The Last Fallen Star: My First Ever Impression of Korean Culture

As someone who’s been alive within the last ten years, I have borne witness to the sudden rise of South Korea’s influence on the world’s entertainment industry. And considering I’ve been into Japanese culture for a long time, I’ve basically been jealous of Korea to this day. Anime have been out internationally for decades, and only a handful of them are accepted by your garden variety “all-American”. In my experience, it feels like Japan has only gotten more disdain as facets of their culture continue to come into the fold. And yet, all it took was ‘Oppa Gangnam Style’ for South Korea to be welcomed with open arms. Nowadays, manhwa and webtoons seem to be eclipsing Japan’s manga industry, and BTS the biggest active music group in the world, with their other K-Pop compatriots not far behind. Eventually, I just lost it, and absolutely HAD to know if I was missing something. And my voyage into Korean culture begins with Graci Kim’s novel, The Last Fallen Star, one of two Korean I.P.s from Rick Riordan Presents.

In The Last Fallen Star, you have your usual secret coven of witches. I’ll give you three guesses as to what the main protagonist, Riley Oh’s, problem is. …Did you guess that she has no magic? Yep, that’s exactly the case. The other old beans in the clan try to act like they don’t think she’s just baggage, but it’s not a particularly good facade. So, what does Riley do? She and her sister, Hattie, perform an illegal spell that has a chance to give Riley temporary powers. I’ll give you three guesses as to what results.

If you guessed that it goes horribly wrong, then that would be correct, but also an understatement. In fact, Riley’s parents end up in a position where they decide if they or Riley get permanently ejected out of the clan. Riley decides for them, and boots herself out, afterwhich the sisters perform ANOTHER illegal ritual that puts Hattie’s life at stake. Of course, the solution is for Riley, and her friend Emmet, to find a MacGuffin. Why wouldn’t it be?

Positives first. The story, unlike other Presents books, doesn’t waste time. The premise being entirely centered around MacGuffin-finding screams padding, but it’s actually relevant to a much bigger plot. It’s much more dialogue-driven than other Presents books, but not having random Korean monsters attack just for the sake of action is another plus for the pacing.

Sadly, that’s about where the positives end. The Korean-mythology-based worldbuilding is pretty typical. It’s your garden variety urban fantasy, with the different portals to witch-land in the middle of unassuming public areas, various rituals, and really dense-headed coven bigwigs. The specific legends used in the story, such as Korea’s creation legend, are… alright, I guess. Even taking my Shinto bias in mind, it’s your usual “the world is created perfectly and then someone does something stupid.”

The cast also leaves something to be desired (big surprise coming from me). Riley, being adopted, magicless, and wanting to be included in social circles, ticks all the boxes on the “relatable” checklist. I also dislike her for using the word “amazeballs”. The male lead, Emmet, is your typical best friend, and his arc revolves entirely around his response to the inevitable big plot twist reveal. We don’t get to see many gods—in fact, we only see one—and she is not as memorable as she could’ve been.

The only other issue I have is with the climax. It’s a good climax from a sheer entertainment standpoint, but I feel like some stuff happened solely for shock value. Also, the final twist feels like Kim trying to make readers feel that participation-trophy-specialness, which—according to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck—leads to mental health disorders.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8/10

The Last Fallen Star is the second best Rick Riordan Presents book I have read thus far, which is not saying much considering that I don’t like most of them. And even then, I still didn’t love it like I do that one series I will be covering at some point. I’m willing to finish this series, but I don’t think I’m going to learn why people like this particular brand of mythology.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: Read it Before Ragnarök

Lately, I’ve been questioning my admiration toward Rick Riordan, the author of Percy Jackson, a.k.a. “The Storyteller of the Gods”. I read Percy Jackson over ten years ago, and needless to say, it helped me become who I am today. I would’ve never wanted to study Japanese culture to the Nth degree if it weren’t for Percy. But I haven’t reread Percy to this day. In 2017, I attempted to read Trials of Apollo—completely skipping over Heroes of Olympus—and I never finished it. With every Apollo book, I liked it less and less. Furthermore, I kept getting disappointed at the books published under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint; books that all had to get his seal of approval. With me questioning the tastes and talents of one of the most defining people in my life, I was tempted to do a Percy Jackson retrospective. However, that series is five stinking books long, and I had so much crap to do as it was. Instead, I turned to another series of his: Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. It was only three books, so it was doable. Although Norse mythology is the second most overused template for fantasy worldbuilding, I at least had some vague familiarity with some of its more nuanced aspects, thanks entirely to one of my new favorite bands, Brothers of Metal. Without further ado, let’s see if I can like something by Rick Riordan!

