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.
Before I get into this review, I must say that the fact that I watched Legend of Korra is super ironic. I specifically waited for Avatar to come out on Netflix so I didn’t have to pay Amazon to watch one show. Now, I ended up doing just that to watch one show, when I could’ve used it to watch two shows months ago. Sure, I could’ve watched the first half of Korra on CBS All-Access, but I just didn’t feel like relying on two services to watch a single show (let’s see how long it takes for them to announce Korra coming to Netflix).
While I didn’t think Avatar: The Last Airbender deserved to be lauded as one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time, I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed it when I recently watched it (link to that review here). I enjoyed it enough to watch the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, the day after. But one difference in my experience was that I had some basic idea of what Avatar would be like. As for Korra, all I’ve seen is one screenshot- with no context- that looked like it was trying to reference Steins;Gate. The 2010s were the start of an ongoing point in time where cartoons became more naturally influenced by anime (perhaps thanks to Avatar), so I was really curious as to how this show would play out. Let’s see if it improves upon its predecessor or suffers from the timeless “sequel curse”.
In Legend of Korra, set seventy years after the original Avatar, Aang inevitably bites the dust. Replacing him is a new Avatar named Korra, who already knows three of the elements. When Korra follows Aang’s son, Ten Zin, to the futuristic Republic City, she gets more than she bargains for!
I went into Korra expecting it to be so anime, that it wouldn’t be a cartoon. But when I saw the updated version of Avatar’s classic opening, I was surprised by how familiar it felt instead. However, that doesn’t mean Korra is a repeat of the original Avatar. In fact, season one starts with her having to learn Airbending, the one element that has not been touched upon before. They also try some genuinely interesting new ideas, including telling the backstory of the entire Avatar world from the perspective of the first ever Avatar (which ends up retconning the whole lore of the animals being the first benders and stuff but I won’t discuss that at length).
To be brutally honest, Korra is definitely a lot more anime than Avatar ever was. First off, the plot is much more focused right away. While most episodes have self-contained narratives, each of them has a fluid connection to the overarching story. This means less filler, woohoo!
The show is also more anime in terms of its visuals. While it still behaves like a Saturday morning cartoon, a lot of aspects- from the textures, to color palettes, to lighting effects, etc.- feel very distinctly anime. It also helps that they outsourced the show to some actual Asian studios (I know I always talk about visuals last but it just flowed better for me to put it here, okay?). But in the end, the facial expressions and mannerisms show that this is the same Avatar that we’ve always known; it’s just a more organic union of Eastern and Western animation.
But sometimes, it does lean too far into the anime territory. On paper, that’s not inherently bad. However, in Korra‘s case, it ends up falling for some battle shounen shortcomings. Specifically, there are times where the show abandons the well-choreographed fights based in real-world martial arts for pure visual spectacle. This has happened in stuff like Dragon Ball and Naruto before, much to many people’s dismay. I’m pretty tolerant of mindless spectacle (“Boo, you filthy casual!” you think), but that’s only the case if the show sets that as an expectation. It’s jarring to go from the kind of battles in Avatar to stuff that resembles a Godzilla film in Korra. Also, I’ve never cared much for spectacle in TV form; animation doesn’t move me like really good manga art does.
When it comes to worldbuilding, the world of Avatar has definitely changed. There’s a lot of modern technology and politics in the world now (typical fantasy mumbo jumbo). Even the recaps are done through early 20th Century-style radio broadcasts. But despite this, a lot of familiar elements, from the White Lotus, to bison, to- well- the elements, are still present and accounted for. They even found a way to integrate the cabbage guy meme into Korra!
On the flipside, it could be argued that they tried too hard to make the world feel like that of the original series. While the visuals are still a better marriage of anime and cartoon, the writers seemed to not know if they wanted to make the show feel profoundly different or nostalgic. At times, the results make Korra come off as a fanfic, especially with the cabbage reference I mentioned earlier. There’s also a lot of contrived throwbacks, like having characters such as Ten Zin’s brother, Bumi- named after Aang’s old friend- who happens to have the exact same personality as the original Bumi, or having a minor character voiced by Zuko’s actor. The occasional flashback to future Aang’s past (wow, that sounded like an oxymoron), where you see characters like Sokka and Toph as adults felt really cringey, and made me ask, “Was this really made by the same team?”
As much as we can argue about Korra’s worldbuilding, there’s still the story itself to get into. With no Fire Nation, who’s there to fight? Well, in Korra, it just so happens that everything changed when the Equalists attacked. The Equalists are muggles, led by a masked man named Aman, who wants to do away with benders for good. Yes, this is the same “rich vs poor” theme that’s been in 999/1000 fantasy narratives, but it’s been a timeless theme for a reason (that reason being that it’s an overly-obvious parallel to our own society, and social commentaries are always “smart”). But that’s just season one.
Another battle shounen trope Korra pulls is the “well that was a pretty satisfying conclusion to end on, but hang on this series is actually pretty popular, so I guess I gotta just keep it going somehow” that’s prevalent in many manga of the genre. I suppose that contradicts what I said about there being more focus, but that statement more so applies to the individual arcs themselves. This is due to circumstances around Korra’s development. The show was put through production hell, to the point where Nick ended up airing the final season online instead of TV. They did the show in this arc-based structure because if they didn’t, the show could’ve gotten axxed without warning, with cliffhanger endings unresolved.
