If anything good came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that movie studios have started streaming premieres. And one quarter into 2021,with the vaccine still underway (which is totally necessary and definitely not a moneymaking scheme), it looks like they’re going to keep at it. At least Disney is, because Raya and the Last Dragon IS STREAMING ON DISNEY+ WITH PREMIER ACCESS AND I GOT TO WATCH IT AT FIVE IN THE MORNING! Let’s effing GO with this review!
In Raya and the Last Dragon, we are taken to the formerly great realm of Kumandra. There was a big plague called the coronav—I mean—the Droon, which turned people to stone. When the titular last dragon, Shisudato, used some gem thing to imprison the Droon, people went batshit crazy over it, and divided Kumandra. When the Droon is unleashed once more (because of course it would be), Raya has to find the last dragon and fix the MacGuffin.
Since the turn of the 21st Century, Disney has had a track record of making several movies that adhere to their traditional “movie musical” formula, then breaking it up with something darker, more violent, and with no singing. Raya is the latest in the latter part of the equation. The world here is effed up beyond belief. Everywhere she goes, there’s strife and discourse.
It’s also cynical, very cynical. Raya, narrating the opening exposition, straight-up says that the fighting over the gem started because of “people being people”, as if humans are born evil (instead of being influenced by lousy parents and the media). There’s a load of Top Ten Anime Betrayals, just to shape what a hopeless mess everything is.
As I said before, Raya is also quite violent. There’s martial arts, swordfighting, and more throughout the movie. But compared to Atlantis and Treasure Planet, Raya is perhaps one of the most anime Disney movies ever; probably more than Big Hero 6. There’s crazy jump-cuts, parkour, and a sword that’s also a grappling hook.
Anyway, since American cinema just HAS to be influenced by its social climate, Raya is more about racism than the coronav—I mean—the Droon. Sure, the actual source of the conflict, in the context of the movie, is greed or whatever, but that’s just what you call “subtlety”. Throughout the movie, there’s a consistent theme of “Hey maybe if we just shut up and talk to each other”, which Raya ignores, and resorts to violence instead. It’s a symbolic, hopeful message that more-or-less applies to every problem that humanity has had with itself. But of course, considering what happened last year (and the fact that constantly talking about the issue of racism is why it’s still ongoing), even Disney should know that it’s not THAT simple.
But of course, it’s a Disney movie. Even their darker animated features adhere to the usual traditions to an extent. If you have experience with their filmography, then you know how Raya will turn out, start to finish. It tries to be grimdark, but it still has the marketable mascot, along with explosive diarrhea beetles and kung-fu babies. Also, there’s still humor, even though it’s all dark and stuff.
Keeping all that in mind… I’m just gonna be frank: I LOVE THIS MOVIE. It goes completely off the rails in every way. There is personality injected into every single shot. Honestly, it’s redundant having to keep reiterating Disney’s unique attention to detail when it comes to animation. I’m just going to put that paragraph here, since I’m sick of making a separate one for it. Anyway, the movie is gorgeous yadda-yadda, it’s Disney.
Normally, I resent most of the characters in anything, but not this time (what a surprise!). Raya herself is a fierce, but still relatable, young girl who fits almost too perfectly with the current month (Disney, are you being P.C.?). She has a real arc where she’s all like, “Distrust and violence will never end bleeeeeeh”, and inevitably has to learn how life actually works (and by “life”, I mean that sentimental crap that’s in those hopelessly optimistic self-help books that aren’t The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (which you should buy because it’s really good)).
Raya finds Shisu very early on, and good thing, since Shisu is Best Girl. She has a lot of the funnier lines in the movie, and is a hopeless optimist who clashes with Raya’s mindset. The two also gain a number of really lovable allies,of wildly varying age ranges. I kinda don’t want to talk about any of them, just so you can experience them for yourself. Unfortunately, the weakest character in the movie is the mascot, Tuk Tuk. Eff that thing. Disney, just stop making these, please. You already reached the zenith of mascot with Hei-Hei from Moana; there’s no point in making any more!
Last, but definitely not least, is Nemari, with her Cammie Gilbert hairdo. Disney movies might have abandoned villains, but they haven’t abandoned antagonists. Like a lot of characters in the movie, Nemari loves her people and wants to protect them from the Droon. She’s just about as much of a badass as Raya is. But sadly, her character arc is quite predictable, if you have experience.
Final Verdict: 9.1/10
Raya and the Last Dragon is a really great movie. It has definitely and absolutely dethroned Atlantis: The Lost Empire as my favorite of the darker variations of Disney animated features. It might go over your young ‘uns heads, but since this generation is being forced to become adults overnight (thanks COVID), Raya will probably help them with that transition instead. It goes without saying that any diehard Disney fans should watch it, just for the sake of completion (and the fact that it’s a banger of a film).
It’s been a while since I talked about J-pop stuff, mainly because my music tastes have changed a lot since last year. Over 99% of what I listen to is metal, and more than half of that consists of European artists. But even before then, there were a number of artists that I liked, but didn’t exactly love. I’ll go over them here because there’s a chance you might be more interested in them than me.
You might recognize the band known for three Haikyuu!! openings and one Dr. Stone opening (among others). They actually have a very long career. Their opening songs tend to be very mainstream-y pop rock, but they actually have a good amount of weird avant garde stuff. A lot of their deep cuts are very different from one another, and tend to be better than stuff like ‘Fly High!’. The problem with them is that they’re very outclassed. Bands like Mili are better on the experimental end, while a lot of other bands are just better from a musical standpoint. Once in a while, I’ll throw them on, but they are pretty forgettable overall.
This was the first artist I listened to when I got into music streaming. They were also my first impression of the death metal growl style of singing (even though they are not a real death metal band). Passcode is a more electronic take on the same idea pioneered by BABYMETAL: idol pop crap fused with metal. For starters, their album covers are really cool (especially 2020’s Strive), plus, they’re just straight-up better than BABYMETAL.
Unfortunately, the inherent issues of idol pop mar Passcode by quite a lot. The songs are great, but tend to blur together, and are honestly quite forgettable. They’re only enjoyable in the actual moment you’re listening to them (at least to me), but there are so many better bands than them.
Ultimately, the one band that made me fall out of Passcode ended up being one that fused metal with Western pop: Amaranthe, from Sweden. Their music is better and more memorable, and they also have three distinct vocalists who are really easy to identify. I don’t know how BABYMETAL is more popular since Amaranthe even predates them by three years. Oh well, that’s just how it is in this world!
This band is so mysterious that they don’t even post photos of their members. Memai Siren is a bizarrely melancholy and chill hard rock band with some cool, edgy album cover art. They also have some prog elements, with most of their releases starting out with trippy instrumentals.
Honestly, that’s about it. Their vocalist has a unique voice, but yeah… this is another case of bands outclassing Memai Siren. Again, Mili does the bizarro stuff way better, and there’s definitely better hard rock out there. In any case, most of Memai Siren’s discography consists of EPs, so it won’t take too long to give them a gander if you’re curious.
Even though I borderline stopped enjoying Queen Bee, there are some things that do earn mad respect points from me. First off, they have phenomenal fashion sense. Second off, they have a great logo. And most importantly, their vocalist, known simply as Avu-chan, is one of my favorites in Japan. Avu can go from Prince-level high pitched to an almost death-metal-like growl (unless there’s two separate people, but hey, researching these obscure bands is next to impossible, okay?). Those opinions remain unchanged.
However, the band’s music didn’t exactly move me. A lot of their older stuff is very late-60s-ish, “what the f*** are these people on?” hard rock, which is very good, even as someone who doesn’t really like the late 60s. But after a while, the band essentially moves toward a jazzier sound. And as someone who doesn’t like jazz, well… let’s say that not even Avu could make me enjoy it.
You must be screaming at me by now. “No,” you reply, “since the post is ‘Japanese Music Artists you wish you liked more’, that obviously just means that UVERworld is so banger, that the human mind is incapable of giving them the love they deserve.” Sorry, but that’s not true. Like the others, I wish I liked them more, but I don’t. The band known for Bleach‘s ‘D-Techno Life’, My Hero Academia‘s ‘Odd Future’, and The Promised Neverland‘s ‘Touch Off’ (among many others) is just straight-up not that great.
But I didn’t “wish” I liked them for nothing. Since licensing older bands sucks, I only have access to their newer stuff, where they employ a unique, synth-heavy blend of jazz, rock, and rap. The songs I mentioned before are actually very good, and somewhat deserve their recognition in the anime community. However, that’s about it. I’ve listened to a couple of their albums all the way through and was more-or-less underwhelmed. For me to really like an artist, they must have a good number of enjoyable deep cuts as well as hits. UVERworld simply doesn’t have good enough deep cuts.
