Review: Doctor Who – The Thirteenth Doctor

p06mny1v

“It’s About Time” proclaimed the tagline for the new season of Doctor Who. It is of course a play on words as the Doctor travels throughout time and space but is also for the first time to be portrayed by a woman. The new season would also herald the departure of long time showrunner, Stephen Moffat and usher in a new showrunner and writers. They also made a conscious and public decision to use original stories without old villains returning such as the Daleks, or Cybermen. In a way, all those changes stacked the deck against them. Anytime there is a new Doctor there is some kind of resistance and with the decision to finally cast a woman in the role, the internet being what it is unleashed its army of trolls.

So is this the best that the Doctor has ever been? No, not really. But it has potential. Hopefully that potential gets realized in later seasons. Is it so bad that it killed your dog and you have to go John Wick on the producers? No, far from it. But it has had some freshman problems mostly in consistent writing. Rather than totally recap all episodes I’m going to go over some of the highs and lows of the season and my overall impressions of the new season and Doctor.

The season started off well enough with the introduction of the new Doctor and an ensemble cast of companions in “The Woman Who Fell to Earth.” There’s some regeneration confusion and head wonkiness on the Doctor’s (Jodie Whittaker) part. Graham (Bradley Walsh) is a bus driver, married to Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) grandmother. There is a bit of distance between them as they are not really related. And Yasmin (Mandip Gill) is a young police officer who once went to school with Ryan. So not only are we introduced to a group of companions who are relatively ordinary people, there is no hint of them being anything other than that. None of the three seem to be a universe altering objects. Yes, I’m looking at you Bad Wolf, and Clara. They could be any of us just plucked from our mundane world into adventures through time and space.

7941876-6538859-image-a-26_1546125194025

The second episode, “The Ghost Monument,” was still trying to find it’s legs for it’s ensemble and is not particularly remarkable as a Who episode. It’s just there. We do, however finally get to see the newly redesigned interior of the Tardis.

I’ve already heaped my praise in a specific episode review of “Rosa.” It still stands as the highlight episode of the season. Looking back on it it, I think it will be considered one of the best episodes of the modern era. It is a shame, however, that they followed such a well-rounded episode with “Arachnids in the UK.”  Slightly above mediocre only because of the guest appearance of Chris Noth or Law and Order fame. The episode after, “The Tsuranga Conundrum,” was more or less a bottle episode where the Doctor and team must avert disaster on a hospital ship. Some interesting moments and here and there, plus one incredibly cute monster that eats everything. But it’s still not as cute as an Adipose. It’s a straight forward Doctor Who episode with some decent science fiction elements.

Going again into the past, “Demons of the Punjab” feels almost like a spiritual successor to the excellent Rose-centric “Father’s Day” episode. Yaz not only explores her family’s past but along with the rest of the Tardis gang explores the very bloody day of Partition Day, when India and Pakistan split into two nations. There  was a little bit of hand holding for “Rosa,” for European audiences, but Partition Day seems very much a part of British history and its repercussions are still felt today. Like Rosa, it presents a set moment in time which can not be interfered with by the Doctor and her companions. And for Yaz, making sure history plays out as it is supposed to is personal. Like “Rosa,” “Demons of the Punjab” also has them be a part of that history as well. It addresses the often paradoxical appearance of time travelers as not just participants but as part of the history itself. In the end, it is implied that they were always there as part of history. After “Rosa” this is my favorite episode because it deals with drama that is grounded and relatable. It also has some nice interactions with Yaz’s family.

I think that after “Demons of the Punjab,” the series starts to gain its full legs. The writing is sharper. After a rather amusing episode called “Kerblam,” a little lark taking a few stabs at Amazon shipping and their warehouses, we get “The Witchfinders.” It’s a well done monster episode, also taking place in the past, this time where the Tardis team gets to actually change a few things. They are in a period where suspected witches are persecuted and even King James I makes an appearance for good measure. It is also the first time that sexism actually becomes an issue since King James does not believe in the Doctor’s authority with her usual magic ID papers. Graham, as the older white male, ends up playing the role of Witchfinder General, a sort of bigshot inquisitor who hunts witches.