This immediately makes Korra‘s narrative inferior to Avatar’s for one reason: lack of anticipation. The finale of Avatar was exciting because the show built things up over the course of its three seasons. But due to the episodic structure, Korra couldn’t do that. None of the final battles felt particularly exciting to me, even if they excelled in the visual department. Fortunately, the show somehow manages to maintain a consistent theme: balance. Like Ten Zin says in the intro, “Only the Avatar can master all four elements, and bring balance to the world.” It was pretty cut-and-dry what Aang had to do to restore balance, which was to get rid of Zuko’s bad dad. But in Korra, it’s not as clear. Every antagonist’s motive revolves around bringing the world into a new era that they genuinely think will be good (well, maybe not as much in the case of the season two villain…), and the show tries to make the villains more complex than Ouzai. There are two issues with this. One, like with the Equalists Arc I mentioned earlier, these narratives aren’t particularly original. And two, like in many battle shounen, the villains’ sound arguments are rebutted by the typical “No, that’s wrong!” of the nakama-powered protagonist, which doesn’t exactly leave stuff open to interpretation. But hey, kudos to them for working with what little they had.
They do go off the rails in the final season (which, by the way, has a recap episode almost identical to its counterpart to The Ember Island Players episode of Avatar). Despite the season being titled “Balance”, a lot of it tackles PTSD, in addition to a conflict formed by perhaps the most unsubstantiated antagonist in the entire Avatar universe. Seriously… this antagonist was a random guard in season three who didn’t even have a name, and that’s assuming they weren’t a random shoehorn. But like any shounen manga that loses its way, I found the final season to be an utter slog, which culminates in a theatrical, but unsatisfactory finale that felt empty due to the aforementioned lack of proper buildup.
In addition to the narrative, the cast shows more immediate issues than the previous Avatar. Korra starts off as a muscular Katara (which would be a more apt analogy if Katara wasn’t still alive as a gram-gram); a brash, overly tomboyish girl who thinks entirely with her stomach. Furthermore, she acquired a classic reverse harem in Bolin and Mako. Bolin is the cute, down-to-earth, funny guy (basically a Sokka clone but with less character development). Meanwhile, Mako is a dream boat that Korra likes, yet he friend-zones her for a Twinkie from the city.
Said Twinkie is a broad named Asami Sato. She’s a typical empowered, gorgeous, and idealized woman. There is NOTHING wrong with her, whatsoever, at least in terms of her personality. While she is very plot relevant, she happens to cause an annoying shipping war that governs much of seasons one and two. I would believe that her main purpose in Korra was specifically to trigger said shipping war… except her REAL purpose is not evident until the end of the series (and no, it didn’t make me like her any more as a character).
“Now, now,” you say, “don’t jump to conclusions. You yourself said in your own Avatar review that the characters started out lackluster, but became a lot better in later seasons. These same issues with the cast of Korra are no doubt minor kinks that they need to work out.” I was perfectly aware of that possibility, so I was willing to give Korra the benefit of the doubt. However, the cast doesn’t exactly work through their shortcomings. While Korra’s shipping war with Asami does conclude by the end of season two, she remains a brash, reckless drama queen to the bitter end. They tried to give her character development in season four, but they waited too long to do it, and thus it felt crammed in at the last minute to me. And while we learn more things about Mako and Bolin, they remain very unentertaining characters (and the latter is still a Sokka clone).
Another issue is that I never felt a sense of growth in terms of power. The original Avatar always made sure we saw some good training every so often. But in Korra, it feels like she just gets new powers thrown in her lap without her having to work for it. It’s typical plot armor, and I definitely acknowledge that Aang had some on him as well. In Avatar, the plot armor was from something that was established ahead of time, like Katara’s special water. But in Korra, there are some cases of random BS magic, and it’s definitely a step backwards from Avatar.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining. One of Japan’s rules is to respect your elders, and this shows in some of the older folk. Ten Zin comes off as a rigid sensei who screams “Don’t do this reckless thing!” while the main protagonist proceeds to do it anyway, and to an extent, he is. But he’s a great family man and has a surprising sense of humor who also learns some lessons of his own. We also have a hot grandma named Lin Beifong. Yes, she’s Toph’s daughter, and she packs the same sass and power as her mom. There’s also the aforementioned Bumi, whose eccentric personality- inspired by his namesake- makes him a chuunibyou; very anime. And while not technically elderly, an eccentric entrepreneur by the name of Varrick proves to be quite the wild card… and ended up being my favorite character in the series.
Final Verdict: ??/10
Writing everything in this review up until now was easy; after all, I’m merely just listing the pros and cons of the topic like I always do. But never in my not-even-one year of blogging have I ever had such a hard time giving the final score. My feelings about The Legend of Korra were divided well after the final episode’s credits rolled, even when taking the circumstances into consideration.
Recall how I kept saying that certain aspects of the show didn’t stack up to Avatar; some of the fights went for spectacle over choreography, there was no long buildup, there wasn’t as much character development, etc. One of the biggest arguments when critiquing a sequel is how to properly compare it to its predecessor. After all, some shows, like Steins Gate 0, explicitly went for entirely different vibes than the original, but because it wasn’t exactly like the original, it got burnt by some critics (for the record, criticizing a sequel for retcons is an exception). I was essentially doing the same to Korra. Is that really fair? If Korra wasn’t the sequel to Avatar, I’d view it as a typical shounen anime, complete with all the genre’s shortcomings. But because its predecessor had character development and great fights, I criticized Korra despite it being, ironically, more within my ballpark than Avatar.
Sequel or not, there are some elements of Korra that are bad in any context, and ones that Avatar did not have. First off, the shipping was awful. Even when the Korra-Asami-Mako thing was resolved, more ships took its place. Bolin has ships with SEVERAL women throughout the course of the series, as well as one of Ten Zin’s daughters. The one thing that they have in common is that they’re constructed too hastily; for the most part, characters are pretty much dating within the same episode or the following episode after they meet. Sure, this is another consequence of the production issues, but bad romance is bad romance.