In Magnus Chase, the titular character has been homeless ever since his mom died in a fire. After living in the slums of Boston, he gets your typical visit by a long-lost, mysterious relative. This time, it’s his Uncle Randolph, who tells him the usual: he’s the son of a Norse god. Magnus gets this fancy sword thing that’s been lying in the Charles River, but then he dies. He awakens in Hotel Valhalla, where he must join the other halfbloods on adventures.

Rick Riordan is at least good at jumping into the action. All that I just described happens in the first forty-seven pages, when most books would take almost a hundred to start in earnest. And like in Percy Jackson, you get acclimated to Hotel Valhalla while everyone there shits on him and his Valkyrie friend, Sam. As expected from Riordan, he does a great job of blending Norse folklore with the modern day in his own signature style. Riordan’s snarky sense of humor is also very prevalent.  

While there are a number of obvious similarities to Percy, Magnus Chase is a bit different. Due to the power of red herrings, it’s never clear who’s on whose side. All we know is that Ragnarök = Bad, and that some people want it more than others. Sam ends up being the daughter of Loki, who’s supposed to be the bad guy, and she gets ejected from Valhalla for bringing Magnus in. Is she sus and working for Loki? Is Loki sus? Whoooooo knooooooooows?!

In terms of writing, Magnus is actually not bad. Riordan is about as talented of a storyteller as I remember, even if I didn’t take the story as seriously as my younger self did Percy. I could easily visualize everything as it appeared, which most authors fail doing. One thing I noticed is how wordy the books are most of the time. Well, it’s kind of a thing I’ve noticed in most Western literature, and it kind of fascinates me for some reason. I know that flavor text can bring more life to the story, but sometimes it feels excessive. As an aspiring writer, my problem ended up being that my stuff was too short. I’ve taken inspiration from the 1952 adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which Leonard Maltin described as “understatement and restraint.” That’s why I try to not go for BS hyperbole on my blogs. Anyway, sorry for that tangent; let’s get back to the review.

Since middle grade books have to be dummy thick, Riordan does have a number of scenes that don’t seem necessary. I had problems with this in The Storm Runner and a certain other Percy-influenced franchise that I’ll be reviewing in the foreseeable future. Fortunately, Riordan at least has the ability to make the filler fun in its own right. Instead of dumb, arbitrary trials that tell stuff about the characters that we already knew, Magnus has more fun and varied activities, like fishing up Jormungandr and bowling with giants.

If there was another thing I could always trust Riordan for was his research. Readers are expected to recognize Thor and Loki (thanks to the M.C.U.), and perhaps Yggdrasil and stuff since everything in every JRPG series is named after Norse mythology. But me, I had Brothers of Metal. I recognized the Norns, Heidrun, and more. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t help me pay attention to the story when they come up. I know it sounds bad, but I couldn’t help it. A lot of the time, I was just thinking of this:

And I may or may not have come up with the post just to plug the band.

Like with more-or-less everything I’ve ever experienced, the characters—once again—don’t quite win me over. There’s nothing particularly wrong with them. If you’re familiar with Percy Jackson, then you’d probably like them just fine. But that’s the thing; they pretty much are Percy Jackson characters in every way. I don’t 100% recall how the Percy characters were, but at least going off of my nostalgic memory, the cast of Magnus is inferior in a number of ways. Magnus himself is that typical wish fulfilment character, with his initial homelessness as an added bonus. At least he’s appreciative of being whisked away to the lap of luxury, for once?

Sam is pretty much Annabeth, which I suppose is inaccurate, since Annabeth herself is actually Magnus’ cousin (apparently, every religions’ gods coexist in the same universe?). Basically, she’s a tomboy and has not much else going for her. Sam’s sibling, Alex Fierro, ends up packing much more sass. As the offspring of good ol’ Loki, their whole character arcs revolve around getting over their abusive pa. Magnus’ other main cohorts end up being Blitz and Hearth, a dwarf and elf respectively. They’re good dudes.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t fond of everyone. There are several other kids in Magnus’…  er… class(?), but they have no presence at all. They crap on him super early on, but they just suddenly stop doing that, and I can only assume Riordan did that initially for shock value. Even with more of a role in the final book, they feel like half-assed characters, especially by Riordan standards. 