They aren’t just called Ironbunny, but their guitarist—and mascot—is a tokusatsu-looking cosplayer named Edie. Coincidence? I THINK NOT! If it wasn’t obvious, Ironbunny is a relatively new hard rock band with heavy influences off of classic rock and metal (hence the obvious Iron Maiden reference in their imagery).
Overall, the music is pretty darn good. The reason why I fell off of them is because one of their members had to leave due to health issues and… that’s it. The band seems to be part of some radio show or something, hosting other rock and metal figures in Japan, but they haven’t released anything new following the departure of that person. But honestly, they’re outclassed even in the case of their best stuff.
This might make some Asian readers mad, because it seems like King Gnu is significantly more popular in Japan than anywhere else. I listened to their first three albums, up to their chart-topping record, Ceremony. King Gnu is a weird combination of rock, hip-hop, and jazz that I can at least respect from a creative standpoint. Unfortunately, a lot of them leaned toward “catchy pop crap”, ultimately making me lose interest in the band.
As a side note, vocalist Daiki Tsuneta also has another band called millennium parade (lowercase is actually part of the official name). They would be well-known for ‘Fly With Me’, but it ended up being the OP for Ghost in the Shell S.A.C._2045, which nobody liked, so… yeah. millennium parade has the same style as King Gnu, but with more electronic and prog elements. Overall, I liked them better, but they only had four singles when I tried to get into them, and I just couldn’t commit so early on. They have since released their debut album, The Millennium Parade, so I might try to get back into them if I could squeeze them in.
Time for some anger! Yep, Flow, the band known for everyone’s two favorite Naruto openings, among other things that don’t come to my recollection, is on this list! To be honest, this entry is pretty much identical to UVERworld, but kinda worse. My first attempt to get into them was through a greatest hits album, and even then, there were tracks I found forgettable. I respect them for being a no-gimmick, old-time rock n’ roll band, but as someone who doesn’t like that kind of music in general, they were not doing it for me.
These guys have done a bunch of anime openings… for stuff that you’ve probably never heard of. In fact, they might be more popular in J-Pop than anime, at least over here in ‘Merica. ORESAMA employs a unique style of bubblegum pop that’s both upbeat and chill at the same time. They’re perfect for perking up after a crappy day at work. Obviously, given the fact that they’re a pop group, I fell off of them overtime. It’s a shame, because even with my metal-headed-ness, I find myself missing them. However, at this time, I just don’t miss them enough.
ONE OK ROCK
I gotta end with the one that’s most likely to make you angry. ONE OK ROCK was one of the first non-anime Japanese artists I ever tried to get into. Key word: “tried”
In any case, I do like their older stuff. I listened to those albums all the way through and they were great. However, they seemed to gradually move toward a poppier, boy-band-ish artist with their newer stuff. ‘We Are’ is good, but that’s about it when it comes to their power ballad stuff. I didn’t even finish 2019’s Eye of the Storm because all the songs sounded like pop crap. And to rub salt in the wound, a lot of the metal I’ve been getting into greatly eclipses ONE OK ROCK at its best, so yeah.
Well, that’s that. I wish I liked these guys more, but I don’t, and that’s how it is. Like I said before, you’ll probably enjoy any of these bands more than me (especially ONE OK ROCK). Please feel free to leave a comment as to how vehemently you disagree with my sizzling hot takes!
As someone who suffers from anxiety and an inherent fear of physical contact, and as someone who follows a number of public figures who think COVID is the threat that the media says it is, I was—and am—a nervous wreck. Even at this point where people are just tired of it, I’m still scared for my life. I was forced to see Studio Ghibli’s Earwig and the Witch in theatres (since my family doesn’t have HBOMax) as a way for me to face my fears, and I truly did feel afraid for my life. Was I able to enjoy the movie despite all that was going through my head? Also, is the movie itself enjoyable? That’s the more important question! Oh, and of course, I never read the source novel for it!
In Earwig and the Witch, the titular Earwig (a.k.a. Ayatsuru if you like subbed) is left at an orphanage. After living most of her young life there, she is adopted by the titular witch, Bella Yaga. Since she’s empowered and all that, Earwig is determined to own her new home.
Let’s not beat around the bush. This is Ghibli’s first CG movie, and I wanna talk about the CG. It’s not Pixar to where they individually rig every single hair follicle, but everything else checks out. The lighting is good, the style is faithful to 2D animation while still being 3D, and the characters are very emotive. It’s not perfect, but it’s at least better than some of the horrid TV anime CG.
Sadly, that’s really all that makes this stand out from Ghibli’s filmography. Well, I say “sadly” as if it’s a bad thing. Ghibli sets a high standard for Japanese animation for a reason, after all. Earwig is full of the same charm and homeliness you’d expect out of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. It’s simple, to the point, and has a lot of wholesome charm.
Unfortunately, this also means Earwig has the same problems as most Ghibli flicks. The pacing is abysmally slow, despite its short length. It’s also structured like most Ghibli movies, to where more than half of the core narrative isn’t tackled until the last ten percent of the runtime. A lot is also left up to interpretation, assuming Ghibli even bothered to leave subtle clues in the first place.
The cast consists of four main characters, and literally no one else. Earwig is an unusual subversion of characters of her ilk; she enjoyed her life at the orphanage, and is incredibly headstrong and feisty when at the receiving end of Bella Yaga’s… er… parenting. As someone who tends to like control freak types, I was initially drawn to Earwig’s character arc. But with this being a family-friendly coming-of-age story, I’d thought they’d try to give her a redemption arc, which ends up not happening. Her adoptive mother, Bella Yaga, has a fetish with worms, but other than that, she’s your typical lousy foster parent character.
Also living in the same house is Thomas, a black cat who tries to be comic mischief (key word: “tries”). The movie’s tragic hero is the owner of the house, known only as the Mandrake. He comes off as super sketchy, but different elements about him are organically divulged over the course of the movie, making him the most complete-feeling of the cast.
In a completely spoiler-free manner, I warn you about the ending. Honestly, we [the anime community] have seen this often enough to know that it’s just Ghibli being Ghibli. Even the ones that aren’t as, well, Earwig-ish, have left me with a sense of… lack of accomplishment. I dunno, maybe it’s the uncultured swine in me talking.
Final Verdict: 7.15/10
To be brutally honest, the fact that Earwig and the Witch is CG is the only incentive to watch it. It is bog standard Ghibli in every other sense, and it’s still outclassed by stuff like Spirited Away and Kaguya. I’d only recommend it to diehard fans of Ghibli and the art of animation itself.
My third reward! AND a hundred followers?! Well, I cannot put my appreciation into words. Thank you guys! Oh, and thank you, RiseFromAshes, for nominating me for this Kore wa Watashi award. So, without further ado, let’s jump into this thing.
The Purpose of this tag is very simple! Describe yourself through anime! To do this you will answer all of the questions below! (Oh… Ooooooh, Rise… you inadvertently made this really hard for me. You see, I don’t particularly like anime…)
After this is done you will tag 6 people to pass the tag onto! If you’re tagged for a second time you only have to tag 3 in your next post and 1 on your third attempt and should you so choose beyond. Tell us why you nominated these people!
People who ask to be tagged should be added to your tag list with a link to their blog!
Tell something nice about them as well.
Remember to have fun with the tag and be proud of who you are, you are an amazing person and the fact that so many anime and anime characters share traits with you shows you are pretty breathtaking!
Describe a hobby or passion you have through an anime series! For example: Shokugeki no Soma if you like cooking or Initial D if you like cars.
Easy! One of my hobbies is books, so… yeah, A Witch’s Printing Office! Oh wait… that’s not an anime! AAAAGH! Right, Ascendance of a Bookworm is a thing. Great, my answer is a series I don’t even like! What a cruel world.
Simplify yourself to an Anime Archetype (Tsundere, Dojiko, Shota, Shounen-Protagonist etc) don’t overthink what an archetype is, go with your gut. Name a character that is also that Archetype.
I’m a kuudere for sure. Because of my social awkwardness, I come off as incredibly deadpan and mumbly. Also, if you read my blogs a lot, you’ll see that I tend to not have actual emotions about anything. Does Seiya from Cautious Hero count as a kuudere? I hope he does because I don’t know any other possible candidates!
Describe your looks through comparing it with anime characters, you can decide how many!
Since I have no self-confidence in how I look, I’m just going to say Shigaraki from My Hero Academia for this one. I think I’m plug ugly and creepy as hell. Sorry, but those are my honest thoughts.
Describe your romantic bias and or sexuality through anime characters you find attractive.
*insert the Will Smith meme from at the movies/ ta-da*
I’m confused by this one based on Rise’s response. It seems the character I pick must be both someone I find attractive AND have my same sexual desires at once. As an otaku, I find a LOT of anime girls attractive, but I don’t know a single one who actively doesn’t want a relationship. Although I’m a straight white guy, the closest response I can come up with is Daru from Steins;Gate. He only likes 2-D girls (like me), and looks hella handsome in the future in Steins;Gate 0.