There’s also the fact that I’m an adult man who’s been spoiled by a lot of the really good content I’ve seen over the years (and by watching it in 2020), and have not touched modern cartoons, a medium with entirely different standards than what I’ve been used to. Apparently, a lot of the appeal of Korra was that it did a lot of controversial stuff (at least according to an old article in Vanity Fair published the day after the finale aired). A lot of Korra felt typical to me, but apparently, cartoons sucked at that time; after all, a lot of the other influential cartoons of the decade, like Gravity Falls and Steven Universe, had only just begun. However, I don’t factor a show doing something for the first time in a given medium into the final score; I rate based on entertainment value alone. It’s the same issue I had with Chainsaw Man: the medium it’s sold on versus the medium that it behaves as. What I mean is as follows: my thing with Chainsaw Man was that it was super-gorey, with layered characters, and one scene where its main protagonist is straight-up offered free sexual intercourse. All of these are typical of seinen manga, which are targeted toward older teens, but because the manga is in Weekly Shounen Jump, a magazine for preteens, it felt a lot wilder as a result. In Korra’s case, a lot of tropes typical of anime, JRPGs, and even some children’s novels, are included in a cartoon. Should it be given a higher score just because cartoons in particular wouldn’t normally have content like that? Anyways, this post has gone on long enough. After much deliberation, I decided to give this show a…
Final Verdict: 7/10
Regardless of it being a sequel, The Legend of Korra had a lot of flaws that cannot go unpunished. And the reason why I don’t give it the benefit of the doubt as much as my favorite shounen manga is that Korra is a TV show. In a manga, a lot of shounen tropes are trivialized by the sheer fact that manga are books. If an arc is boring, I can speed through it. But in a TV show, I cannot. This applies to anime too, and why I watch them so infrequently. But in the end, Korra did enough good to earn a slightly-above-average score. I recommend it to battle shounen fans as well as fans of Avatar.
My whole life, I’ve lived with the baseless impression that Western culture- specifically that of the United States- looks upon Japanese culture with disdain. Part of this is from the factual translation and- in some cases- censorship issues that plagued Japanese media when it first came overseas (for example, the One Piece dub that shall not be named). For these reasons, I completely ignored Nickelodeon’s fantasy epic, Avatar: The Last Airbender, despite it being lauded for the past fifteen years- by devout anime fans- as a true bridge between Eastern and Western animation. Well, it’s on Netflix now. I have no more excuses.
The only thing I knew about this show going into it was its simple premise. Four nations, each of which control the elements of Water, Earth, Air, and Fire, have existed together just fine. Then- to quote the show’s intro- everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. The only one who could save the world was the Avatar, but he apparently disappeared because that ALWAYS happens in these kinds of fantasy series. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation- I mean- when two Water Tribe siblings, Katara and Sokka, found a balding boy named Aang, and his- giant pet platypus?- inside of a block of ice. Spoiler alert, he’s the last Airbender, and he embarks on a quest to become the Avatar and beat up the prepubescent prince of the Fire Nation, Zuko (among others). It’s pretty simple, tbh. I don’t know why they need to remind you in every single episode.
I guess it was a precaution for any kids who came into Avatar mid-season, but since it follows anime traditions, it has to be watched in chronological order (I get that newer cartoons have similar continuity, but I’m pretty sure that no other cartoon at THIS point in time had a continuous story). Wow, that was all one sentence. Anyhoo, the thing that’s impressive right off the bat is the fact that a large number of kids were able to put up with Avatar as it aired. It takes two episodes for any real action to occur, and for a kid, that’s like a year. I definitely would’ve turned away if I had seen the pilot episode on launch date. But at the same time, DBZ and Naruto were also airing, so relatively speaking, Avatar had to have felt like a rollercoaster ride.
Enough rambling! Since Aang needs to know all four elements to actually BE the Avatar, he’s gotta go to the other locations and learn them all! As such, the show is neatly split into a single “book” (season) for each remaining element to learn. The basic structure of Avatar is to go from Point A to Point B, train in Point B until he learns the element, fight something, and move onto the next one. Simple, right?
No, actually, it’s not. Appa Airlines (patent pending) is not a very efficient transportation service. And as such, the crew needs to make a number of stops along the way. This results in some episodes being less-than plot relevant. I can imagine that this was done with the intention of meeting viewers halfway, by marrying both the episodic and continuous narrative story structure of Saturday morning cartoons and anime, respectively. Look, I get that something like this had never been done before, but the execution still results in a very unfocused narrative. Sure, some of these stops are worthwhile, either for actual plot relevance, or giving us insight on one or more of the characters. But much of the time, it’s a series of self-contained, uninteresting plots.
Like any fantasy epic, Avatar doesn’t fire on all cylinders right away. My expectations for the show were shot by the end of season one. I’d even say that season one was straight-up bad overall. Fortunately, once season two starts, the show gets significantly more involved, with almost every episode having legitimate plot relevance.
The key word here is “almost”. While the story does follow a more coherent narrative after season one, there are still blips of those Saturday morning cartoon trappings. Due to how much more infrequent the filler gets, it stands out way more when it actually decides to rear its ugly head. These episodes can contain cute interactions, but break the pacing of the plot, especially when they occur immediately following a super intense episode with a cliffhanger (btw, who was the GENIUS who decided to put one of these episodes IMMEDIATELY before the FINAL ARC?! (but for the record, it was actually a pretty great episode)). But you know what, I’ll take even the worst episode of this series over the entire seasons’ worth of filler from the long-running anime that had been airing at the time.
I must say that the show’s worldbuilding surprised me a little. While I didn’t really care much about the lore, they do some cool, clever stuff with the elements. It’s simple enough for kids to understand, but flexible enough so that it doesn’t become repetitive. If there’s any problem I have with the world of Avatar, it’s the fact that the evil Fire Nation is likely to be based off of Japan (maybe my baseless impressions were right after all…).
