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.

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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.

Review: Cells at Work – Yes, Anime can be Educational!

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One thing I’ve noticed about modern anime is that sure enough, no matter the show, there will be waifu material in it. Is that a bad thing though? Certainly not — unless you engage in a heated waifu battle-rage wars about who is best girl. That is a given. What is not a given is actually having anime be educational. There have been a few anime that has actually been educational to me, Hikaru no Go, especially with its live action segments after each episode called “Go Go Eigo!” which taught viewers how to play the game of Go. There was The Rose of Versailles which covered quit well the court of Marie Antoinette and what would lead to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror afterword. I’m sure there are others out there. One anime that does stand out for going out of its way to educate the audience is 2018’s Cells at Work. Yes, kids you can not only have your adorable waifus, but you can get a biology lesson as well — not that kind of biology you pervs.

Anthropomorphized things are nothing new, even to western audiences. Disney and Pixar gave us Cars, Zootopia, and Inside Out. Based on the manga series by Akane Shimizu, Cells at Work revolves mainly around a single red blood cell circulating within the system of a single human body. As the series unfolded I could not help but think, this guy (or gal) has incredibly bad luck and does really horrible things to their body. )There is, in fact, a spin-off manga where the person is in horrible shape, and lives an unhealthy lifestyle like smoking and drinking.) Throughout each episode we encounter a weekly monster virus or bacteria to menace the body and it is up to white blood cells, killer t-cells or macrophages to solve the attacks. Even platelets get in on the action for the episode about a scrape wound. And they are plain adorable.

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Each episode usually focuses on Red Blood Cell trying to go about her usually duties of delivering nutrients through the circulatory system of the body and because of this she is the perfect character to encounter various threats to the body. She does seem to keep encountering a particular white blood cell along the way and throughout the show they encounter such small things as a scrape to cancer cells.  With many of these encounters and as other cells are introduced, we get a narrator’s voice as well as onscreen text that explains the functions of a cell.

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In all honesty the show not that spectacular, but the biology angle and its shear charm are what makes it special. It also helps that it benefits from high production animation and an episodic nature where you really don’t have to watch the episodes in any sort of order. I watched this show with a friend who is not only an anime fan but a biologist and so each episode he added comments of the accuracy of the show and even when it had stuff that was new to him. Either way, he enjoyed it.  There are a few videos of professionals reacting to the show and it’s been quite positive.

Yet it is absolute fun. The cast is not as huge as a typical shonen show, and in fact the characters are designed to look alike since they serve a certain purpose. Red Blood cells wear what appear to be Red uniform versions of UPS drivers and Macrophages are maid. Yet somehow the anime manages to imbue the characters with personality such as our main red cell who has the problem of always getting lost in the circulatory system. The White Blood is rather protective of Red. Which of course in the Internet age means, shipping! The platelets are possibly the most adorable group of characters in years and they do important work too. And dammit the Macrophages just personify beautiful but badass women. Plus they are adults.

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Cells at Work is not typically shonen nor is it slice of life, though there is a lot of slicing going on — get it? I made a pun. It is, however, a very entertaining comedy with action and enough charm to fill up a trailer. The uniqueness of the idea and the enduring quality of all the characters, even the bad viruses make this a show worth watching. It is one of those shows where it just feels good to watch, sit back, and enjoy.  You just may learn a few things along the way too. And if there is one lesson to be learned it is a philosophical one, your waifu is within you.

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Cells at Work is currently streaming subtitled on Crunchyroll. The English manga is licensed by Kodansha comics both digitally and in print.

Black Clover is Shonen Trash – But I Can’t Stop Watching It

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How to win a fight in anime:

  1. fight rly hard
  2. get the shit beat out of you and fall to the ground
  3. get up slowly with blood dripping from your mouth
  4. crack a smile and say something about friends and not giving up
  5. win. that’s it. you automatically win after following steps 1 – 4

— Internet meme

I’m going to put this right out there. I am not a big fan of shōnen anime. I gave up after my first hundred and twenty episodes of Naruto, the first 24 episodes of Bleach. I’ve never watched One Piece, never got into any Dragonball, yet I did like Hunter x Hunter (the 1999 anime, I’ve yet to watch the reboot). And after 75 episodes of Fairy Tail, I’ve hit a wall, even though I actually own all 200+ episodes.