The character interactions evolve more especially between Ryan and Graham in the surreal “It Takes You Away.” Ryan has father issues from his father not being around especially after the death of his mother. He is also a bit resentful of Graham marrying his grandmother not because of race, but because he is trying to be a father figure to Ryan. Graham, himself has had trouble coming to grips with the death of his wife, Grace who we last saw in the first episode of the season. It is ultimately an episode about loss of those whom we love and how we so often wish they were back with us. It’s deals with those last vestiges of grief, the final goodbyes that many of us wish we had.

The season closes out with “The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos,” a mouthful of words for a fairly decent episode where we come full circle and are confronted with the return of the villain from the first episode., Tzim-Sha. The Doctor just calls him Tim Shaw. Tim Shaw makes for menacing enough monster though a bit generic. The science fiction elements of it are rather interesting with the incredibly powerful and religious Ux. Graham seems to complete his character arc of the season as he starts out by saying that he intends to kill Tim Shaw the first chance he gets. He eventually is the one that makes a choice in what sort of justice must be served.

Now it has become a bit of a tradition in modern Who to have a Christmas Special. So not surprisingly many fans were upset that they did a New Year Special instead. Give me a break, people. Find something else to complain about. The special, “Resolution,” brings in a new year and an old villain. No surprise it’s a Dalek. Apparently a scout Dalek that was defeated in the 9th Century resurrects and is trying to communicate to the fleet. The Doctor and team try to stop it. It works really well as a Dalek episode. For half the episode, it is in its flesh gob form and is controlling a human’s mind and body which is something new and unnerving at the same time. It’s mechanical body is a bit more imposing, not as sleek as modern ones, as it is cobbled together from whatever it can get. The special also features an appearance by Ryan’s father in which we get some closure on the character arc of Ryan.

Right up front, Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor and her new companions have a great dynamic together and chemistry. Also instead of waiting around always parroting,”Don’t worry, the Doctor will save us,” they work as a team or “fam” as the Doctor sometimes calls them. There is a deliberate emphasis on character development for the season which allows us to get to know them not only as empty cups to be filled by whatever the showrunners feel like making them from week to week. The companions, as I’ve said, up until meeting the Doctor have led fairly mundane lives, but the call to adventure and to make some sort of difference in the universe is very convincing.

1

Jodie Whittaker brings delight to the show and a sense of wonderment as well. That is something that has been lacking lately.  As we go on this journey with her, we experience that joy as well. Sure there is danger but there is good in what she does, and it looks like she is having fun doing it. For the most part, anyway. Exception given for Daleks.

The episodic nature of the season does away with seasonal story arcs of the past and for the most part it works. But it’s a double-edged sword. Episodes are wrapped up neatly at the end and sometimes the writing shows that a nice tidy conclusion must happen, and it must happen quickly. It is very opposite of the Moffat era of convoluted season arcs and breadcrumbs of plot clues. Ultimately a few episodes have plot threads that were introduced into an episode dangling or uncluded by the end of that episode.

The shortened 10 episode season did not help the new Doctor much either. Any new regeneration will need a few episodes to get its legs. By the time the season becomes comfortable it is almost half over. And I can see why some see so many shortcomings of the show.

And I must say that as much as I appreciated Murray Gold’s music for the last 10 seasons of Doctor Who, I am quite impressed with the music from the new composer Segun Akenola. His title theme is a bit more evocative of the classic theme than the last few seasons. And although it is probably not the choice of the composer, for years I’ve disliked the sound mix of overly dramatic music drowning out dialogue.

The bottom line is Jodie Whittaker makes a fine Doctor and her companions are very down to earth and relatable. I have high hopes for some improvements next season and I’m looking forward to a few more seasons of her and her fam.

Trivia

I believe Yasmin Khan is the Doctor’s first Asian companion. While checking that, I came upon another Yasmin Khan:

721931

coincidencealiensguy

 

Advertisements

Why “Rosa” is the Best Doctor Who Episode in Years

doctor-who-season-11-spoilers-1034630

December 1, 1955
Our freedom movement came alive
And because of Sister Rosa you know
We don’t ride on the back of the bus no more

— The Neville Brothers, “Sister Rosa”

This post will contain spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled watch the episode first –or, if you don’t mind, proceed.