Tell us about your day to day life and what anime that would fit into! You can be creative here!
For the sake of my anonymity, I don’t want to give away my job (it also doesn’t matter because the best fit is also a series that’s not an anime). I guess Ascendance of a Bookworm wins again, because of how darn hard I work.
Describe your hopes and dreams through an anime character.
I’m just gonna be cynical: Squidward from Spongebob Squarepants, with the headstone that reads “Here Lies Squidward’s Hopes and Dreams”. Oh, and before you tell me that Spongebob isn’t an anime, you should know that IT ACTUALLY IS (a fan-made original anime-style animation on YouTube). In actuality, I have a hope and a dream, but I wanna keep it a secret (also I don’t know any anime where it would apply).
This part is always the hardest because there are so many bloggers to choose from. I’ll try my best…
Anime has been a leading force in the influence of Japanese pop culture extending to the rest of the world. I’ve come across a lot of people who view the medium as their lifeblood. But me? I don’t get it. As someone who’s read Japanese comics, played Japanese videogames, listened to Japanese rock bands, and studied Japanese culture, I do not get anime at all. In this article, I’ll illustrate why.
Pick a Streaming Service and Pray
I feel like anime streaming has become a blessing and a curse. While it’s amazing that you can pay a negligible monthly rate to be able to watch hundreds of anime, some of which have simulcasting available, the actual execution is not the best.
The first reason is the anime industry itself. Anime is a quantity-over-quality world. And under the assumption that you are—in fact—sane, you will likely look at the lineup for the next anime season and look forward to one or two (or five on a great season) shows. Since the majority of the anime demographic is teenagers who have no jobs, let’s assume that you can only watch shows from one streaming service for your whole life. If this is the case, you’ll have to be lucky that your one streaming service will air that one show, because you’re not gonna watch the other 90% of crap.
It’s not a fun time. My worst luck was the Winter 2020 season. I was planning on watching five shows- a record for me- and ALL of them ended up on Funimation, while I had Crunchyroll. It wasn’t that big of a deal because I already read their source versions, and the adaptations were likely to be bunk anyway, but it was still sad to see that the one service I used didn’t get a single one of those shows. That’s what anime streaming is. If I know this community, only a small handful of shows get any traction, while thousands of other shows vanish into the ether.
And the services themselves are debatable in quality. Crunchyroll is more-than-functionable (without bringing up the political upheaval they caused with a thirty second teaser trailer in 2018), while all I know about Funimation is the whole “Kick Vic” incident. I’ve even heard horror stories about how Netflix and Amazon explicitly disrespect anime culture. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that the former doesn’t stream shows until well after they air (well after they have been forgotten in the community), and the latter doesn’t even bother marketing them. A whole fandom died inside in spring (or was it summer?) of 2019, when the epic historical fiction manga, Vinland Saga, got its long awaited adaptation, from a great studio, and got licensed to Amazon. It could’ve been a cultural phenomenon, but no… it might as well have not existed, and Kimetsu no Yaiba blew up instead.
I have no idea why anime streamers are like this, versus manga publishers. Manga publishing has come a long way from when Viz and Tokyopop freakin’ mirrored the manga. I buy material from every major manga publisher in North America equally. They actually care about manga (and market them, too!), and have very high quality translations and whatnot. For argument’s sake, if Kodansha, Yen Press, and Seven Seas joined Viz in launching a subscription service of their whole catalogues, I’d subscribe to all of them in a heartbeat. The combined monthly rate would surely be less than the flat rates I pay, and I would actually use each of them all the time, as opposed to anime streamers, whom you’ll only have the time and sanity for a couple of shows per season.
Money Is VERY Much an Object
It’s no secret that anime is a BIT on the downgrade. Anime studios tend to have big budget issues, sometimes being forced to file for bankruptcy. Animators are notoriously underpaid at these jobs, to the point where being a straight-up salaryman is probably a better option. But money isn’t only affecting real people, it’s affecting the products.
For starters, the chances of an anime finishing are next to nil. A lot of anime, even successful ones with high incentives to continue, end without a follow-up, and my personal assumption is a lack of funding, even for successful ones. That’s just how in the red they are. Even when they do get new seasons, they tend to degrade in quality, like—most famously—One-Punch Man in its second season.
That lack of funding also makes anime artistically hideous. Most of them consist of flat textures and solid colors, with only one basic shader or highlight at a time (if you’re lucky, you’ll see a shader AND a highlight in the same shot). These studios take any semblance of artistic identity that their source material had and makes them all look exactly the same.
But what’s worse is the actual animation itself… or lack thereof. Most of the time, any given shot in an anime consists of just the mouth opening and closing at regular intervals. And sometimes, you’ll have a thirty+ second long shot of nothing moving at all. It’s also common to see flashbacks to something that happened earlier in the same episode. There are some moments of excellent animation, but they are exceedingly rare (although I heard that Mob Psycho 100’s second season is surprisingly consistent), and to me, not enough of a payoff. Also, pretty much every anime I’ve seen feels like they’re all directed by the same person.
A lot of people are used to these quirks, but I can’t stand it. And honestly, you can blame me for being a filthy normie on this one. I’ve grown up with Disney my whole life. Disney has an incredible eye for detail (at least when they actually TRY), and I’ve gained a habit of appreciating all of those details. Their characters emote and express themselves in ways that feel alive and give them substance. They have had multiple characters on-screen, all animated and emoting simultaneously. Thanks to my autistic logic, I’ve gained a habit of looking for those same details in animated mediums. And anime, naturally, completely lacks those details. Anime feels dead and empty without those subtle gestures of emotion. Even when something emotional happens, the eyes end up being the only things that animate. I don’t need these details in manga, since it’s a still-image medium and they have entirely different ways to convey moods than anime. But nope, when something’s animated, I need fluid animation and expressive faces or else I am not engaged. And for the record, I do know about Kyoto Animation, but all I’ve come across from them are sappy love stories that I have no interest in.
Feature Films are Great… Good Luck Seeing Them
Most of my complaints have been regarding TV anime; feature films are another story entirely. With less hours of content to produce, no deadline to produce it, and more money to produce it with, anime feature films are where all the talent in the industry has gone. Many anime enthusiasts know famous directors like Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli, and the more recent Makoto Shinkai, director of Your Name and Weathering With You.
I’ve only seen a few anime movies: Spirited Away, Summer Wars, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya among others. They were all great (well, not so much Summer Wars because it was just a boring family drama disguised as The Matrix, but that’s an argument for another day), and they gave me a light of hope for the industry. I’d love to watch more movies and write about them.
The problem is that seeing them is a bit tricky. A lot of them are available on streaming, but not on anime streaming services. They’re all stretched thin across a lot of “normie” streaming services, from Netflix to HBOMax. As much as I complained about anime streaming before, these other apps are an entirely different rabbit hole. I’m not someone who likes Western shows, and it’s not worth paying for an amount of movies I can only count on my fingers.
“Well, just buy them, you cheapo,” you say. I just looked on Amazon and GKids’, and one anime movie costs about $20 USD each. “That’s not so ba—” That’s for one movie. There are a lot of anime movies out there, and building a collection would easily inhibit my ability to cover the usual material I cover on this blog. As much as I want to see more anime movies, I’m not a movie guy, therefore anime movies are of low priority.
My one sole hope is in events like GKids’ Ghiblifest, or actual anime premieres themselves. I only need to pay $8 USD to watch them once, which is all I’d have time for anyway. But there’s still a drawback: the distribution. I was able to watch Kaguya in a theater that was a stone’s throw from my house. However, when Weathering With You came out, I was tempted to watch it because I was low on post material for January and I thought, “Eh… why not? I think the movie’ll be stupid, but I just don’t hate myself enough.” Regardless of whether or not I would’ve liked it, I was still butthurt that the closest theater for THAT was forty minutes away from my house, and since I would’ve seen the subbed version like a true weeb, I would’ve been up until midnight when I got back home! That’s a no-go for someone who had to be awake at five in the morning to be able to report to his full-time job that’s paying for his blogging career.
Man, if only there was a place to RENT movies. If I didn’t like it, I could just bring it back tomorrow, and no money will have been wasted. It could’ve been called “Movies That Are Expected to Make a Lot of Money in the Box Office” or something. Oh well, an idea so ridiculous couldn’t possibly exist!
Watching anime is tough. Really tough. Much tougher than reading manga. Anime is more affordable, but you get what you’re paying for: low-budget, cheaply made, overly-abundant crap. A haystack of BS that you need to scour in order to find the needle. Then when that anime season is over, you lather, rinse and repeat with the next season. To me, it’s a nightmare, and that’s why I bowed out of it.