Now along comes Black Clover, the new “King of Shōnen” if you can believe the marketing. In a world where magic is everything and everyone in it has magical powers, Asta an orphan boy is born without magic. Yet he has high hopes to become the Hokage of the Leaf Village The Wizard King of the Clover Kingdom. And on top of that, he is obsessed of one day marrying Sister Lilly Aquaria, who isn’t only older, but isn’t allowed to get married. His declared rival, Sasuke Yuno, who was orphaned together with Asta, and raised together with him is a prodigy magician. He also wants to be the Number One Hero Pirate King Hokage of Leaf Leafe Village Wizard King. And as hot-headed and spirited as Asta is, Yuno is cool and aloof.

At the age of fifteen, both Yuna and Asta are eligible to attend the “Grimoire Acceptance Ceremony” where the wand grimoire chooses the wizard. Grimoires are magic books from a magical library that hold records of spells specific for its owner. Because of that, no other wizard my use it, though a wizard can have it taken away and do pretty much nothing else with it, I guess. As one levels up, more spells appear in the book. It’s not like they learn the spell it just appears because they defeat some enemy or something. I’m sure it makes sense to someone, just not me. Yuno, gets the rare card in the deck unique weapon grimoire, embossed with a four-leaf clover. It’s the Clover Kingdom you see, and you know, four-leaf clovers are special. Poor Asta gets no grimoire since he has no quirk magic in him.

So early on, Yuno is attacked by random bad guy for no real reason. Asta comes to his defense despite having no magical powers, but he is in great physical strength. In the fight, a grimoire magically appears in front of him where he pulls out as massive sword that bares a striking resemblance to Guts’ Dragon Slayer sword from Berserk. And it turns out it’s an anti-magic sword that negates any magic. Nifty, huh?

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So there you have the groundwork. Loud spiky haired kid wants to be #1 at whatever in his world who all his life has been looked down but his greatest strength is not giving up. He gets big weapon that lets him play with the other kids and adventure ensues.

Now no shōnen copying a half a dozen other shonen would be complete without a large cast of supporting characters. And they come in the form of teams of Magic Guilds Knights, protectors of the kingdom in service to the King. Note that the King and the Wizard King are two separate people and titles. Yuno of course is recruited by the elite cream of the crop Magic Knights, The Golden Dawn. Asta is recruited by the island of misfit wizards the Black Bulls.

For tension within you have the nobles who are basically a class of entitled a**holes who look down on wizards from peasant villages like Asta and Yuno. Reminds me a lot of J.K. Rowling’s world. And of course you have a tsundere waifu character in the form of Noelle Silva, a noble who is one of the Black Bulls. She has great magical potential, too bad she can’t control it. She gets better control a few episodes later by getting of all things, a wand.

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But here’s the thing, like eating Jack in the Box tacos at 2:00 in the morning after a night of drinking, it’s delicious bad food. Sure it’s bad for you, you know it is, but it satisfies the palette at the time. Like I said earlier, I’m not a huge shōnen fan, but I am a junk food fan. And possibly in an era where a show like My Hero Academia did not exist, it could well be a great show.

The show does its magical battles well and most of the involve teamwork. That adds a nice dynamic to the usual half a dozen episode battle wrecking everything in sight. In the case of Black Clover it also allows the supporting character to shine and contribute to the story as well. Noel’s story develops nicely within the first season and its nice to see her growth and contribute to the team. Yami, the captain of the Black Bulls may not get to jump into fight as much but when he does we all know that shit’s about to get very serious. Charmy, who is a tiny little glutton and is mainly comic relieve is a pretty bad ass powerful wizard.

I’ve read about 5 volumes of the manga and it seems to work quite well in that form. So where does the anime go wrong? Part of it is that while reading the manga, the full impact of Asta’s near relentless shouting of everything is not as grating. Another thing is that the anime chose to run its first season at 52 episodes. And Season 2 is actually picking up right after. The series is done by Studio Pierrot. If that name sounds familiar, they produced two of the big three of shōnen, Naruto and Bleach. (The third of the big three, Dragonball Z , was produced by Toei Animation, the studio responsible for Sailor Moon and One Piece.) Pierrot certainly knows how to stretch out their episode times with padding, such as recaps at the beginning of each episode, after each commercial break and in the case of Black Clover, closing minis that really have nothing to do with the episode. So basically for each 24 minute episode, you might have about 19 minutes of actual content. And when you have battles that last a half a dozen episodes it can get annoying unless you are bingeing. And you know how Naruto had full on runs of filler arcs? Black Clover suffered with filler episodes, from the very beginning. The good news is that most of that filler was in the early episodes and it seems to be transitioning from one arc to the next with ease.