Let’s get this out of the way. I absolutely love Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor. She brings incredible energy and charm to the show and provides a sense of wonder to even the most mundane aspects of the show that makes it all seem fresh again. That freshness is also helped by having a new cast of companions. I think the presence of new producers and a new composer really add to that freshness as well.

Considering how much Doctor who has traveled through time and space, it is surprising how little the Doctor has to fix a timeline. In the case of season 11’s Doctor, not only must the Doctor and her companions have to protect time, but have to battle one the most worst monster of all, racism.

I grew up watching Twilight Zone and Star Trek: science-fiction message heavy shows. Early Who episodes were time travelling history lessons, such as “The Aztecs.” And sometimes, like in “Pompeii” we are presented with fixed moments in time, where Donna and the Doctor can not interfere with the historical significance that Pompeii’s citizens must die. Martha Jones had a few brushes with racism during the David Tennant run. The Twelfth Doctor touched on racism in “Thin Ice” but it was not the core of the story.

The opening teaser is of an actual incident in 1943 where she was forced off the bus for the first time for refusing to use the back entrance for coloreds and taking a seat. In those days you paid in the front and had to get back off and enter through the back of the bus if you were Black.

The TARDIS is acting up, as it typically does. It does seem to take the Doctor and companions where they are needed, though. In this case, it brings them back to Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. The Doctor discovers a heavy presence of artron energy in the vicinity that should not be there so she decides to investigate.

doctor-who-season-11-episode-3-review-rosa
“I’m getting pretty sick of seeing that sign.” says companion Ryan Sinclair.

When they disembark, Ryan Sinclair passes by a White couple and the woman drops her glove, doing the polite thing he picks it up and offers it to her while tapping her shoulder. He is rebuked by a slap by her husband. Rosa Parks who is passing by intervenes and diffuses the situation. Note that it is Rosa who is able to diffuse it.

It turns out that the source of the energy is another time traveler named Krasko armed with a vortex manipulator — poor man’s TARDIS, inaccurate at best. He is a former prisoner of Stormcage prison who is embedded with a neural inhibitor that presents him from physically harming, let alone killing, anyone. But he is determined to prevent Rosa Parks from making her historic act of defiance against segregation. According to Krasko her defiance is where it all goes wrong for him.

For years, I had been screaming in frustration and annoyance at my television set because of the Moffet effect of manic running around and staccato dialogues from the Doctor that is often drowned out by Murray Gold’s score. In this episode, we slow down and let the events of history speak for itself. We let storytelling actually take place. And each of the companions are not only there along for the gee whiz ride, they each contribute something and become part of the story. In the final moments of the episode, being part of that history can hurt as it turns out that the Doctor and her companions must stay on the bus so that the bus can be full and that not enough White passengers have seats. The Doctor says here that “We must not help her.” And at this point Rosa Parks, not the Doctor, is the hero of this episode.

Much of this episode is difficult to watch. It’s not the maniacal escapism of previous Doctor Who episodes. It takes on racism head on and in a way that is surprising in its unflinching approach to the subject. The simple act of just gathering at a restaurant to plan what to do is dangerous as they get side-eyes from other people and a waitress tells them, “We don’t serve Negroes.”

We have some notable performances from the entire cast and a bit of character development too. Earlier this season, Graham (Bradley Walsh) is introduced as Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) grandfather, but Ryan just calls him his grandmother’s second husband. But you get the feeling that sharing this adventure together brings them closer. Ryan and Yaz (Mandip Gill) seems to be showing some affection for each other too.

The standout performance goes to Vinette Robinson’s portrayal of Rosa Parks. She is almost regal in her strong and determined performance.

doctorwho-rosa11

A character moment between Ryan and Rosa occurs after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. at Rosa Parks’ home. Afterward, she asks if he got what he wanted. “I didn’t know what I wanted, but yeah. Meeting you guys. Listening to you all talk, I can’t believe it. It will get better. Not perfect…but better. It’s worth the fight. Thank you, from me and my nan. ” She responds, “I haven’t done anything.”