The assorted Norse mythology characters, as expected, end up being the cast’s strong suit. They’re full of sass, as well as having the duality of being ancient characters who are in touch with the modern world (something that would lose its novelty if someone were to write a series based on Japanese mythology, since that duality is already part of their culture). Sadly, I was the most disappointed in Loki. SPOILER ALERT, the god of tricksters is—in fact—the main antagonist. While he is an entertaining villain, his role doesn’t exactly shed a new perspective on Norse mythology in the way that other series try with their villains (even if those books fail at the attempt). The only attempt in Magnus’ case is made towards the end of the series, where Loki just says the same old “there’s no real good and evil” schtick that I’ve only seen in stories that fail to actually convey that through context. I’m sorry, but wanting to jumpstart the end of days for no reason seems to be pretty close to one-dimensional evil, just saying. 

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I don’t think Rick Riordan deserves to be hailed as the Storyteller of the Gods, but he is a very capable writer (even if his references are pander-ously mainstream). Magnus Chase isn’t life-changing, nor(se) does it subvert Viking culture, but it’s nonetheless a solid action-adventure trilogy. It’s also taught me how shallow a lot of the Rick Riordan Presents books feel by comparison, where they merely seem to emulate what people find appealing in Riordan’s books instead of finding their own voices. I recommend Magnus Chase if you like Percy Jackson, or if you want an actually good urban fantasy for once.

Peach Boy Riverside: Not Your Grandma’s Momotaro (First Impressions, Volumes 1-3)

This was a spur-of-the-moment decision for me. Normally, I tend to have a bulk of blog posts ready to go well in advance. But at the start of this year, I really dropped the ball. I started a lot of reviews but had no intention to post until the respective series were finished, like The Owl House for instance. I decided to pick up Peach Boy Riverside for three reasons: it’s by the creator of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (even if the artist is different), it’s getting an anime that I can hope to ride the hype of, and it’s about the legendary Momotaro… to an extent. 

In Peach Boy Riverside, Princess Saltherine (henceforth known as Sally) wants to go on a journey, despite her overprotective dad. Fortunately, a pretty-boy named Mikoto shows up and sweeps her off her feet. The thing is that he’s someone who came from a peach, and killed a bunch of ogres (yes they localized the name “oni” for some reason). 

Despite how shoujo the manga looks, Peach Boy Riverside ends up being very shounen, and surprisingly edgy. It’s pretty normal stuff for the most part, but when Mikoto gets serious, he gets all “SAO-villain-y” and has upside-down hearts in his eyes. 

To be brutally honest, the manga up to what I’ve read has been a pretty typical shounen fantasy. It starts off with being completely aloof, then Sally is suddenly like “I’m going to end all racism!” The Momotaro aspect isn’t even evident, beyond the whole “boy who fights oni” thing. The world doesn’t feel defined enough to even tell if it’s an alternate Japan or a straight-up fantasy realm.

And, of course, I wasn’t particularly fond of the cast. Mikoto is the bread and butter of this thing, because pretty-boys are popular and he’s super strong. He is kind of an ass, which sets him apart from other men of his ilk, but that doesn’t make him any more remarkable. In addition to him is Sally, who is pretty much your typical power fantasy girl, and Frau, a bunny girl who’s basically one of those tragic waifus that you’re supposed to fry buckets for. Volume two introduces a female ogre who ends up being named Carrot after going through the whole shounen “from bad to good” thing, but so far, she’s merely been the peanut gallery.