I must ask the following question, specifically to the veterans who’ve made anime their life, and have literal hundreds under their belt, to the point where they’ve self-taught themselves fluent Japanese just by watching them with subtitles: What is so appealing about anime? It can’t be just because it was the first medium you were exposed to, because I myself was actually converted from a TV junkie to a book junkie over the course of my life. I dunno, maybe it literally is just because of the aforementioned reason, or maybe I could stop speculating and just let you answer the question in the comments (I really want to know)!
Crunchyroll has never had the most… comprehensive catalogue of manga included with the premium subscription. Sure… I’ll be able to at least finish Attack on Titan on the same day as Japan without getting into legal trouble, but that’ll be beside the point when Adobe Flash Player dies this December without them updating the actual reader (assuming that I can’t alternatively use the mobile app, but I heard it was as buggy as heck). So, why not read one of the bizarre exclusives, that has all of the chapters up, while I can? Ladies and gentlemen… let’s check out Talentless Nana.
In Talentless Nana, a bunch of kids who have talents (i.e. superpowers) are sent to an academy on a deserted island to train, in order to fight the enemies of humanity. Our main protagonist, Nanao Nakajima, becomes quick friends with a new student named Nana Hiiragi, who has the ability to read minds. With the power of their inevitably blooming love for each other, they’ll learn and grow until they fight the enemies of humanity once and for all!
“Hey, wait a second!” you point out. “If the manga’s called Talentless Nana, then how come the titular character can read-?” Yeah… you noticed that too, didn’t you? *sigh* Look, I’m not gonna BS you. In order to properly review this manga, I must spoil the ending of chapter 1, because it’s a crucial tone setter that could make or break the whole manga to you. I could write the review without spoiling it, but I’d be glossing over something crucial to helping you properly decide if you want to read it, and that goes against what I want to be as a blogger. So, starting the next paragraph, I will be spoiling the end of chapter 1. Skip to the end of the review if you want a basic gist of the manga’s quality.
In the ACTUAL premise of Talentless Nana, the titular Nana Hiiragi is sent to the island where the enemies of humanity, those with talents are kept under the guise of training to fight an ersatz enemy, without them knowing they are their own enemies. Her mission is to use her wits to kill all the talented students without them finding out, and Nanao Nakajima is her first victim.
See how divisive this makes Talentless Nana? In a brilliant troll move, the manga begins in Nanao’s perspective, and aims to get you attached to the super adorable and compassionate Nana in record time. And just when you’re writing your fanfic about the two, Nanao is murdered, destroying your brain as a result (since you, hypothetically, imagined yourself as Nanao so you can pretend that you’ll find a significant other in life). It’s a perfect crotch-kick that takes advantage of a waifu-driven market.
So, besides breaking your heart and force-feeding you the shards, what does Talentless Nana have in terms of entertainment value? Basically, the main focus of the manga is that Nana befriends each student one at a time, pretending to be a ditzy moe blob. With each new victim, the rest of the group becomes more and more suspicious, and it’s pretty engaging to see her try to avoid having that suspicion turned on her.
Unfortunately (at least for some), the manga lacks the one thing that psychological thrillers “absolutely must have”, and that’s realism. Due to the superpowers, a lot of things that happen don’t make any sense, more so when Nana somehow manages to talk her way out of incriminating scenarios, like when people catch wind of a psychic’s photograph of her killing people in the future. Between this and the polarizing plot twist, I can totally see this getting widespread criticism when the anime airs: the lack of realism will perturb analytical viewers, and the twist will do the same to casual viewers.
Additionally, the manga has a pretty bland cast of characters. The only ones even worth discussing are Nana, who is actually pretty entertaining for the most part (at least until she starts sympathizing for her classmates which becomes kind of annoying), and Kyoya Onodera. Kyoya is a transfer student who arrives alongside her, but he’s not a spy like her; he’s one of her enemies. However, he’s actually smart, and he actually tries to, you know, investigate his classmates’ deaths. If this was a YA novel, Kyoya and Nana would end up making out by the end (hopefully they don’t).
The art is kind of average. While it captures motion pretty well, the character designs are incredibly bland, with Nana being the only standout character thanks to her hair. While it’s decent at making some scary closeups, it’s not really much in comparison to other manga art.
Current Verdict: 7.5/10
While it has a number of issues, Talentless Nana is a decent guilty pleasure. I don’t normally “command” viewers to consume certain media, but due to the inevitable controversy the anime will cause, along with the death of Flash Player, I highly recommend at least reading a bit of the manga in order to be hip. Oh, and also, the fact that it will not be possible to read for much longer.
A couple years ago, before I even started this blog, I read one of my favorite manga of all time: Children of the Sea. It was a short, beautiful story with a simple message that really puts things in perspective (which is the vaguest way for me to describe it without spoiling you). It felt like a dream come true for it to get a feature film adaptation from Studio 4°C. Everything seemed to check out. “Oh boy!” I exclaimed. “Something legitimately unique and powerful that isn’t just mindless visual spectacle is actually going to get its well-deserved publicity!” However, karma seems to dictate that no truly creative and excellent media can ever get that publicity, for COVID-19 was at its peak panic levels during the month of the movie’s US theatrical premiere. And as such, the movie got downgraded to a straight-to-home-video release, as if it were a bad Disney sequel.
Because of this, I was concerned, to the point where I had to make a whole new paragraph for the following statement. The straight-to-home-video release made me consider an alarming possibility: Children of the Sea flopped. I don’t know why, but GKids didn’t exactly promote it, like, at all (for example, it was released on Netflix but I haven’t seen them Tweet about it and I was on them like a hawk leading up to this release). I’ve been worried about it not being well-received. Children of the Sea is incredibly abstract, and gets very cosmic very quickly. The fact that a hyperbole-hating guy like myself just used the word “cosmic” shows that this movie is a real trip. Anyway, this preamble has gone on for too long. My copy of the Blu-Ray is here, so let’s just watch the darn movie and stop postulating already!
In Children of the Sea, a girl named Ruka is living a typical life as an outcast among her peers and as a victim of divorce. She visits her dad’s aquarium, which acquires some unusual new specimens: Umi and Sora, two children who were found literally at the bottom of the ocean. Ruka acquaints herself with them, and when fish around the world begin to vanish, the boys are the only ones who can help her figure out why.
Like I said before, the story goes places. It’s so much of a trip that there’s not even a real antagonist nor actual stakes. The first half is basically a slice-of-life with some supernatural intrigue, while the second half is just… art. I’ll get to that last aspect in a bit.
I’m someone who’s consumed a lot of media that I’ve believed is pseudo-intellectual, and at first glance, Children of the Sea has every ingredient to fall into that same category. It has many shots that are framed with absolute beauty for the sake of beauty, as well as a lot of very esoteric dialogue to make them come off as smart, with a dash of real-world science thrown in. But unlike pseudo-intellectual works such as The Fault in Our Stars, Rascal Does Not Dream, and Monogatari, Children of the Sea has a clear-cut tangible meaning (which I choose not to disclose in this review). In fact, you could criticize its writing for being too ham-fisted if anything (but in its defense, this message is difficult enough to get across as it is so they kind of need to ham-fist it). Most of the hard science, which includes marine biology and astrophysics, is… true enough. Regardless of scientific accuracy, the messages that are conveyed via these factoids are what matter the most, as opposed to something like Rascal Does Not Dream where it’s like “Teenager issues? Have a quantum physics textbook!” just to force symbolism onto you.
“But a social commentary is still a social commentary,” you say, “and you don’t like social commentaries!” Normally, that would be true. From my perspective, most social commentaries are about human things that are already common knowledge by now. Children of the Sea’s message is something on a grander scope that- sadly- ends up going largely unacknowledged. Not to sound pretentious, but I think it’s something legitimately important for everyone to know.
Despite how straightforward the movie seemed, your mileage may vary. It’s not just the fact that I read the manga, but I’ve also been awakened to the same message through different means (Spoilers: through an old mini-series starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and it’s not Cosmos!). So of course the movie would make sense if I already had an understanding of what it was going to say! The anime is no-doubt the more difficult version to experience first. In the manga, you have the ability to stop and take everything in, whenever you want, while the anime moves whether you want it to or not. Sure, you can pause it, but anime Blu-Rays have a problem with making subtitles disappear for a few seconds after you pause them (which would be a non-issue if you watch the dub, you normie).
Anyways, let’s drastically change the topic and discuss… the differences between the manga and anime (that I remember)! While most of what they cut is trivial, some removed content can mar the movie experience a bit. They completely get rid of the backstory between these two scientists, Jim and Anglade, which gives context to their relationship with each other. But more detrimental is that specific cut content makes a certain scene regarding Ruka’s mother come from way out of left field. In any case, the cuts do help the pacing a lot. I’d rather have a fantastically done movie with some bits missing than a crappy TV anime with all the content.
