bounty hunter who uses the money earned to help pay the bills for his clinic. Unfortunately he gets in over his head when he is outnumbered. Fortunately Alita’s curiosity led her to follow him in that night. So instead of running like he tells her to do, she manages to take out two of the bounties and wound a third who barely gets away.

Because this seems to trigger bits of memory she wants to join the ranks of the hunter warriors too. Of course Ido is dead set against this saying how dangerous it is. Seriously, this is right after she kung fu’ed to death a couple of psychopathic cyborgs and saved Ido’s life.

There is a romance subplot, the weakest element, not because it exists, but in the way it is executed. Hugo is a young man working odd jobs for Vector (Mareshala Ali), a bit of a kingpin in Iron City. He runs the motorball arena, which is reminiscent of Rollerball but even more violent. Hugo believes that if he saves up enough money from doing work for Vector that he can earn his way to Zalem. Yeah, that’s not going to end well,  especially when Ido says if you are born on the surface you stay on the surface.

Jennifer Connelly plays Chiren, a character not based on the manga but on the anime. The script, by James Cameron and others, makes her the estranged wife of Dr. Ido as well. Her character, as well as Ido were born on Zalem but were sent down because of their daughter’s physical disabilities. Her story contrasts with Ido in that she wants to get back to the floating city and works with Vector in the hopes of someday getting back.

Throughout though is the manipulative hand of Nova, a mysterious puppet-master looking down from Zalem who recognizes that Alita is a danger to the order of things and in true villain fashion keeps sending minions after her that fail.Ultimately it is a way to go from one action scene to the next.

These action scenes are without a doubt visually exciting to watch. Weta Digital outdid themselves in the execution of not only the fighting scenes but in the Motorball sequences. In between the action is the incredibly realized Iron City that is densely populated and has a lived in and worn look of a city that is still recovering from the aftereffects of a war that occurred 300 years ago. The manga itself can get gory and I think the only reason that the film adaptation did not get an R rating is because many of the bodies being ripped or heads being decapitated are machine bodies.

Robert Rodriguez seems to juggle everything well and bring a thoroughly entertaining sci-fi action film that fires on most cylinders. Despite how crowded the story is, and  even though the movie is self-contained, there is still an opening for a sequel. The end result is a movie that literally delivers on the strong kick-ass female led movie. It is also one of the few films in recent years to really take advantage of 3D and makes me wish I had a 3D television to watch this when it gets a home release.

I must say I originally had my doubts about yet another attempt at a western adaptation of a manga or anime. But Alita: Battle Angel won me over and shows that it is possible to do it when you have filmmakers that not only have a love of the subject but respect the source material as well. Highly Recommended

Review: Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai

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The average movie and genre fan may be familiar with Hayao Miyazaki and the films of Studio Ghibli, which is a good thing. But Hayao Miyazaki will be retiring (again) after one final film and the fate of Studio Ghibli is uncertain. But for the last few years as other anime creators are stepping up with quality anime that tell compelling stories for diverse ages using the medium of animation. The recent phenomenal success of Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name shows that there is massive talent out there that can break into the consciousness of Western movie audiences. I’ve already lauded heaps of praise for Mari Okada’s debut film Maquia, and although it still has yet to receive a North American disc release, A Silent Voice is one of the finest and most moving anime, let alone films, to come along in years. But it was totally snubbed by the Academy for Best Animated Feature that year. So f*ck you, Oscars and your Ferdinand and Boss Baby! More on that later.

One director who has been consistent in quality storytelling and quality animation has been Mamoro Hosoda. From his debut, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time he has shown not only a knack for creating believable characters but situations that blend the fantastic into mundane lives. Family bonds were explored as major themes during Summer Wars and the tear-jerking Wolf Children.

Mamoro Hosoda’s latest film, Mirai (not to be confused with the new Toyota hydrogen fuel car), starts of simply as a four-year old boy, Kun, has so far enjoyed his life as a single child, meets his new baby sister. She is named Mirai, which means (in a little bit of foreshadowing) “future.” What follows is what seems like the standard trope of the brother being jealous of the new little sister that has intruded on a world where he had always been the center of attention. Hosoda injects his unique brand of fantasy into the narrative.

It seems every time that he lashes out or throws a tantrum, and happens to go out into the house’s yard, a world opens up to him where time and space, and the laws of reality bend to create a surreal experience for Kun. Each of these experience seem to be lesson to him much like the visitations Scrooge experiences from the ghosts. And Kun is going to need a lot of lessons along the way.

Some of these appearances are incredibly surreal such as the anthropomorphism of the family dog, who complains he was the prince of the house and everyone’s favorite, until Kun came along. Sound familiar? Well that does give a little perspective to Kun.

He does also get to meet a future version of his sister. She admonishes him by telling him to be nicer to her when she is a baby. But also serves as the main guide for Kun. Along the way we also get introduced to his great-grandfather who serves as an inspiration for the most simplest of tasks of childhood development, the removal of training wheels.

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But at the heart of all the fancy and the whimsy is a family dynamic that is truly built on love for one another. There is light banter, reminiscences, and casual conversations that ring authentic and is like a window into a real family. Except for the time and space bending.

The dynamic between Kun’s mother and father is charming and comes across as genuine. But since this is mostly a film from Kun’s point of view, Hosoda has made sure that the character is not overly annoying as so often little children can be in anime. Yes, Kun throws tantrums, acts out and cries. But it comes across as natural and not mawkish. And although Hosoda is an only child, he is a father of two.

I think what I experience with my family, such as the joys and troubles in our everyday life, is something other families in other parts of the world would experience as well. Three years ago, we welcomed a new baby [girl], and my three-year-old son just couldn’t accept the fact that he was now an older brother. He threw tantrums because he didn’t want to share his parents’ love. When I saw that, I thought I saw the raw and bare soul of a human being. Humans can’t survive without love. Life is all about longing to be loved, wandering around to find love, and accepting others to gain love. That’s what I learned from my three-year-old son.

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What we are left with in the end is a film that is personal, charming, and funny. But it is not Studio Ghibli, and Hosoda is not Hiyao Miyazaki. Where Miyazaki goes for grand pieces of animation and themes, Hosoda really excels at bringing out humanity and personality out of his characters. Despite all the fantastical settings, the focus is on family. Their styles are different but they are similar in that they know how to tell a good story using animation. There may never be a director like Hiyao Miyazaki, but there is no director like Mamoru Hosoda either. And that is what makes him so unique in that he is so accomplished, so talented that his movies garner attention on their own.

Mamoru Hosoda has been invited to join the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences. So perhaps he can have some sort of influence on the joke of the category that is Best Animated feature. For now, though, Mirai is in limited distribution and just received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Highly Recommended.