The art, sadly, is not by Coolkyoushinja, but someone else who’s nowhere near as good. The manga has a very basic, standard look with very “stock”-looking character designs across the board. The action looks nice, but even that is outclassed by other series.

~~~~~

Current Verdict: 7.35/10

Peach Boy Riverside isn’t awful, but it’s not that engaging right now. Mikoto being a creep, and the unsubtle social commentary, are more-or-less what this manga is running on, and it could peter out at any moment. I recommend it if you like TenSura, since Mikoto is the same type of character as Rimuru.

The Storm Runner Trilogy: Percy Jackson but with Mayan Folklore

The Rick Riordan Presents publishing imprint has breathed new life into Western children’s literature. Debuting with the hit Pandava novels, Riordan has allowed writers to present other foreign cultures in a Percy Jackson-styled fashion to offset the overabundance of ancient Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology in popular culture. In today’s blog, I’m covering The Storm Runner trilogy, written by J.C. Cervantes and published by, well, I just told you.

The Storm Runner stars Zane Obispo, who is just about to enter Catholic school. But this plan gets turned on its head when he runs into a beautiful and enigmatic girl (like you do), named Brook. She tells Zane that he is apparently destined to release the Mayan god of death, Ah-Puch, and he needs to stop that from happening. Pretty simple, isn’t it?

While I was groaning at the whole, “unremarkable boy who gets bullied is approached by the cute girl who tells him he’s special” schtick, The Storm Runner manages to be pretty darn entertaining. The story has fast pacing as well as that great, sarcastic humor that Percy Jackson fans know and love. There’s also some unique meta aspects to the series as well. The first installment is actually an in-universe book that Zane writes in between that and the second installment. He publishes it as a means of bringing other demigods together to do plot stuff. 

Unfortunately, I had some issues with it. The Rick Riordan Presents I.P. is meant to generate interest for other cultures in the minds of ignorant American children, but I didn’t find The Storm Runner that interesting. I’m sure the research is solid, but none of the Mayan gods themselves come off as particularly fascinating, nor do they feel creative in the context of the narrative. Sure, they integrate some modern elements into mythical locations, but that’s been done before numerous times.

This next problem is more-so a nitpick, because it’s entirely based on a single line of dialogue that really stood out to me, and because of it, I’ve wanted to assume that Cervantes thinks her audiences are actual idiots (since I take things literally on account of my autism). Basically, they end up in some city in Mexico at one point in the second book, The Fire Keeper. One of the characters doesn’t know which Mexican city it is at a glance, and in response, another character literally calls them “an uncultured swine”. I’m sorry, but that’s indirectly insulting the demographic. If they’re reading this to learn about another culture, then why berate them for not already knowing everything about it? I don’t know who the editor was, but this got past somebody at the publishing house, and it astounds me. 

The Storm Runner is further marred by some seriously uninspired characters. While Zane has some good one-liners, he’s really generic. Plus, he makes a certain eye-roll-worthy decision early on that really reduced my initial enjoyment of the books. Also, I felt like his lame leg was a “shock value thing” meant to market the series toward physically disabled people. The reason is that he later gets a power that makes his leg normal, which oh-so conveniently saves the author from having to worry about his leg during any scene with urgency.

Meanwhile, Brook is that role model-esque tomboy, and her sister, Quinn, isn’t that much better. Uncle Hondo, the supporting male, is the best character of the bunch, since he takes the scenario of the series really well for a regular human, and offers some good comic relief. I also like Mrs. Cab, the designated person with the prophecy (but with how many eyeballs she has in her house, she might as well have a prophec-EYE (kudos if you get that reference)), but she doesn’t get much screentime. Book two introduces Renata Santiago, a cute demigod girl whose only personality trait is believing in Erik von Daniken’s alien conspiracy theories that are about as ancient as the Maya themselves at this point.  

Normally, when I review these books series, I would discuss my thoughts on the final book in the last paragraph, since the ending is really important. But I’m gonna be honest, I lost interest in the story completely. When I had read book two, it was still new, so I had to wait for The Shadow Crosser to come out. And apparently, I just completely forgot a lot of the story. I know it makes me sound unprofessional, but that’s my honest experience. They kind of shoehorn in some MacGuffin (and these snarky twins) out of nowhere, while the characters spend a lot of time being all like “Oh my god the villains are so galaxy-brained what’re we gonna do!” 

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 7/10