Yaz has a moment where Ryan talks about being stopped more by police than his mates. Yaz, who is police herself says not by her. “Tell me, you don’t get hassle,” he says. “Of course I do. “Of course I do, especially on the job. I get called a ‘Paki’ when I’m sorting out a domestic or a terrorist on the way home from the mosque. But they don’t win, those people. I can be a police officer now, because people like Rosa Parks fought those battles for me — for us. And in 53 years they’ll have a Black president as leader. Who knows what will happen 50 years after that? That’s proper change.”

Graham has many little moments and one is when he recounts first meeting Ryan’s grandmother who said, you better not be like James Blake (the bus driver who threw Rosa Parks off the bus 1943 and called the police on her in 1955). “And I had to ask her who she was and she said she gave bus drivers a bad name. She had a t-shirt that said, ‘The Spirit of Rosa,’ I wish she were here.” Towards the end of the episode in feeling that they had accomplished their mission he gets ready to get off the bus, but to his horror he realizes he has to stay and be one of those White people to be on the bus so that there are not enough seats. “Don’t get off, Graham. If we get off there will be enough empty seats for White passengers and Rosa won’t be asked to move.” His simple look and line of “No, no. I don’t want to be part of this story,” conveys a heart about to break.

I must take a moment to really compliment the use of music in this episode. The licensed stuff like the gospel piece in the teaser and the use of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” during Rosa Park’s protest moment may be considered cliché. Yet it’s a trope that works for me. But it is also the subtle fanfare by the new series composer, Segun Akinola that stands out. His Rosa theme is evocative of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” with a touch of James Horner.

The episode is not a perfect episode. Being British production, the actors portraying Southern Whites are probably British themselves as sometimes accents just seem off. Krasko seems like a plot device villain just to set up the episode, but it could also be possible that he may be something more later on in the season as his defeat does allow him to possibly return.

Science-fiction can entertain, make you think, make you uncomfortable, afraid, and sometimes it can tell a message while doing all these things. Doctor Who’s Rosa does that well. And as Ryan said to Rosa Parks, “Thank you.”

Book Review: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

25109947

For me, Lovecraft Country demonstrates the real power of versity in art. By focusing on people who were traditionally excluded from genre fiction, I’m able to do interesting new things with some very old tropes, while simultaneously exploring aspects of our shared history that aren’t as well-known as they should be. Combining fantasy with realism produces a richer story than would be possible with either alone. And despite being set sixty years in the past, this is easily one of the most topical books I’ve written—though that says less about my skills as an author than it does about the state of the country that I live in.

— Matt Ruff

Note: Though fantasy fiction, this book reviewed is based on real and painful times in American history, particularly the Jim Crow America of segregation and racism against Black Americans was not only the norm, but the institution.

Is it possible to separate the person from their art? Does knowing that the person whose work you enjoy, even admire, is a horrible person change your view of that work? I still have books signed by authors I don’t agree with like Orson Scott Card, but in storage. I still have the Mists of Avalon by child molester and abuser, Marion Zimmer Bradley on my shelf. The creator of the Rurouni Kenshin manga and anime, Nobuhiro Watsuki, was recently convicted of possession of child pornography. I can’t look at these works again without thinking of the wrongs committed by their creators.

I never got into H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve tried to but just never could finish the supposed classic “At the Mountains of Madness.” But Lovecraft was such an integral figure in imaginative fiction that little did I know I was reading works that were definitely influenced by him. From Stephen King and Brian Lumley to the films of John Carpenter, I’ve grown up with Lovecraft lore. Little did I know that this literary giant of imagination, this icon of genre fiction was a racist. I’m not talking about the casual racism of “he was a person of the times” that so many other artists were back then. He was an outright white supremacist.

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is not only a book inspired by Lovecraft but one about the racial attitude that Lovecraft shared with so much of America. Through its ensemble cast of African-American characters they will navigate through secret societies, sorcery, other worlds, ghosts, time travel, and Jim Crow America.