My biggest concern going into Avatar was if I’d laugh at the comedic bits. After all, it’s been a decade and a half; our sense of humor has changed a lot, especially compared to the 2010s cartoons I’ve seen lately. Overall, I found the humor to be kind of hit-or-miss. While I acknowledged a lot of the humor as funny, I didn’t laugh out loud anywhere near as often as, say, Gravity Falls.
Another concern was that the cast wouldn’t be so great. I figured that it would take a while to get me warmed up to most of the characters, but I was afraid it wouldn’t be enough. While most of the cast did end up growing on me, the attempt wasn’t exactly as successful as with Gravity Falls or DuckTales.
I’ll admit that they did a good job making Aang conform to shounen protagonist tropes; he’s very aloof, and tends to let his body move ahead of his brain. Furthermore, the show consistently reminds you that he’s just a kid, and that he’s been forced to do something much bigger than what his bald head can comprehend. Conversely, the Western aspect of the show makes him fall for some of the sitcom-like tropes of cartoons, such as the classic “hears negative things from his peers, leaves the room, said peers immediately say a positive flipside to those negative statements, but since he didn’t hear that particular part, he does something stupid”.
The Water Siblings are worse. Sokka is the better of the two, since he brings the bulk of Avatar’s humor to the table, and is ironically the most rational of the group. But the biggest issue with him is how they handle his character arc. Everyone has their own shortcomings to work through, but Sokka’s issues feel the most arbitrary. The first big moment in his arc rides entirely on a ship that was intentionally built to sink, and it’s pretty uninteresting during the brief time that it stays afloat. I’m sure that Sokka must’ve felt like a pitiable, tragic hero to the ten-year-olds who all related to him back when the show aired, but once you get to my age- and more modern times- the telltale signs of a NOTP are too obvious to ignore. Fortunately, it becomes a non-issue by season three.
And Katara… I don’t know what they were trying to do with her. I feel like they wanted to make her into a tsundere, but had a hard time because they weren’t allowed to use ecchi in their relationship. I appreciate that she has multiple sides- from being an absolute b**** to a complete waifu- but overall, I didn’t really enjoy her company for some reason, making her my least favorite character overall.
If I was spoiled by anything in Avatar, it was the addition of a loli to the main troupe. I gotta say I’m impressed that they hit that particular anime nail on the head, since it’s more so a niche community trope than something prevalent in the mainstream battle shounen anime at the time. Anyways, said loli- introduced in season two- is named Toph, and she’s a real wild card. With sassy one-liners and the perfect height, Toph is easily the best of the main protagonists… at least after the others work out the major kinks with her at the start of their relationship.
Then there’s Zuko. Hoo boy. First off, I reaaaaaaally didn’t like how his voice actor portrayed him; I used the word prepubescent to describe him for a reason. As a result, I may be biased in my criticism of the boy. He beats your face in with his one-dimensional irritability. But me, I put up with Bakugo… so, I had a feeling that I’d eventually like him better over time. And that feeling was correct. By season two, there’s a lot of big turning points in his character arc that show he’s much more emotionally distraught than what it looks like at first glance.
Abrasiveness seems to run in the Fire Nation’s royal family. Introduced in season two is Zuko’s sister, Azula. She’s rude, but unlike Zuko, who’s misunderstood, she’s fully aware of it, and enjoys it. Azula also has help in Aang hunting with her buddies, Mei and Tai Li. These two have fun spats with each other, but other than a certain scene late in the series, they aren’t too remarkable.
I saved the best character for last. Out of all the characters, I grew attached to Zuko’s uncle, Iroh, faster than just about anyone else. Most of my favorite scenes in the series are, tbh, interactions between him and Zuko. He supplies some of the best humor, but he’s also great when it comes to being serious.
If there was one thing they got right when it came to anime, it was the following mindset: spend money when it counts. Similar to anime, a lot of the animation in Avatar is kind of lacking. But when actual fights are happening, it looks excellent. Battles are incredibly well choreographed, especially for a kids show, and they pretty much always use the environment in some way. I can imagine that parents got angry over this show when it was airing, and I probably would’ve killed myself pretending to be a bender if I had watched Avatar as a kid. The hand-painted backgrounds also have a weirdly nostalgic look to them. The biggest issue with the art style is that although the character design is memorable, it is a bit bland. They could’ve done a lot more combining cartoon and anime styles; in fact, a lot of manga out at the time- such as One Piece– did a great job in that regard. Oh well, it’s just a nitpick anyway. Overall, the show still looks great, even when watching it in 480p and 4:3 aspect ratio.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
It’s predictable. It’s corny. Its sense of humor is dated as all heck, and it spews sappy lessons of friendship just as about as often as any battle shounen series. But despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time (even if I must respectfully disagree with anyone who calls it one of the greatest fantasy epics of all time; One Piece is still higher up there). I must also give the team appreciation for creating what was perhaps the most loving marriage of cartoon and anime at the time. It must’ve been mind-blowing for kids watching this while it aired, since I’m pretty sure it was the first cartoon of its kind. As much as I don’t like saying America is better at something that originated in another country (what is this, Beat Bobby Flay?), I must concede that Avatar is among the better “anime” I’ve seen. I recommend it if you like battle shounen anime, and/or youthful, silly fantasy with a number of wholesome life lessons.
Hopefully G-Kids will add more anime movies to Kanopy, because the ones I’ve watched have been fifty-fifty. Patema Inverted ended up being an E.T. ripoff on the most superficial, empty level. But conversely, Welcome to the Space Show– today’s topic- ended up being an E.T. ripoff with just the right amount of whimsy to become something with its own identity.
In Welcometo the Space Show, five kids- Natsuki, Amane, Noriko, Kiyoshi, and Koji- go out to search for their missing rabbit when they find an injured dog instead. Of course, this dog is actually a space dog named Pochi. As a reward for saving him, Pochi takes the kids to a massive alien city on the moon.