This could have been eliminated with simply following a standard pattern of seasonal anime of 24 to 25 episodes per season so there is no danger of catching up to the manga. But Pierrot seems dead set on milking this to death. Nevertheless, except for a gap where I stopped watching for a few weeks I kept finding myself going back and anxiously going onto the next episode. The second season seems to be gearing up for a darker tone as Asta

Despite the show’s shortcomings, it can be enjoyable. So if you fee the need to fulfill that anime shōnen gap left by Naruto and Bleach, Black Clover is certainly a decent enough show to fill it with.

Black Clover streams in Japanese with English subtitles on Crunchyroll

Funimation has the English dub on their sight FunimationNow

Review: Maquia When the Promised Flower Blooms

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I’m a sucker for anime that leaves me an emotional wreck. And as far as that is concerned, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms left me wanting to curl up in a ball. I briefly mentioned in my coverage of Crunchyroll Expo that this film will make you want to call your mother. My mother passed away three years ago. So it drove home even deeper how important she was in my life, though sometimes growing up, I did not realize or appreciate it. It took me a while to process Maquia and it was a good thing I saw it in an English dub as through much of my experience watching it had my eyes filled with tears.

Screenwriter and first time director Mari Okada, manages to do something that is beyond impressive for a debut directing effort. Channeling influences from her own relationship with her mother, Okada has crafted a film that is layered in nuance and allegory. It does occasionally fall into some melodramatic traps of coincidence and convenience in order to drive the story to where she wants it at times.

The director made her reputation as a writer for anime such as Anohana and Anthem of the Heart.  It is very out of the ordinary for writers to become anime directors, they usually work their way up from animators. In fact, Ms. Okada did not have plans to direct. It was president of P.A. Works Kenji Horikawa who wanted a project from her that was “100 percent Okada.” The result, despite a few flaws, is a piece of work that is both personal and beautiful.

Maquia belongs to a race of beings who are not only long-lived but stop showing signs of age at what would appear to others as teenagers. The world appears to be standard fantasy world that is in transition from medieval to industrialization. When her people are attacked by another kingdom seeking their secret of longevity, she becomes separated from everyone as the population scatters and wanders the countryside alone. She finds a newborn baby boy clutched in the arms of his dead mother who had apparently been killed in a raid. Despite having no idea how to raise a child, she chooses to adopt the child as her own and name him Ariel.

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She is taken in by a peasant family that helps her cover up the fact that she is a member of the immortal Iorf clan. Things start to become difficult as it is obvious to everyone in her village that her son is growing older while she seems eternally fifteen. She eventually has to leave but while traveling finds hardship in finding work to support herself and Ariel. No one, it seems, wants to hire a single mother.

The middle of the film takes place while Ariel is in his teen years. No longer able to pass as mother and son, they now must pretend to be sister and brother. As the kingdom they live in prepares for war with neighboring kingdoms, Ariel like teenagers do, struggles for his own independence away from Maquia. Their relationship becomes strained here and throughout his rebelliousness, Maquia still declares that she is his mother no matter what and will always care for him. Ariel knows this deep inside and joins the guard to protect her as she has always protected him.

Parallel to Maquia’s story is the tragedy of Leilia another Iorf who was captured and meant to be a brood mare for the kingdom’s prince. It is hoped that she would give the royal family immortal children but this is not the case as he daughter is perfectly mortal and she is no longer able to bare any more children. She is cast aside and is a kept from even seeing her mortal daughter.

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The core theme and focus of the drama that unfolds is motherhood, and the sacrifices they often make and the secret heartbreak they endure alone. As Lelia must endure the pain of separation from her child, Maquia must endure over the struggles of raising a child that she knows she will outlive. “I won’t cry. Moms don’t cry.” is an oft repeated line to show the maternal strength to endure.

This is a plot heavy animated film that takes place in a world that is very well realized. It never takes long unnecessary expository moments to tell us what this world is though. We know enough about the kingdoms, and the history as is needed. The reasons why the kingdoms are warring against each other are easy to figure out by just the dialog. If you are aware of high fantasy settings like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones then the world is not that hard to accept. Despite the familiar fantasy setting, the visuals are still a feast for the eyes. Simply, it’s a beautiful film to look at.