From the publisher’s description:

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

The book takes its time to get to any incidents of supernatural horrors that are promised. Instead of a straightforward novel we get stories of novella or novelette length that are interconnected with each other culminating in a confrontational conclusion. In the first and titular segment, Atticus, his uncle George (publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictional counterpart to the real world Negro Motorist Green Book) and childhood friend Letitia encounter horrors of America’s racism. From a simple stop at a gas station to just sitting at what is thought to be a safe diner, the experience of being Black in 1954 America can range from demeaning to life threatening. They are searching for Atticus’ missing and estranged father who is in Ardham, Massachusetts. Atticus originally misreads his father’s handwriting as Arkham, hence the origin of the title Lovecraft Country.

This will lead to the introduction of the main antagonist of the book, Caleb Braithwhite, who will directly and indirectly effect the characters for the rest of the book until a final confrontation that is satisfying yet leaves room for a sequel. Perhaps we will get that sequel in the form of another book. But since it is also a forthcoming HBO series produced by Jordan Peele, we may get it from the show.

What Matt Ruff accomplishes here can’t be called a delightful read. In fact much of it is incredibly uncomfortable. Not because of any eldritch horror, but from the historical context of America’s great sin of racism. There is a segment where Montrose Turner, Atticus’ father recounts his boyhood memories of the real life Tulsa Riot of 1921. The memory, as recounted, and as written by Ruff, stabs you in the heart.

Yet, in spite of the real world horrors, there is a strength in the characters that not only allows them to endure but to inspire. There is Hippolyta, George’s wife, who dreamed of being the first Black female astronomer ever since she was a child and continues her love of the stars. She will feature in her own adventure while doing research for the Safe Negro Travel Guide. Her twelve-year-old son, Horace, wants to become a comic book publisher. Letitia Dandridge purposely becomes the first homeowner in a White neighborhood, so that it may open the doors for more Black home ownership in the area. Each character, in their own way, wants to carve a place for themselves in a system that is designed to keep them down.

A sub-theme of the book and it’s characters is that several of them are also geeks. Atticus, George, Horace, and too a less extent, Letitia are readers of the popular science fiction of the era, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and of course H.P. Lovecraft. And though Burroughs is problematic, Lovecraft as we now know, was outright bigoted. And perhaps this passage can help me reconcile with my own modern experiences with someone like Marion Zimmer Bradley:

“But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though. ”

“But you don’t get mad. Not like Pop does.”

“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes.” He looked at the shelves. “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”

Atticus gets that stab in the heart, when as a young man, his father shows him a copy of a Lovecraft poem called “On the Creation of Ni***rs.” Except Lovecraft did not use Asterisks. Ruff credits Pam Noles’ article, “Shame,” as an influence. It is about the difficulties of being a Black science-fiction fan in America.

The audiobook is narrated by Kevin Kenerly, whose dramatic performance adds weight and nuance to characters who sometimes undergo some emotional toils. He is a stage actor who is also no stranger to audiobooks.

Among the accolades that Lovecraft Country has received, one of them was a nomination for the 2016 World Fantasy Award. Ironically up until 2015, the World Fantasy Award statue was a likeness of H.P. Lovecraft. It was finally changed after 40 years from pressure to do so.

Some readers may not like the way the book is divided into novellas that are interconnected. Personally I really appreciated it and perhaps he only weak segment would have to be the Horace centered story. But overall, Matt Ruff not only brings to life the hard world of the characters but he manages to infuse them with an authenticity as well. These aren’t great heroes out to save or change the world. They are Black Americans making it through a shameful period of America’s past that is not really all that distant and not one that we have distanced ourselves away from enough yet.

Highly Recommended

Further Reading

A Reader’s Guide to Lovecraft Country
Prince Hall Freemasonry
Cory Doctorow on Lovecraft Country
When Jim Crow Drank Coke
Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
Shame by Pam Noles

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

cells-at-work-platelets

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.

platelet

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.

macrophage

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.

maxresdefault

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.

white cell

 

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

black-clover-2

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?

asta-black-clover-black-clover-yuno-black-clover-4k-bfa584

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.

affdd7597bea8c611a1d5cf4b4ecbad57e1ebe44_hq

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

Anime Review: The Ancient Magus Bride

 

magus

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.