To briefly touch on the art style, Space Show has a lot of abstract and bizarre setpieces and scenes. This is where I would normally assume that there’s some pretentious pseudo-symbolism. However, based on the sheer off-the-deep-endness of the movie, that really isn’t the case. The basic theme of Space Show is just weird for the sake of weird, and it doesn’t care if you’re confused.
And it does get confusing. Although there is enough foreshadowing to have continuity, the way everything all comes together results in a massive “WTF?!” at the end. As expected, the climax is about as absurd and over-the-top as it gets. Saying that they fight a giant cyborg dragon above an autonomous salaryman planet during a livestream being broadcast to the entire universe isn’t even a spoiler, just because describing the plot of Space Show is impossible no matter how hard you try. I could be a critic, and say, “Oh, visual spectacle is technically impressive, but it doesn’t justify the mindless [insert smart-sounding word here] BS”, but I won’t.
It’s because of the main characters that the mindless BS is justified. While these kids aren’t particularly interesting, they are definitely kids at heart. Normally, I’d dislike any “human” protagonists, because of my fierce antisocialness, but kids are an exception. Children, when not tainted by the many adults who seek to manipulate them, are the most pure, innocent, and lovable by far. The other characters aren’t that interesting outside of their designs, and the relationship between Pochi and certain other individuals isn’t entirely clear (i.e. it’s interpretive).
Of course, I can only justify so much. The movie does have some of those eye-roll-worthy tropes that tend to be in a lot of family friendly movies. First off, Kiyoshi has a whole plot line with his dead dad that means absolutely nothing. Plus, there’s the typical “let’s be dejected for fifteen minutes and abruptly bounce back after we say some sappy junk as if we weren’t even drowning in despair in the first place.” It’s kind of something you can’t avoid in these movies, so you’ll just have to deal with it.
Finally, the visuals. Space Show is stunning in every sense of the word. It’s abstract and colorful, with tons of beautiful landscape shots with a myriad of bizarre vistas. The aliens are all kinds of weird shapes (and there are a LOT of kissy lips attached to things). The animation is smooth like water, and all the characters are super expressive. It holds up really well for a decade old movie. Just be wary of anthropomorphic stuff if you’re against furries.
Final Verdict: 9.15/10
Welcome to the Space Show is a great anime movie, and a great showcase of that childlike wonder that seven billion too many of us lose with age. Seeing it makes me wonder how A-1 Pictures became the mainstream-catering studio that they are generally known as today. I get that anime being by the same studio doesn’t really mean it’s the EXACT same team, but as far as I know, they haven’t made anything as bizarre as this at all in recent years. Well, regardless of the history of A-1 Pictures, Space Show is a fun film, and I recommend it to fans of E.T. and those who want something wiggety-whack.
Despite my love for JRPGs, story is ironically the one aspect of videogames that I care the least about. And yet, because of how much I enjoyed Ys VIII, I wanted to try another series by the same team, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. It is a single, mammoth, epic JRPG, spanning four entire games meant to be played in chronological order, and VERY story-driven. Let’s see if it’s good enough to stay in it for the long haul.
In Trails of Cold Steel, a boy named Rean Schwarzer begins his attendance at Thors Military Academy. But bizarrely enough, his uniform is different from everyone else’s. It doesn’t take long to find out that he’s in an experimental group called Class VII, the first class to have commoners and nobles both. Since this is part one of four games, it’s naturally going to spiral into something big.
By nature, the game can be slow at first, but it’s done thoughtfully, and tries to hook you. The game begins with a flash-forward that you play. It’s incredibly overwhelming, not just because you don’t know what’s going on, but because it gives you every party member at once, with every battle mechanic unlocked, with every characters’ abilities that they’ve learned at that point. This is to build anticipation of what’s to come in terms of both the story and the gameplay. Also, when it kicks into the proper opener, they make you do combat pretty regularly, so you can slowly become acclimated to your new life without being bored.
The story might have some common fantasy themes, such as “Ah, rich people crap on poor people. War is helpful for the economy. Make America great again bwaaah!”, but they at least made the effort to submerge you neck-deep into it. There is a butt-ton of lore in this thing, and it shows in the various books you can read, which contain important foreshadowing for later, as well as in-universe fictional books (if you can find them).
The creators were also very thoughtful with the world from a design and visual storytelling standpoint. Early drafts of this review (I wrote it in bits and pieces as I played) stated the world felt small, compact, and segmented. The segmented style is, of course, an unavoidable consequence of the whole game’s structure, but the compactness is only early on. Each place you go to outside of the school is done in a specific order. You start out in small towns, then expand to bigger and bigger places (or at least, places that seem big thanks to out-of-bounds geometry). This further helps ease you into the world of Trails, as it starts small and gradually grows bigger and bigger. In this way, I am willing to claim that Trails is the most Tolkienian JRPG I’ve ever seen (yeah, I know a lot of poetic-waxers compare fantasy stuff to Lord of the Rings, but I think this is a somewhat fair comparison, since Lord of the Rings expands its scale in a similar way).
Unfortunately, the graphics don’t help. While I hate being a stickler, Trails is not the most visually appealing JRPG I’ve seen. While most of the towns appear pleasing enough, a lot of the combat areas are bland and samey. It’s similar to Ys VIII, but that game at least did more with angles and area continuity that made a lot better looking. Yeah, I get that this was 2013 and the game’s structure results in the whole thing being divided into segmented areas, but I digress. Also similar to Ys, the character designs are by far the most appealing, as they are very vibrant in color and have that classic anime style to them (except their hands look hideous). Fortunately, the soundtrack makes up some for the graphics’ shortcomings. While not as rocking as Ys VIII, it’s more than good enough. The towns all have their own unique atmospheres, and the battle music is pumping.