I’m sure that Cervantes put all her soul into this, but I don’t feel it. It’s even made me question whether or not I would still enjoy Percy Jackson if I reread it for the first time in over a decade! Honestly, I don’t know what The Storm Runner‘s many fans see in it. Like I said before, it does not give off a particularly fascinating impression of Mayan folklore. There’s no real harm in reading it, but I guarantee you that the Rick Riordan Presents I.P. has some way better stuff to offer (which I’ll get to when I get to it).

Avatar: The Last Airbender Full Series Review (Yes, this was my first time watching the show)

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.

Nicola Travelling Around the Demons’ World First Impressions (Volumes 1-2)

So, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I wanted to make a post that would fit the theme. Seven Seas says that this manga, called Nicola Traveling Around the Demons’ World, felt like a European children’s picture book. European folklore > Irish folklore > St. Patrick’s Day… that’s close enough, right?

In this manga, the titular Nicola is found in the middle of the Demon World by some dude named Simon. They then decide to travel together. 

That’s it. That’s the whole premise.

Nicola is basically Yotsuba&! meets Somali and the Forest Guardian. It’s more like the latter, what with humans being discriminated from literally everything else in the world, but it has the much lighter tone of the former. 

Each chapter is a short story, which usually involves antics between Nicola and Simon, and Nicola doing good deeds without even trying. It’s a very sweet and heartwarming manga, in a way that’s not as superficial as If It’s for my Daughter, I’d even Defeat a Demon Lord.

Since Nicola and Simon never stay in one place for too long, they end up being the only characters that show up consistently. Nicola isn’t anywhere near as much of a liability as Somali, plus she has the spunk of Yotsuba. Most notably, she can use magic, which is rare, but can only produce flowers. 

If Nicola is Stan Laurel, then Simon is Oliver Hardy. He spends most of his time making sure she doesn’t do anything stupid, and that’s about it. He is a merchant of some kind, but his heart isn’t quite a golden idol, given the fact that he’s babysitting a kid with no pay.

The art is what makes Nicola very appealing. There’s hatching everywhere, and the characters are all very cartoony and expressive. It’s basically The Girl from the Other Side‘s general idea for a style, but used in a way that’s not as unsettling.

Current Verdict: 8/10

Nicola is no Yotsuba&!, but it’s definitely a good, cute read. It doesn’t have any fanservice, so even little kids can enjoy it. If you want a jolly fantasy romp, then join Nicola on her travels through the Demons’ World.

Phantom Tales of the Night First Impressions (Volumes 1-3)

Sometimes, there is a case where a knockoff of a popular series is better than said popular series. Phantom Tales of the Night, published in English by Yen Press, initially comes off as a knockoff of Clamp’s classic manga, xxxHolic. But upon further inspection, it’s something much better.

Phantom Tales of the Night stars the unnamed proprietor of the mysterious Murakumo Inn. He allows anyone to stay at his inn- from humans to monsters. The man asks only one thing from you in return: a secret. You don’t even need to be aware of your secret, such as the case of Tokihito Sasaki, a high school student who’s secretly been dead for quite some time.

This manga mostly contains episodic chapters that slowly contribute to a bigger story. One immediate advantage that Phantom Tales has over xxxHolic is that YOU DON’T NEED TO READ AN ENTIRELY SEPARATE MANGA IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND WHAT’S GOING ON. As a result, this manga has a much simpler plot. But just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s not intriguing. After all, there’s the question of who the proprietor of Murakumo actually is.

The characters consist of three main protagonists: the proprietor of the inn, who’s merely referred to as Owner, and his two servants, Butterfly and Spider. Owner is, obviously, the Best Boy. He’s a cold, heartless man who doesn’t give a crap about anybody unless they have secrets for him to eat. Yet despite this, he’s a freaking badass, with plenty of epic shots all to himself. His secret is obviously going to be juicier than the Krabby Patty Formula, and I can’t wait to find out what it is!

His buddies are interesting. Butterfly is incredibly handsome, but ditzy, while Spider is the brute force guy. Their personalities clash regularly, and some great comedic scenes result, as out of place as they may be. Each chapter gives you bits and pieces of all three protagonists’ backstories.

There’s also a number of minor characters in Phantom Tales. Some, such as the aforementioned Tokihito, appear multiple times. But most of the time, these minor characters are just one-time visitors to the inn, ranging from regular humans, to assorted yokai, such as yuki-onna. If you’re no stranger to xxxHolic, you’d know that things generally don’t work out too well on their end.

Phantom Tales is one of those manga that relies on its visual presentation the most. It has a vividly detailed style that can go from beautiful to horrific at the turn of a page, and naturally, I love it. This is where the manga is the most similar to xxxHolic, but thankfully, the characters’ limbs aren’t spaghetti.