Chise1

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.

Chise2

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.

Crunchyroll Expo 2018

20180901_1316151.jpg

For those who are not familiar with Crunchyroll and it’s service, it is probably the largest provider of anime streaming content on the Internet. Through mobile and console apps via Roku, Amazon Fire, Playstation and XBox, they have grown very popular as the default service for licensed legally available anime. One of the pluses is their licensing deals with Japanese studios to allow simulcasts of current anime seasons. That means as an episode airs in Japan, it is streamed online with subtitles that same day.

In 2017, Crunchyroll had their first Crunchyroll Expo (CRX for short) at the Santa Clara Convention Center. It was quite a good turnout as a medium-sized convention, Not San Diego Comic-Con numbers, and that is a good thing. This year, CRX was held in San Jose, a larger venue and at least as big a crowd if not bigger. To be fair SacAnime was also going on in Sacramento and the behemoth of Dragon Con was also going in in Atlanta.

CRX differs a few ways from other anime conventions in that since it is run by a specific company there is of course bias towards Crunchyroll and it’s content. If you’ve ever been to Sony’s PSX, then this might sound familiar. Fortunately, Crunchyroll has enough content worth running a convention over.

The exhibit hall of the convention center had much to offer, including food from outside vendors whose menus included katsu curry sandwiches, takoyaki, and what has become a mainstay at geeky conventions in San Jose’s convention center, Psycho Donuts.

20180901_1446181.jpg

In addition to the main hall being a vendors room where you can get all sorts of anime related merchandise from blu-rays to cosplay wigs, figures, plushies and even body pillows, there  was an extensive artists area. This artist area is a great place for finding art prints, postcards, even crochet. And to me the examples of creativity is really well represented in anime conventions.

This year, there were quite a few premiers and retrospective screenings of anime films all throughout the day. GKids, which is celebrating its 10 anniversary, brought in their library of Studio Ghibli films and even their Irish import, The Secret of Kells.  A major stand out for me was the premier of the English dub of Maquia. It had previously made the rounds in limited release subtitled and is now about to make the rounds again dubbed. If you get a chance to see this in the theater do so — and call your mother. Seriously, you’ll want to. It is truly a beautifully animated film that is also incredibly emotional as well.

Another premier was for a new anime about to make the rounds called Penguin Highway. It’s quite a charming and at times surreal film about youth, inquisitiveness, and of course penguins. I’m a sucker for pengins already adn penguins in anime will score huge points from me.

Both films came courtesy of Eleven Arts Studio which was responsible for bringing over the truly remarkable film A Silent Voice — which , by the way, still doesn’t have a North American home video release. I had to import the Region B UK blu-ray. Luckily I had a blu-ray player that can switch regions. More in-depth reviews of both films are forthcoming.

One new upcoming show I got to see was the premier of The Rise of the Shield Hero coming in January to Crunchyroll. Yes it’s yet another Isekai anime, a genre where a protagonist is brought out of their regular mundane world and transported to a fantasy RPG like world. And frankly for the first half of the premier episode I was cynical, but after a twist it does become very interesting and becomes a little darker. I’ll be looking forward to where they go with this in January. Meanwhile there have been several light novels and manga already translated and available already.

Of course, as with most anime conventions, there are guests. One of the most popular animes right now is My Hero Academia, an anime that is heavily influenced by Western super-hero comics. So it’s no wonder that it has a cross appeal not just because its influences but because it’s a darn good show. In my opinion it is also a show that is very well done in the English dub and several of the English voice actors were on hand having fun swapping their roles from several scenes from the show.

Crunchyroll was just recently acquired by AT&T and I don’t know how that will effect the service going forward and also the future of any more Expos. But if AT&T were smart and cared (seriously, I doubt that from my experience) they will grow and continue on with CRX. So until next year — hopefully…