As far as the overarching narrative is concerned, you can color me impressed. I’m used to having a ton of exposition dump forced down my throat in modern fantasy, but Trails is one that eases you into the plot organically. It’s pretty good at buildup, and maintaining interest, even when it’s boring school time. In fact, the boring school time tends to be a great change of pace, and doubles as a “calm before the storm”-type thing. Without spoiling much, the main narrative is divided into two main plot threads: one concerning the strange ruins of Thors’ Old Schoolhouse, and another involving a set of big political moves that slowly become more dire as the world moves towards collapse. How these two different things can possibly be connected is one of the many questions I anticipate to be answered in this series.
What you must keep in mind when playing this game is the fact that, like I said before, it’s not just the first installment of a series, but the first part of a bigger story. As a result, this game’s main narrative is all about laying the groundwork of the story and setting expectations for what’s to come. This means that it doesn’t quite rise to the fever pitch that most JRPGs would, even when you’re well past the halfway point, as well as the fact that some plot threads will be left unresolved at the end. But hey, the game does an excellent job at setting said groundwork, and this is honestly the most engaged I’ve ever been in a JRPG narrative. Now that I’m attached to the characters and the world, the later games will likely deliver the feels.
I was worried about the cast at first, because I figured that Class VII’s character development would only show during optional and limited social links. But no, they actually give a lot of time for these characters to grow on you (they better, since this is part one of four). While they do start off as typical anime tropes, the way that they’re slowly introduced is quite impressive. Also, the fact that it’s not a Persona game makes it relatively light on the teen angst. Just be wary that it has a LOT of the “I know important, plot relevant things, but I can’t tell you because reasons” trope (looking at you, EMMA).
But out of all those in this massive cast, the NPCs ended up surprising me the most. Due to how the game is structured, each and every NPC- from townsfolk to miscellaneous students- have their own character arcs that progress along with the plot, some of which even foreshadow future quests. I ended up liking a lot of these people, especially Best Girl Mint. The biggest issue with them is that there aren’t enough unique NPC models. That’s normally a given in JRPGs, but the fact that, for example, the sister of one of the Thors’ instructors who you meet late in the game doesn’t just look nothing like him, she looks like a lot of other generic women in the game.
My other issue is with the antagonists. The established villains of the game are a group of terrorists who, for some reason,only go by their initials. Their leader is incredibly generic, and his minions are, guess what: brainy guy, busty woman, and muscular idiot. Fortunately, the game makes it readily apparent that the REAL mastermind is operating behind the scenes, and the terrorists make up just a small part of those involved.
Story is all well and good. But what about gameplay, the most important thing in any videogame? Due to Trails’ nature, I will divide gameplay elements into “Daily Life” and “Deadly Life” segments, similar to Danganronpa games. But first, I must discuss one gameplay aspect that’s useful in BOTH school life and combat: Turbo Mode. This feature, exclusive to the PS4 port of the game (and pretty much the only one you can actually BUY these days), makes the game move twice as fast at the push of a button. It’s incredibly useful if you ever need to save-scum and rewatch a long string of cutscenes upon reloading the save.
Trails is set in a school, and like Chi-Chi always said in Dragon Ball: studying comes before saving the world. If you couldn’t tell, this series is structured very similarly to Persona, which was initially going to be a turn-off for me. I never played a Persona game, nor do I want to, simply because I’m anal about getting all the things done in a JRPG, and Persona is against that. In those games, you need to juggle your social life and actual combat, and you must plan an arbitrary route that can involve save-scumming in order to get everything, which ultimately makes the games extremely stressful. There are also some logic issues in Persona, such as, “Oh you chose to eat some ramen for lunch? Okay, BOOM! now it’s ten o’clock at night!”
Trails‘ way of doing it isn’t perfect, but it’s substantially better… or so it seems. First off, social links are triggered by spending Bonding Points on them. But in order to narrow down your inevitable dilemma between choosing which character to hang out with, a given day of Free Time only has set people available. Spending time with them does NOT make it instantly TOMORROW like in Persona, but you only get a certain amount of Bonding Points per day. These events get you a ton of Link Points, which are essential for a mechanic in battle. Furthermore, you are only allowed to have these events with plot relevant characters. This means that you won’t have to waste time hanging out with filler characters like in Persona (even if some of them are admittedly interesting), and if you feel uncomfortable about significantly older women taking a liking to the protagonist, that is also thankfully not the case in Trails.
Despite the fact that I played the game specifically because I figured it’d be more lenient than Persona, the social links are arguably far worse, not just compared to Persona, but Danganronpa as well. In those games, no matter when you started or continued a social link, it would be the same (except for some rare cases in Danganronpa). However, social links in Trails, while no different from a gameplay standpoint, are all unique BASED ON WHERE AND WHEN THEY ARE. It’s also not possible to view every event, as the game flips you a bird and consistently gives you one Bonding Point short of viewing all available events. If you really care about all the characters, you MUST save-scum in order to view all of them, and only save after the ones that you want the Link XP for.
In addition, you have Academy Points. Most AP is done by completing quests, which comes naturally enough. Time doesn’t pass until you finish Required quests, and that’s one advantage Trails has over Persona. However, additional AP is earned for being an extra good pupil, and achieving an optimal outcome, such as riding a motorcycle without wrecking it. Advancing the story will IMMEDIATELY cause any incomplete optional quests and available events to expire, but the game is at least consistently good at warning you of these cutoff points.