~~~~~

Current Verdict: 9.45/10

Phantom Tales of the Night is amazing and underrated. Hopefully it’ll never get an anime adaptation, so it’ll stay perfect and pure forever. If you’re in the mood for a mind trip, then pack up your darkest secrets and stay a night at Murakumo Inn.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya Movie Review

Cropped out the poster of the movie

Just in case you haven’t read my profile, I’m gonna let you in on something: I’ve been intensely studying Japanese culture since earlier this year. And as such, I already knew how Ghibli’s adaptation of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, titled The Tale of Princess Kaguya, would turn out. And thank Jizo that I did! You’ll see why later in this post.

To sum it up, it all begins when an old bamboo cutter finds a baby girl inside a bamboo stalk. Since this is a Shinto story, he doesn’t bat an eye whatsoever at this find, and decides to raise her. Before we know it, bamboo stalks start oozing gold and his daughter is in the lap of luxury! 

Normally, I’d discuss visuals last. But since the paint-like art style of Kaguya stands out so much, I gotta talk about it first. My first instinct is to chalk it up as gimmicky. However, the implementation of the different textures of the brush, as well as colors, helps the movie convey mood and motion better than most modern TV anime. The simplistic designs also help make characters super expressive and movements to be consistently smooth and fluid.

But the question becomes: “If you took away the unique artstyle, is the movie still any good?” Narratively speaking, Kaguya is more-or-less a family drama of the “Kid just wants to be a kid but gets all of it yanked away from them on account of their dumb, money-grubbing parent(s)”, a la Citizen Kane. I personally don’t care much for family dramas as a narrative theme, and I only chose to watch this movie because of my familiarity with the original story.

And I made a good call, because otherwise I don’t know if I would’ve liked Kaguya otherwise. At two and a half hours, this adaptation of a folk take that takes about five or ten minutes to read takes its sweet time. Despite how she’s supposed to be rapidly growing, it takes about the first hour for her to actually become a teenager and for the core narrative to start in earnest. Leading up to that, you end up deathly curious as to what her origin is (well, you’re meant to at least), but find yourself just watching a kid just bumbling around with other kids for a while. As admittedly boring this first act is, I greatly prefer it over the alternative, which is to have the sh** go down within the first five minutes before you can acclimate yourself to her childhood. Because of this, it actually feels emotional when the aforementioned sh** goes down.

But the thing is, despite how expressive the characters are in the animation, most of them are very unremarkable. The titular character, Kaguya, is probably the only one you’ll remember over time. Like in the story, she’s a real rambunctious rascal, and merely wants to live out that Cindi Lauper dream of girls just wanting to have fun. Watching everything crumble around her is pretty darn engaging, as sadistic as that sounds.

Her parents are polar opposites, with the “bad” parent being the dad. He starts as this jolly old fart and becomes an utter ass in his hunger for glory. Fortunately, Kaguya’s mom still gets her daughter, but she can’t do much. Time period and all that. Most other characters, besides Best Girl Chubby Loli Servant, aren’t that interesting.

The background music is nice. It’s obviously traditional, old school Japanese classical instruments, and it’s very beautiful. I noticed, in the opening credits, that the music is by the same guy that did Children of the Sea (if only it premiered in American theaters *glares at GKids*).

One big issue I can see viewers having with Kaguya is its final act. I can’t even imagine what audiences thought when they first saw it. I mean, this movie spends almost two hours building up this big family drama, and just when it’s about to go down… from straight outta left field… POW! Sudden new development! But there was no way around it. Here’s a fun fact: that ending is canon. I’m not joking; this movie’s ending isn’t Ghibli taking any serious creative liberties; they are following the source material. From a narrative standpoint, it is a very BS note to go out on, but there ya have it. Maybe someday, Disney will do a fluffier adaptation and retcon it like they did with the Grimm brothers, but for now this is what we get. I would’ve been livid if I wasn’t familiar with the source material, that’s for sure.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.5/10

It’s slow-paced, relatable, and cynical; no wonder it was so successful in the West! In all honesty, despite how good The Tale of Princess Kaguya is overall, I can’t easily recommend it. It is very slow, nuanced, very cultural, and that ending… Hoo boy! For all intents and purposes, this is probably the best version of her story. But movies are an inherently bigger investment than a cute little folktale, so the crotch-kick at the end hurts more than reading the original. It all depends on what medium you’d prefer. I’d recommend Kaguya if you want a reprieve from the cheapo anime that they churn out like Jeff Daniels in that disgusting scene of Dumb and Dumber, or if you’re studying Japanese culture and want to know about one of its famous folktales.