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

 

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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

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