However, this IS a school game, and that means being smart. And that means exams. Class VII has to take practical exams every month. These are basically mini boss battles that give you bonus AP if you meet certain conditions. The later ones can get pretty ridiculous…
…but even the hardest practical exam beats any written one. At first, I thought you could take pictures of every book in the library and you’d be fine. But no… it’s worse than that. Almost worse than Persona. In Persona, you merely had to remember any material gone over up to that point (which you can take pictures of as they come up), and then have your Academics stat above a certain threshold to get the highest grade. In Trails, you must make use of a special study day, which is a Free Day, but instead of Bonding Points, you spend Studying Points to go over test material with peers. Similar to Free Days, there are more events than what you could possibly view. HOWEVER, regardless of what NPCs actually imply as far as the relevance of what they’re studying, material from EVERY event WILL BE on the upcoming exam. Furthermore, you must also seek unmarked events that give you additional free knowledge (typically with instructors) in order to come out on top. As long as you save scum to view every event, and find the hidden knowledge blips, you should do fine…I think. The silver lining is that there’s only one of these exams in the game (excluding however many there are in subsequent games). But… you don’t know the exact outcome until after you’ve done the entire following Free Day, which includes your next run of the recurring monthly dungeon.
But just because you don’t need to memorize the books in the library for the exams doesn’t mean you don’t need to memorize them, period. Some quests result in you having to answer questions out of these books, so make sure you take time to jot down (or take pictures of) each and every page. Make sure you not only do the second floor of the library, but the recommended reading corner that gets updated every chapter. But even then it’s not enough. Some of these quiz quests require you to remember remote bits of dialogue from up to tens of hours earlier in the game (or from future chapters even). Fortunately, they’re few enough so that you can basically brute force those with save-scumming.
Save scumming might be dirty, but you should have no shame playing dirty because Trails does the same by giving you HIDDEN QUESTS. Not only will random, missable NPCs give random, missable items, but they can also give quests not marked on a given tasks envelope. Like I said before, since talking to every NPC at every opportunity is encouraged from a story standpoint, it’s not TOO bad. At least it’s not a Tails Of game which doesn’t even mark quests at all, regardless of if you found them, and some of them are the starts of chains but don’t continue until fifty hours later and by then you’ll FORGET you even STARTED it and- *huff* *huff* Just keep in mind that Trails does give a bit of leeway. You get 15 AP for beating the final dungeon, so you’ll need at least 415 by the time it opens up in order to get the highest rank at the end, which I BARELY got.
In order to discuss other missable events, I must also briefly touch on combat, specifically the areas where it will occur. Most combat is fought in the Old Schoolhouse, which is literally Tartaros from Persona 3. As you progress the main story, more floors of this dungeon open up, and it’s encouraged to check it out (or grind). Just keep in mind that the day will advance to evening once you leave, so do it last. It pressures you to select a set team, but you can always change it by examining the exit of the dungeon.
While Trails proves to be just as stressful as Persona, it’s good to note that it feels much faster paced. Each chapter has one single Free Day, split into daytime and evening segments. So even though social links are just about as limited, you don’t have to worry about wasting 85% of them just to grind out enough personality stats to actually talk to girls. However, Trails still clocks in at eighty to a hundred hours of playtime, so it’s really just an illusion.
Similar to Persona‘s special story segments that happen on set dates (like the full moon, TV rescue, etc.), Trails has field studies. These are excursions to new areas with their own quests to do, along with new story developments. Finishing one gives everyone a heap of link XP (thank GOD). But as soon as you finish a story arc here, YOU CAN NEVER GO BACK. So make sure you do everything while you can.
The field studies locations can take a while to get to, even on express trains. This is plenty of time to… PLAY A CHILDREN’S CARD GAME. Fortunately, Blade is not even remotely as agonizing as Final Fantasy VIII‘s notorious Triple Triad (and the music is nowhere near as annoying). Blade basically plays like War, but with Trap Cards. It kinda sucks, honestly. I don’t entirely remember how War works, but Blade is basically decided entirely by the players’ starting hands. If you draw too many trap cards, not enough high value cards, and not enough 1 cards to counter one of the types of trap cards, you’ve pretty much lost. I’ve genuinely tried to win, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible depending on the setup (obviously, the fact that I’m saying a card game is entirely reliant on luck means that I’m a filthy casual at card games, and lack the ability to read opponents and use basic logic to deduce their next move). Fortunately, you only need to fight every available character once to get link XP.
There’s a lot of things you can miss! Fortunately, the pawn shop in the main town can sell items from previous areas, including items found in the chests there, and book chapters. The pawn shop is also good if you have a surplus of crappy items that you can trade for a single better version.
Like in any JRPG, cooking and fishing are the most important things in the game. When it comes to cooking, you can somehow cook anywhere in the world as long as you have the ingredients. Depending on the skill levels of Rean and who you cook with, the dish could end up ranging from Regular, to Superb, to Peculiar, to Unique. Unique dishes can only be formed by someone who has a secret knack for cooking that particular item (but it’s always someone who shows a high likelihood for a good result). These are objectively the best, however there is an NPC who wants to see such dishes, so be frugal (and for the record, there’s someone who wants peculiar dishes as well). Most recipes can be learned by NPCs who will randomly give you one. And of course, these can be missed.
Of all the different school facilities, you’ll be visiting the Engineering department more often than any other. The guys here use variously colored Sepith earned from enemies and can mod your Arcus with them. You also earn generic Sepith Mass, which is exchanged at shops for actual money. Anyway, Sepith is used to unlock new slots on your Arcus, as well as craft new quartz (which I’ll get to later).
Fishing isn’t as exciting, though. Basically, you just fish and mash the prompted face buttons, and you get a fish. There are only a set amount of times you can fish per day, which means a finite amount of times you can fish total. You can use groundbait to make more spawn, but the only way to farm for it is to farm U-Materials off of assorted enemies, then trade them at the pawn shop for groundbait.
One final quip that I have in the Daily Life segment is fast travel. For some reason, fast travel is either excessively helpful, or nonexistent. Basically, if you’re in a town, you can fast travel to buildings that are, like, two feet from each other. But in a combat area, you can’t fast travel back to the hub. This becomes a big issue if you’re trying to talk to every NPC to find hidden quests (especially in chapter 3).