Let’s move on to the characters, who are by far the weakest aspect of Children of the Sea. Ruka definitely comes off as a YA protagonist; crappy life, gets swept away by two handsome boys, and is arbitrarily chosen to fulfill some great purpose for no reason. Honestly, I can’t really justify her character arc. I have one thing to say, but I can’t say it without spoiling the central themes of the film. So, spoilers: Having someone like Ruka be chosen is a glimmer of hope that any human can regain its innate connection with nature.
Umi and Sora are a bit more likeable… to a point. They also have YA tropes; Umi is the fun, lovable kid, and Sora is the sexy bad boy. They say a lot of esoteric things, and it’s only because of my understanding of the movie’s message that I don’t want to bop them upside the head. Next up are Jim and Anglade, the scientists I mentioned earlier. Due to the cut content, their character arcs got beaten down more than anyone’s. Fortunately, they aren’t that integral to the plot to begin with, even in the manga, so it’s fine. Beyond them, we have Ruka’s parents… who are typical divorcees.
The audio and visuals make Children of the Sea complete. The music is absolutely enchanting, and perfectly sells the atmosphere of the movie. But as great as Joe Hisaishi is, he didn’t write the end credits theme: Spirits of the Sea. This little ditty was by the singer Kenshi Yonezu. I’ll discuss Yonezu… in the future, but for now, lemme tell you that Spirits of the Sea is a wonderful, beautiful ballad that really conveys Children of the Sea’s magic. I got to listen to it when he released the single, at the time of the movie’s Japanese premiere, and it is how I discovered Yonezu in the first place. I highly recommend listening to it casually, but also listen to it during the credits; a post-credits scene follows afterward.
And- Holy crap!- the art. A lot of TV anime these days might look… eh, but at least the movies have maintained a high standard for quality. In fact, Children of the Sea is the most beautiful anime I’ve ever seen. They were faithful to the original manga’s linework-heavy artstyle, while also adding their own flourish to it. Studio 4°C also had the manga’s sense of composition; each shot is full of little details, yet it’s easy to identify the main subject at any given time. The animation, use of CG, and particle effects were also top dollar. After reading the manga, I had asked myself, “How the crap are they going to handle the climax?” Well, I’ll just tell you… they did a good job on that end.
Final Verdict: 10/10
I knew that the best case scenario with Children of the Sea was it would become my favorite anime of all time. And guess what: it’s my favorite anime of all time. The stars aligned with this one. Amazing source material, adapted by a studio that really cared. It’s practically perfect in every way. But boy… Children of the Sea got Shrekked hardcore. The COVID-19 pandemic killed its one shot at publicity in a U.S. premiere (outside of Chicago at least), and it made me real salty. This was a rare chance for something obscure, adapted by a talented team, to be unleashed upon the world, and it was all for naught!
This is one of the few pieces of media that I recommend you try regardless of your tastes. I might be sounding pretentious, but understanding the message that it conveys is very eye-opening. I’ve read a lot of books where the blurbs say “This completely changed how I view the universe!” and it ended up being two boring teenagers falling in love. Children of the Sea is not that; it is genuine, brutally honest, and poignant.
My job will have fully opened by the time you read this, but at the time of this writing, it was only partially opened. This gave me the chance to squeeze in one more Western animated series while my shift is substantially reduced. But what to pick? Steven Universe was a very emotional show, and I’m still caught up on DuckTales and The Dragon Prince, waiting for new episodes. Since I didn’t find the CG of the latter to be so bad, I thought I would watch a more… (in)famous CG series: Rooster Teeth’s RWBY. Even from beneath the rock I’ve been living under, I’m aware of the heated debates that occur over this franchise. So, because I love controversial media (for some reason), I thought I’d give the show a whirl to see what the hubbub is about.
In the world of RWBY, people rely on some magic junk called Dust (which is basically Sepith from Trails of Cold Steel), and that’s their only way to fight these monsters called Grimm. One night, a girl named Ruby Rose takes on some criminals with a crazy scythe-gun, and is sought out by Ozpin, the headmaster of Beacon Academy. He decides that “you’re a wizard, Ruby!” and instantly bumps her into the prestigious school, two years in advance. There, she meets three more color-coded girls (her older sister, a tsundere, and an emo girl) and they go on adventures together.
Like with Dragon Prince, I must discuss the visuals of RWBY first and foremost. “The Dragon Prince looked great,” I thought. “RWBY shouldn’t be so bad,” I thought. Oh, how wrong I was. I understood that The Dragon Prince was made with the backing of Netflix, one of the biggest entertainment distributors in the world, and also five years after the premiere of RWBY. But even with that in mind, RWBY takes some time to get used to. While the character designs are fine, everything else about the visuals is horribly wrong. I complained about The Dragon Prince’s choppy and inconsistent frames, but RWBY showed me that the smoother framerates of its animations look more stiff, unnatural, and awkward than in The Dragon Prince.
Fortunately, the visuals improve substantially over time, with it finally looking legitimately good by season 4. The fight scenes in RWBY are when it’s at its best… sort of. The camera swings too wildly for humans to possibly keep an eye on, and it relies entirely on pure spectacle. However, as a fan of over-the-top battle shounens, I love it. The animation is at its most fluid and impactful here. Also, the show is truly anime for one reason: everything is a gun. Scythes, gauntlets, even suitcases; they’re all guns.
To be honest, the visuals served to make RWBY one of the funniest battle shounen I have ever experienced. The humor was legitimately on point in the show, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they had influence from the best of Weekly Shounen Jump. It’s the kind of stupidity that I’ve grown to love ever since I started reading manga all those years ago. The awkward movements made it even funnier for some reason.
However, despite the anime influences, RWBY is still a Western fantasy, and a modern one at that. And if you couldn’t tell, it is qualified to fall into the Harry Potter knockoff category. In the early seasons, the plot is mind-numbingly simple, with typical gag-shounen-meets-school-drama antics coupled with some YA awkwardness; a very difficult combination of tropes to get used to.
Being a modern fantasy, RWBY does another common thing: making its world an overly obvious mirror to our society, i.e. racism. The people who get targeted for discrimination are the Faunus. They are essentially furries, which ironically, adds another layer of social commentary. Anyway, the big problem with the Faunus is the White Fang, a terrorist organization that has resorted to rather… harsh methods of ending racism (which isn’t at all ten times more relevant in 2020 for any specific reasons). Honestly… I didn’t really care much for this line of narrative. It’s a topical topic for a reason, but this is one of the things I enjoyed The Dragon Prince for not having. I like adventure fantasies the best, and there really aren’t enough of them in this day and age.
Like any gag shounen, RWBY inevitably makes the transition to a more serious and plot-driven story. However, it’s not that simple. During production of the third season, the original creator of RWBY tragically passed away. The rest of the team has been carrying on with the series since, but it’s at this point where the show became the divisive debate-starting show it is today. It makes a transition that’s extremely risky for the genre: from gag shounen to straight-up seinen.
There are a couple of issues with this. One is that the transition is not at all organic. Normally, most shounen start out with short arcs, some of which last only one volume. Then, an arc goes for two volumes to make the reader think, “Finally, they’re actually doing something substantial with these characters and ideas.” Then, there’s an arc that’s really long and is generally considered the best, followed by a unanimously hated slog to the end. I get that not all battle shounen are like this, and RWBY definitely does not follow this pattern either (but in a bad way). There is a very visible instant in which the show completely changes with no build-up whatsoever: Season 3 Episode 6. After that, it packs on the emotional baggage to no end, and it becomes very hard to take seriously if you’re not super-emotional.
Also, Eastern angst and Western angst are two completely different things, and if you’ve read any of my YA novel reviews, you’d know I don’t entirely enjoy the latter’s company. While a lot of edgy stuff from Japan can tackle some uncomfortable themes with surprising elegance (Chainsaw Man, Torture Princess, Tokyo Ghoul, Monster, etc.), I’ve found a lot of the same from Western culture to be pretentious and heavy-handed. Additionally, some of the voice acting has enough gravel to pave a whole interstate highway. At the point I’m at, the few gags they do use feel jarring instead of something meant to break the ice. But in all honesty, it’s not terrible. The show is still enjoyable, and if I had liked the characters better, the feels would’ve actually struck a chord with me. However, due to the fact that it gets more and more controversial from here, I can’t guarantee that my opinion isn’t going to sway drastically in later seasons.
Regardless of the narrative, there is a somewhat great cast of characters to motivate you to keep watching. Each of the four girls are typical tropes: Ruby, ditz; Weiss, tsundere; Blake, YA protagonist; Yang, brash. But they all have genuinely good interactions with each other, and overall truly feel like a ragtag team of young’uns. They go through a lot of character development, even if it makes them come off as typical YA drama queens. Unfortunately, their fellow peers are similarly tropeish but with less… interestingness. A boy named Jaune is a typical underdog, a girl named Pyrrha is a typical hyper-justice-girl, a girl named Nora is Ruby but with a hammer, etc. Even when they all go through big emotional crises in season four, I didn’t care for any of the kids besides the four main ones.