The musical score by veteran composer Kenji Kawai, best known for the classic score to the original Ghost in the Shell movie, adds a score that is full of lush strings and woodwinds. It serves  the film well and if you listen to the score on its own, it is quite relaxing.

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It’s not expected that a first time director make a perfect film, and Mari Okada does make a few choices that are overly melodramatic and seem to stretch how much I’m willing to accept the plot device of coincidences — even in an anime. Ariel, at times seems more annoying than is necessary. Some of the Leilia subplot remains unresolved in the end as well.

Unless your relationship with your mother is something out of something like Mommie Dearest, you will want to call your mother afterward. Despite it’s epic and large scale setting, it is at its core an intimate story designed to tug at your heart and stir your well of emotions. I have no problems recommending this with the Highest of Recommendations. Just bring the tissue.

The US theatrical release is distributed by Eleven Arts Studio, which ran a limited subtitled release earlier in year. They are now doing a limited release of the English dub. Information on showings and tickets can be found here. It begins to roll out on September 21st. No word yet on a home release.

As of this writing, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms also has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  That, to me, is rare for a non Studio Ghibli anime.

Anime Review: The Ancient Magus Bride

 

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The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. 

— JRR Tolkien

It may seem like anime has no problem of portraying fantasy worlds. But let’s look at that objectively. How much of the well-known fantasy series these days are in the Isekai genre? In other words a character or characters find themselves dropped in a fantasy/RPG/gaming world. Nothing wrong with that, but the sheer number of these that come out every season is baffling and I guess there is a market for it. There have been some great ones like the classic Vision of Escaflowne; some good ones like Grimgar; and for better or worse, Sword Art Online has played a huge part in the popularity of the genre. Note: Konosba is a masterpiece. I don’t care what you say. Fight me. But any original anime that is based on magical and fantastic worlds are getting far and few. Even Record of Gancrest War though it is not Isekai relies on RPG elements of leveling your powers up by defeating opponents and acquiring crests.

I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of the first three episodes of The Ancient Magus Bride last year and was captivated immediately not only by the beautiful animation and attention but the world creation involved. It began streaming on Crunchyroll in October 2017 and I am happy to say that the series as a whole is as captivating as those first moments I saw the preview. Based on a manga series written and drawn by Kore Yamazaki, the anime follows the manga quite closely.

We are first introduced to Chise at an auction where she is selling herself at auction so that someone would talk care of her. Yeah, it’s weird and creepy as heck – even for anime. At the London auction she is bought for five million pounds by Elias, a reclusive seven-foot mage who hides his skull shaped head in public. He aims to make her his apprentice because she is a Sleigh Beggy, a mage who is able to create and absorb great magical energy.

What unfolds over the next twenty-four episodes is a magical journey through Celtic myth and folklore as Chise learns to use her power. We also get to know more of Elias and the world they inhabit. And what a wondrous world it is. The world of The Ancient Magus Bride is pretty much our world, more specifically England, but it is inhabited by creatures invisible to us. Chise’s inherent ability allows her to see these creatures though and as a Sleigh Beggy, they are drawn to her. It helps that these fey creatures are in most cases simply adorable.

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There are many things that make The Ancient Magus Bride work so well. It’s not afraid to take its time to tell its story of discovery.  Through Chise’s point of view we undergo a journey into a world of faëry that is filled with wonder, beauty, and horror. It is with that sense of wonder that makes it special. There are shots in almost every episode that are worthy of framing and rival any that done by Studio Ghibli. The animation by Wit Studio is that good.

One of the early episodes introduces us to dragons, who are a protected and fading species from the world. Chise encounters an aging dragon who is near the end of its life. The dragons when they die return to the earth from where they came and become great trees. In his last moments, Nevin the dragon shares his final memories of flight with Chise and in the end offers a branch from the great tree that he will soon become so that she may fasten her mage’s staff.

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Drawing heavily from Celtic mythology, we meet characters like faërie Queen and King Titania and Oberon, a Banshee who no longer has a voice, a leánnan sídhe who is in love with a mortal, and a church grim that will form a protective bond with Chise. The world building just feels authentic and inviting as well. It’s as if the anime is saying “This world has dangers, but it also offers beauty and love. Come join us.” I highly recommed that you do.

The Ancient Magus Bride is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.com subtitled and Funimationnow.com English dubbed. A home release has yet to be announced.

The manga is licensed in English by Seven Seas Entertainment and is available from Amazon.com digitally and in paperback.