Combat is limited, but when it happens, it’s really good and really involved. Fortunately, Trails does a great job of easing you into all the different aspects as you go along. The main issue with it is the same issue as most JRPGs: that most characters have limited abilities and customization early game. But once you get more utility, it becomes incredibly rewarding.
For the most part, Trails operates like an old-school turn-based JRPG. Then turn order is displayed on the left, and it cycles through everyone. However, you will have to take Delay into account (which it’ll show on the turn order when selecting a target). Some attacks, mainly magic, will take a while to go through, and you will need to plan ahead in order to come out on top. There are also turn bonuses, which can give free heals and boosts just by it coming to your turn. Enemies can also get bonuses, requiring you to plan even harder. Sometimes, you’ll need to cast spells specifically to use the Delay to steel turn bonuses. The mechanics behind the turn order are very nuanced, and take a lot of self-teaching to figure out. It’ll make the difference if you desperately need to cast an Art in a pinch.
For the first time since maybe Chrono Trigger, position matters. When using moves that have AOE, you need to carefully aim the attack in order to catch as many enemies in its range as possible. If you’re too far, you’ll have to waste a turn to move within range (which enemies might also have to do). Some attacks will also change a character’s position, and that must be taken into account as well.
What’s even more complicated is that you have two sets of special moves: Arts and Crafts. No, you don’t make paper peacocks by tracing your hand over construction paper; the different types are literally called Arts, followed by Crafts. Each consumes a separate stat, EP and CP. EP is traditional MP, and can easily run out if you get trigger happy. It can only be restored from turn bonuses or consumables. CP is like a Special gauge in an action game, and fills from dealing and receiving damage. Characters get 200 max CP that they can store. However, as abundant as it is, there are special S-Crafts that you learn over the course of the story. These take from 100 to all of a character’s CP, and are insanely powerful. It is more incentivized to use the 200, since it’s stronger. The most important part of S-Crafts is that they can be used out-of-turn. This causes an S-Break, which can be a lifesaver if used to steal a turn bonus that you don’t want the enemy to have. The issue with them is that recovering from them is ROUGH. For most of the game, the only good way to restore CP is with Alisa’s Blessed Arrow, which comes at the cost of some of her own. In a lot of boss battles, I’d end up having to whittle them down with regular attacks just to slowly regain it back.
The way each set of skills are learned is different. Crafts are learned by levelling up, and Arts are learned by setting quartzes to your Arcus thingy. First, you set a Master Quartz, which gives a set of stat boosts and bonus effect s. Each Master Quartz can be levelled up, and you’ll definitely be getting new ones to play around with. Additional quartzes can be set to learn new Arts, gain stat bonuses, or in rare cases, both in a single quartz.
It’s generally a good rule of thumb to know your enemies in order to win, and it’s really important in Trails. By either battling a lot of the same enemy, or using an Analysis spell, you can find out a lot of stuff about them. The most important thing is not just their elemental resistances, but their status resistances as well. This is really useful when planning out attacks, especially with status ailments. Once you get the ability to inflict status ailments with your attacks, you will NEED them, for they will be your friend. Also, Trails is one of the few games where bosses are susceptible to status ailments, so make good use of them!
While the game is pretty good at holding your hand, there is one important mechanic that they don’t teach you, and that’s Impeding. Basically, certain specific Crafts will cancel an enemy when it takes a turn to cast an Art (indicated by a red glowy thingy). The game expects you to know about this, so just be aware of it. There are also quartzes that can give all a character’s attacks an Impede percentage, but the specific Crafts are guaranteed to do it.
The Ys series makes a crossover into Trails with the Unbalancing mechanic. Monsters can be staggered by hitting them with an effective weapon type, be it Slash, Thrust, Pierce, or Strike. Doing this allows for a Combat Link to work. Set a Link in the camp menu or during battle and linked characters can assist when the enemy is Unbalanced. After a certain time, you begin to earn Bravery Points through Link Attacks, and can spend them during an Unbalance to perform a stronger attack. Like in Miitopia, Link Abilities get better and better when you level up their link levels. Similar to Persona, crits will automatically Unbalance an enemy no matter what.
If there is any flaw with the combat- and it’s moreso a nitpick than anything else- it’s that the difficulty is all over the place. You don’t need to grind in order to be able to beat the game smoothly, but it follows the JRPG rule of “equipment is everything” to the letter. When it comes to status ailments, any enemy that can inflict it WILL if you don’t have the equipment to make yourself immune to it. The early game is particularly rough because you won’t even have enough of this equipment to put on the whole active party. But when you do get the equipment, you’re gonna need it. A lot of bosses can wall you if you’re unprepared, and even if you are prepared, it can be rough. It’s also really bad that there are no multi-targeting healing items in the game without the use of a specific Master Quartz.
Final Verdict: 9.15/10
It’s stressful, but Trails of Cold Steel is nonetheless a fantastic series opener. Since this is the first game, you have plenty of time to learn how it works. But as much as I’ve learned about the game, I don’t know how ready I am for the sequels.
One thing that I do know about this series is that Trails IV, the finale, has A TRUE ENDING. That is so mean… to make such a long story that people would need to spend at least 500 hours to see to its conclusion, just to troll them right at the end because they didn’t do enough stuff. It could be generous like in Ys VIII, but it could also require every single Academy Point in the game to get it. I could look up the conditions now, but I might spoil something for myself, which would be bad, since I actually LIKE this story so far.
Since this is just the hors d’oeuvres, and an incredibly stressful helping of hors d’oeuvres at that, I can’t recommend this series easily. I’m going to have to wait for Trails II, the first of a three-piece entree, to arrive at the metaphorical table first. For now, I recommend Trails of Cold Steel to any fans of Persona, Danganronpa, and Tails Of… since those fans are used to eighty hour games where you can miss a million things.