However, the adults make up for it. My favorite character ended up being Ruby’s uncle, Crow. He’s your typical bad-ass, trollish, yet down-to-earth father figure guy, and it’s hard not to like him. There’s also a fast-talking professor named Oobleck, but he’s- sadly- a pretty minor character. Also, this one guy named James Ironwood has the best worst name (I’ll leave society’s many euphemisms to explain why).
I can’t say the same for the villains, though. As much the show really tries to do a moral ambiguity angle, the major antagonists fall under the typical Saturday morning cartoon villain category, at least up to where I’ve watched. This one swindler named Roman Torchwick is entertaining enough, but it’s not the case for the people he’s getting his fat stacks from. He reports to this woman named Cinder, who is literally Azula from Avatar. Her two minions, Mercury and Emerald, are just about as uninteresting. Cinder reports works under the true mastermind of the series, some alien(?) named Salem, but there’s not yet enough information to really say anything about her.
Before I get to my current score, I must clarify that I’m not criticizing RWBY because it stopped being what I wanted it to be; it’s just that the show felt more generic after the tone shift. I wholly understand that not everything can be original, but a lot of the content felt like it was ripped right out of How to Make Your Audiences Bleed Tears in Five Easy Steps with no finesse or variation. Compare the portrayal of the Faunus- which is the same exact allegory to American history that’s been done eleventy other times- to something like Eighty-Six. Both are commentaries on the exact same topic, but Eighty-Six does it in a way that feels much fresher than what RWBY does.
Television is also a deceptively limiting medium for visual storytelling. Once in a blue moon, you’ll have someone like Satoshi Kon who can do something interesting with film as an entertainment medium, but RWBY is not a Satoshi Kon film; a lot of it had bog-standard cinematography, such as those “hard-cut-to-black-with-some-kind-of-distressing-sound-effect-cliffhanger” techniques. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by manga, which have billions of combinations of panel layouts that all subtly contribute to the mood of a scene, or books, which can use the written word to at times convey more emotion than an image ever could. Also, Legend of Korra taught me that I should be examining television through an entirely different lens, as a lot of things I find typical are less common on TV. I’m even willing to bet that RWBY wouldn’t even have been allowed to air on network television, and could only exist as an indie program, for whatever dumb bureaucratic reason.
Current Verdict: 8.35/10
RWBY is a typical battle shounen in presentation and plot structure. It is great mindless entertainment, and I honestly don’t see why so many people take it so seriously. The food fight at the start of season two shows what I believe RWBY is at its best: over-the-top action with goofy slapstick. Unfortunately, I don’t entirely like the darker turn it took, mainly because it took it too fast. RWBY seems to be trying to be a fantasy epic on the scope of something like Trails of Cold Steel, but without the foundation that those games took time to build. Overall, the show is pretty middle-of-the-road, and I do not understand either side of the arguments with this show (but like I said, that could change). These seasons are stupid short, so I should be able to see RWBY through to the end without much hassle.
PREFACE: In case you do not already know, I should warn you the Trails of Cold Steel Franchise is explicitly designed to be played in chronological order. No, it doesn’t have a stupidly convoluted plot like Metal Gear or Kingdom Hearts, but this is nonetheless a direct continuation of the first game. As such, this review will contain unmarked spoilers of the first game. I will also not explain any basic mechanics of the first game, as you are expected to know already from playing it. If you are interested in this franchise, click on this link to read my review of Trails of Cold Steel I.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel has its strengths and weaknesses, but overall, it was never meant to be a full game; no, it exists solely to lay down the groundwork for a truly epic tale, spanning four massive games. I was more engaged in the story of Cold Steel than any JRPG I’ve ever played, and it was definitely one of the best turn-based JRPGs in terms of gameplay. With that ridiculous ending- Crow being one of the main antagonists, mechs existing, Crossbell’s declaration of independence, mechs existing, Ouroboros and Fie’s old squad have been helping the Noble Alliance pull all the political strings, MECHS EXISTING- my body was beyond ready for the sequel. The first Cold Steel set the expectations, now it’s up to The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II, to meet said expectations.
When we last left our intrepid hero, Rean Schwarzer, he- in his mech, Valimar- was forced to leave his buddies in Class VII behind during a losing battle against Crow, the leader of the Imperial Liberation Front. A month later, Rean wakes up on a mountain range with Emma’s mysterious cat, Celine. Now it’s time for him to make like a battle shounen protagonist and pick himself back off the ground and find what’s left of Class VII!
Same World, New Problem
Immediately, the game starts off way sadder than Cold Steel I (even if the opening sorta ruins it a little by showing that EVERY student in Class VII is still alive). As soon as you start the game, the familiar title card appears dark, with the words singed by fire. A minor-key remix of the original game’s titlescreen music plays, and zooms in on Rean’s unconscious body. His voice actor sounds much more distraught than usual at first, and his portrait in the menu looks like someone who’s been through hell and back. Then, mere minutes after you find respite in his hometown of Ymir during the prologue, the town gets attacked. In most JRPGs, I’d say that an opening like this would constitute little more than shock value. But since this is a continuation of an existing story, it’s actually more effective, since you’re likely to be invested in the story if you’re picking up this game up after playing the previous one.
If you’re still new to the series, and you’re STILL reading this review anyway, I should SERIOUSLY warn you that the game basically gives you the finger for not starting from the beginning. There are two reasons why it’s seriously important to start from Cold Steel I, and the first of which is merely because it will be way too overwhelming if you don’t. The title screen does have a menu to read a recap of the first game, but honestly, the first game is so involved, you’d spend hours of Cold Steel II trying to memorize everything while trying to follow the present plot.
But even for a returning player, it can be confusing knowing who’s on what team. So here, I’ll remind you. The Imperial Liberation Front is in cahoots with Fie’s old jaeger squad, Zephyr, who both report to Duke Ceyenne, the leader of the Noble Alliance. Ouroboros is with them as well, but Sharon seems to be a double agent; someone on both our and their side. Vita, the sexy sorceress lady, seems to be in a third group, containing space wizards (or something) who’ve been working on a completely separate thing.
I pointed out that you need to keep in mind that Cold Steel I is the start of a larger story in order to enjoy it. In Cold Steel II, you need to keep in mind that it’s a continuation of a larger story. As a result, there are a lot of reused assets. While the world is big enough that you do get to visit areas that have only been mentioned, there are times where you return to old places. It really plays on your nostalgia bug, like at the start of chapter one, which has you go through a previous Field Study dungeon backwards.
Unfortunately, playing this game has kind of broken my immersion when it comes to Erebonia itself. Cold Steel I was split into multiple, self-contained areas, connected by long train rides. This was an effective way to make you use your imagination, and imagine the grandiose scope of the world. However, in Cold Steel II, you end up taking the roads that connect various areas in foot… and this is where the immersion breaks. It’s as soon as you set foot into Trista Highway for the first time that it’s made apparent; those train rides that took hours of in-game time were the alternative to roads that took minutes to traverse. It’s a nitpick, I know, but Erebonia definitely feels less Tolkienian since the world feels so much smaller now.
As far as the narrative is concerned, it’s actually… kind of lacking for a direct continuation, especially after an ending like Cold Steel I. Similar to how the first game’s purpose is to acquaint us with the world of Erebonia and all who inhabit it, Cold Steel II starts by reacquainting us with it, and seeing how much has changed as a result of the war. But even after the point where the story is supposed to ramp up, most of the game boils down to reclaiming areas from the first game, and gaining more support. It’s satisfying to do, but you don’t learn much about the core narrative, at least not until around the 75% point of the game, when it vomits information at you like any JRPG would.
The biggest issue with the narrative is that it never ends. After you defeat what is very much intended to be the final boss (which took me two and a half hours by itself because there’s, like, five phases), you end up playing a side section that serves no purpose other than to get players interested in another franchise set within the same universe (which, I’ll admit, was pretty darn effective, even if those games aren’t released in the U.S.). And then, you get an entire in-game day’s worth of content to do. AND AFTER THAT, the true final dungeon appears for no discernible reason. It got so annoying. The issue is that this game hypes itself up to be the conclusion of Cold Steel, and while it does a pretty good job at conveying that on an emotional level, it is very watered down by the known presence of two more games.
Same Faces… Plus a Few New Ones
Fortunately, there’s a surprising amount of stuff to learn from the characters. We get closer looks at characters like Claire and Sharon, and even deeper looks at the students of Class VII. I love them even more than I did before. To think that I brushed most of them off as bland anime tropes at first… that’s character development at its finest. I’ve grown so attached to them, that I even gave some of them nicknames, such as “Reany-Beany” and “Useless Jusis” (even though the latter is my favorite of the supporting male characters).
We also get more development on the antagonists, such as Crow. Plus, there are some interesting new antagonists with quirky personalities, such as the cocky yet socially awkward Duvalie, and the sleepy McBurn. Unfortunately, Duke Cayenne proves to be a pretty one-dimensional villain for the post part.
Unsurprisingly, Cold Steel II‘s graphics aren’t too different from the first game. I shouldn’t have expected them to be since it’s both the same system and the same world, but I still had to mention it. But one thing I didn’t acknowledge in my review of the first game is that a lot of the animations for attacks, especially S-Crafts, have aged very well. They look soooooooo animeeeeeee!
The soundtrack is also more-or-less the same. A lot of tracks are reused, but there are also some new, updated battle themes. Unfortunately, a lot of tracks overstay their welcome. One bad example is that there’s a point where you tackle four dungeons in quick succession, and music for all of them is some really grating opera. Furthermore, the previous game’s issue of “having the dungeon theme play over the battle theme because it’s INTENSE” comes back even more in this game. And similar to the other example, those themes get reused as well.
For the gameplay section, I will still split it into Daily Life and Deadly Life. But like I said before, I will go over mechanics as if you’re already familiar with the first game. I will also bring up the fact that this version of the game, Relentless Edition, SPOILS you. First off, the amazing Turbo Mode feature is still present. Second off, you get WAY more items in the DLC than last time, including 99 U-Materials.
Before we start, I must also bring up the other important reason to play Cold Steel I first. When starting a new game of Cold Steel II, you will be asked if you want to load Clear Save Data from Trails I on your system. Doing this will give you items based on Rean’s previous Academy Rank, and change dialogue based on various accomplishments, as well as the person you chose to dance with at the end of Cold Steel I (G.G. for anyone who chose Crow). It felt really satisfying to have my actions acknowledged, and it helped maintain a sense of continuity.
JRPGs Always Need an Airship
So, the first question I- and probably a lot of people asked- going into Cold Steel II was, “Without Thors, how’re we gonna have the same school mechanics?” Well, the answer is a minor spoiler, and one that is spoiled in the game’s intro at that. After a certain point, your main base of operations is on the Courageous.
But the problem with the Courageous is that it needs some help. Fortunately, scattered throughout the world are your fellow peers from Thors. Whenever you see them, it is encouraged to recruit them to the ship, as many of them unlock new facilities. Most of these are carry-over mechanics from Cold Steel I, so I will only discuss new things here.
For starters, there’s new training facilities. These are basically your Practical Exams from Cold Steel I, except you can do them whenever. They are split into Melee, Range, and Arts, where you are locked into using characters who are built around those fighting styles. The biggest issue with them (other than how stupid hard they get) is that you don’t get to prep anyone before the fight itself like you can in the first game. Furthermore, you don’t get to see the conditions until the battle starts, which can be annoying.
There’s also the new Triple Tri- I mean- Blade II. This game plays like the first one, but with meaner trap cards: Blast and Force. Blast Cards allow you to destroy a card in your opponent’s hand (but you can’t look at it), and Force Cards double your total. Even with how game-breaking these new cards are, I still lost 95% of the time because I suck.
Once you recruit Munk, you are able to bribe him to apply to radio contests on your behalf. There’s a cheap one where you win a modest prize, and a high-risk, high-rewards one. The results come in after five battles (excluding the training facilities in the Courageous), so make sure you use it before you go out into a combat area.
“Hey, Rean! Have you finished those errands?”
Quests are pretty much unchanged, except with the added feature of reporting manually by Skyping Olivert. And despite the hard times, people can afford to pay up. In addition to the usual rewards for completing a quest, you get a monetary donation for reporting it. There are still hidden quests, and they are sneakier than ever. Some require you to have or not have certain people in your party (but I have no idea if the game indicates it to you because I was always lucky enough to already have met the conditions).
But unlike the first game, you cannot miss ANY quests if you want to max out your Academy Rank. Last time, I missed three and still barely got it. But now, even after doing every quest (with the trophy to confirm it), I ended the game with only ONE excess AP. There is only a sliver of leeway, as I didn’t get all S-Ranks despite getting all quests. I guess some of them had more favorable outcomes and I didn’t realize it. Fortunately, due to the game’s circumstances, there are no exams this time! Yay!
You Never Have Enough Sepith in This Game
One thing I noticed in Cold Steel II was that everyone’s Arcus slots are still fully opened. But that doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. In this game, you spend Sepith to UPGRADE your slots, and I blew through most of my DLC Sepith just to be barely close to maxing out one character. If you don’t do this, you can’t equip rare quartz. It’s annoying, but they had to change it up somehow. As a side note, you eventually get the ability to create EX Orbs, which are equipped to Valimar to boost its stats.
Wow, this game has an actual overworld!
The most standout improvement in Cold Steel II is the ability to go to older areas at will. The Courageous makes it really easy to do so, and you can leave from almost any point on the map. There are times where you will be asked for specific party members, but fortunately, summoning the Courageous from the overworld allows you to reorganize your team without having to leave and come back.
So, what did Cold Steel II do to replace the Old Schoolhouse? Peppered throughout the world are these strange shrines. Gameplay-wise, they’re the same as the Old Schoolhouse; do the floor, beat the boss. You can’t complete them at first, but you obtain bonus AP for knocking out what you can early on (plus they got good loot in them).
The whole Courageous thing is the best and worst aspect of the game. It does open up a lot stuff, and adds much variety when you’re running errands for people. One thing I noticed is that there aren’t as many hidden quests once you obtain the Courageous (in fact, I only had one in Act 2 Part 4 and one in the Final Act), which is nice. However, this new level of accessibility makes it so that you can get said missable items out of sequence. And it’s not based on the order that the areas come up in the story; for example, a single shop can have both the first recipe and last book chapter of that particular time bracket. As a result, I think I spent even more time repeatedly talking to the same NPCs over and over again than I did last time.
Saving the World? Nah, I’d Rather Fish and Cook
Cooking and fishing have both been buffed since last time. While fishing is mechanically unchanged, fishing spots get marked on the map after being used once, which is nice. And due to the ability to travel to older areas, you get a lot more respawning fishing spots that you can use. Unfortunately, this also means completing the fishing is a nightmare. In Cold Steel I, all fish eventually end up in Trista. However, that’s not the case here. Furthermore, the fishing locations don’t respawn as quickly as they should, meaning that you’ll need more groundbait than ever (or save-scumming) if you want to get all the fish… on top of having to try each and every location without knowing which one has a fish you missed. In fact, I resorted to looking up the fish just to save time. But hey, at least recipes are only cooked by one character now, which simplifies the process of getting a specific type of dish.
Nakama Power, the Most Important Superpower in Any Anime
Bonding Events are much more important in this game. While there are some Bonding Events early on, the bulk of them take place on Stopover Days that occur at the end of a chapter once you obtain the Courageous. Unlike the first game, EVERY party member, as well as Alfin and Towa, are available to spend time with. While you get more Bonding Points than last time, it’s not enough to make it easier to decide. “We’ll, it’s not gonna kill me if I don’t know EVERYTHING about EVERYBODY,” you think. We’ll, you might just want to save-scum to view every event, because Bonding Events have a new and trollish effect. Some SPECIFIC events will allow a character to learn new abilities earlier than they would’ve from levelling up, which is kind of annoying. I only saw one of these particular events, and the game doesn’t even tell you about them in the first place.
There’s also the case of Final Bonding Events. These are exclusive scenes between Rean and assorted characters towards the end of the game. In order to unlock a character’s Final Bonding Event, you must get their link level to its second-highest level, which is now six out of seven (technically, it only needs to be up to five and a half or so since finishing Act 2 boosts everyone’s links by 1000), as well as fulfill specific other conditions. You can also have Towa and Alfin in line for this, but you will need to do every single Bonding Event with them in order to be able to satisfy the conditions with them. Fortunately, the game will tell you when you have an opportunity to satisfy one of said conditions, which is something much appreciated that most JRPGs don’t bother doing. Also, once you recruit Beryl, you can use her services to confirm with whom you have met the conditions for. Unfortunately, when the time comes, you can only do one per playthrough, so save-scumming at that point is essential. It is also impossible to meet the conditions with everyone at once. This means that you will have to play through again in New Game+ to see everything (which you would’ve had to do anyway to complete the character notebook entries).
What is this, Sonic Adventure 1?
A new mechanic is snowboarding. Throughout the story, you unlock new courses to snowboard in. Beating these gets you great prizes, but like in any videogame, it gets really difficult late on. In addition to snowboards, you also get to ride Angelica’s bike. It can be used almost anywhere and greatly makes up for the lack of fast travel points on highways.
A Steep Learning Curve Just got Even Steeper
Here’s the final reason as to why Cold Steel II does not like newcomers: All the combat mechanics learned over the course of more than half of Cold Steel I… is taught all at once during the Prologue. So seriously… if you’re somehow still reading this and not familiar with the series. FOR THE LOVE OF AIDIOS, PLAY COLD STEEL I!
For returning players, this brings some immediate positives. In Cold Steel II, every character has all their Craft and S-Craft from the first game. Your Link levels are also higher at the start, with Rean starting at Link Level 2 with everyone. This at least makes it easier for returning players to get reacclimated to the game.
A new mechanic is Overdrive. Use this between a pair of Linked characters to give them a free heal, and a set of three free attack turns with no delay. This also guarantees Unbalancing. The gauge fills by doing things in battle, but it fills up much faster based on your tactical bonuses at the end of a battle. Unfortunately, only people paired with Rean can do it…
…at first. New to Cold Steel II are Trial Chests. These chests make a set pair of party members fight a tough battle. But as a reward, you get great items, a heap of Link XP for that pair, and unlock the ability for them to use Overdrive together. It’s a great way for characters that aren’t Rean to get large amounts of Link XP, since the bonding events from Cold Steel I kinda threw off the balance of everyone’s link levels (but it still ends up being way off-balanced).
Mech Battles Before Xenoblade X Made it Cool
My biggest concern when it came to combat was how Cold Steel II would expand on the Divine Knight (a.k.a. mech) battles. Introduced during the final boss of Cold Steel I, mech battles felt very stressful and iffy. Basically, mech battles were a game of rock-paper-scissors, where you had to attack a section of the target that was weak- the head, the body, or the arms. Attacking a weak point resulted in a crit, which allowed you to press X for an immediate Follow-up, and after obtaining three Bravery Points, you could use a powerful Finisher (basically an S-Craft). The catch is that the weakness changed based on the enemy’s stance, which resulted in having to memorize a lot of combinations. Attacking the wrong spot could result in getting the attack blocked, or worse, evaded. This, as always, gives enemies the chance to counter. You also couldn’t Impede attacks that enemies were charging up last time, even if you inflicted a crit, so you were basically screwed.
Fortunately, Cold Steel II greatly fixes some of these issues. The game adds a Defend command, which allows you to greatly reduce damage and recover a small chunk of HP. But one of the best additions by far is the fact they show the Unbalance Efficacy of each piece- in each stance- after you attack it once. THANK YOU.
Although Rean is on his own in mech battles, his buddies can at least help with EX Arts. Basically, you have another character who takes their own turn in the fights. When it’s their turn, you can have them cast some EX Arts, the nature of which are determined by the person. This greatly fleshes out the mech battles, plus every person has a charge function to restore Valimar’s EP (which doesn’t really justify the parts of the game where you wait for him to recharge…). You also have a Unity Attack that you can do with five Bravery Points.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Rean also gets some significant boosts in this game. After a while, he is able to summon Valimar to regular battles for three turns, and is able to activate his Super Saiyan form at will. These can be very useful in some super-tough battles, especially if you play it on Nightmare difficulty.
One new feature is the optional bosses, the Cryptids. These enemies appear throughout the world after certain points in the story. Defeating them nets you a rare quartz containing a Lost Art. These Arts are really powerful, but consume all of a character’s EP. Fortunately, they are affected by the Zero-Arts turn bonus, which can seriously save your bum. I didn’t use them too often, but I imagine they are essential in Hard and Nightmare difficulties.
Either This Game is Hard… or I Suck
If it wasn’t obvious enough that this game alienates newcomers, they also make it much harder than Cold Steel I. I died way more often than before, and in this game I actually knew what I was doing. They really expect you to have mastered the turn order system, along with all the other mechanics, ‘cuz the kid gloves are off this time! The game also introduces a rare case of enemy attacks that ignore and remove all buffs, and some of these attacks happen to be their strongest attack. The Zeram Capsule + Moebius setup I utilized in the last game made its final dungeon a joke, but that same setup was a necessity in this game. If I hadn’t gotten forty of them as DLC, I would’ve been sunk.
Fortunately, I learned some important things about the series that I didn’t know last time. Stat changes do stack in Cold Steel, which I honestly should’ve noticed before. Also, Evasion is a broken stat in this series, especially if you give your most dodgy character (preferably Fie) the Wrath Quartz, which makes all counterattacks crit. I also had her paired with the Master Quartz, Mirage, which adds a good chance of evading magic. This game was my first time trying an Evasion build on a character; I’ve always prioritized defense in JRPGs in the past. Furthermore, Speed is immensely important, as it reduces characters’ Delay between turns, which again, is something I should’ve known last time.
Final Verdict: 9.5/10
Trails of Cold Steel II is a massive improvement over the first game in almost every way (except strictness, and knowing when to roll credits). At this point, I am hooked on this story and I fully intend to see it to its end (and pray that I get the True Ending of the fourth game). However, I am concerned about the third game. Based on the one thing I know about it, it feels like it will be a step backward for the series. Well, with my job opened back up, you won’t know how I feel about it for a while. Anyways, as far as recommendations for Trails of Cold Steel is concerned, I think it’s definitely worth giving a shot, even if you are uncomfortable with missing things. The game is good at letting you know when you’re at a cut-off point, making it a lot less stressful than most JRPGs.
I stated in my Tokyo Godfathers review that it was the “best anime movie I’ve seen since Ghost in the Shell“. As such, it was a no-brainer that would watch another Satoshi Kon flick, Millennium Actress, on Kanopy, from a completely different license holder than GKids. Going into it, I was aware that Tokyo Godfathers was a black sheep in Kon’s career, and that this movie was going to be much darker and stranger than I could possibly expect.
In Millennium Actress, two documentarians, Genya Tachibana and Kyouji Ida, are given the opportunity to interview retired actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. The old bird gladly divulges her life story to them, and those two end up along for quite a ride.
And I mean that literally. The movie seems straightforward at first glance, and that’s because it is. Minor spoilers: it doesn’t take long before the men interviewing her are literally IN Chiyoko’s flashbacks along with her past self.
Just when you thought things couldn’t get more meta, here’s a real hum-dinger. The bulk of Chiyoko’s story isn’t just told through flashbacks, but additionally through assorted scenes in her movies. These are seamlessly integrated into the actual plot, which is quite impressive (also, it’s convenient that all of her movies had similar premises). In these sequences, Tachibana ends up inexplicably planted into each given movie as an extra, further adding to the meta aspect.
Unfortunately, the biggest issue with Millennium Actress is Chiyoko’s story itself. The main conflict of the movie involves Chiyoko trying her butt off to find a tall, dark, and handsome guy she met for five minutes when she was, like, twelve. It’s so annoying when a female character gets her heart set aflutter by these idealized bozos. Sure, she was young and dumb, but the guy looks like he’s at least fifteen years older than her, which is kinda weird. Look, I don’t hem and haw over these intentionally controversial old-on-young people romances, like the Monica and Richard thing from Friends, but at least they GOT TO KNOW EACH OTHER FIRST.
This doesn’t help her as a character either. While it’s always fun [for Westerners] to watch someone descend into madness, her issues seem cringey and annoying. At least characters like Citizen Kane had REAL issues, his case being his own mother selling him to the freaking BANK, or Mildred Pierce, whose case I won’t mention because it’s a spoiler. Overall, Chiyoko comes off as a whiny brat throughout the film.
Fortunately, the two reporters are better. They have great chemistry with each other, and add a lot of humor to the movie that very much reminds me of Tokyo Godfathers. Also, they sort of represent the audience in some way. Tachibana comes off as the self-proclaimed intellectual who is totally into whatever the movie throws at him, and Ida acts like the trend-savvy, filthy casual who wouldn’t know REAL art even if it placed his head into its bosom. The fact that I’m not waxing poetic about Kon’s “Schrodinger’s Cat, quantum-reality-warping transcendentalist genius” or whatever means that I’m CLEARLY more like Ida in this case.
When it comes to visuals, despite being only a year or two before Tokyo Godfathers, Millennium Actress looks much more aged. But even then, it still looks better than pretty much every TV anime these days. It also seems that Kon’s movies have a signature face style, similar to that of Ghibli. I hope that I don’t get sick of it if I choose to watch any more Kon movies.
Final Verdict: 8.85/10
While I didn’t enjoy it as much as Tokyo Godfathers, Millennium Actress was still a great movie, and proof that this Kon guy knew what he was doing. However, when you take away the whole “warping between past, present, and movie scenes” thing, it amounts to little more than a bog-standard tragic love story. This brings up the question of what’s more important in storytelling: The story or the telling? I’m a bit of a weird combination of both, but you’ll need to lean a lot toward the latter in order to enjoy Millennium Actress.