Inu-Oh: A Japanese History Musical

Man, I really hate seeing adaptations of stuff before reading the source material. The phrase “the book is better than the film” cannot be truer in the anime world, a medium notorious for cutting corners and taking creative liberties that ruin the heart of the thing. However, I had no choice with Inu-Oh, based on one of the stories in a book called Tales of the Heike; a book not licensed for legal Western use to my knowledge. Thing is, though, that it’s by Science Saru, and they have a vision for it that’s only possible in the Twenty-First Century. 

In Inu-Oh, a blind biwa player named Tomona meets the titular Inu-Oh, a person who was disfigured because of a curse. It turns out that the latter’s curse can be lifted if he performs the stories of the fallen Heike soldiers from important battles throughout Japanese history (or, in the context of the movie, relatively recent news). Nothing left to do but to form a traveling theater troupe and become famous!

Science Saru really is an excellent animation studio. This is the third movie of theirs I have seen, and all three of them are drastically different visually. Ride Your Wave looked aggressively generic, while The Night is Short, Walk on Girl looked all weird and liquidy. Inu-Oh is like Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya on steroids. It combines traditional ink-brush-y art styles with modern anime visuals to make a stunning visual experience. The mouths of characters might look off-putting to some, but that’s just manga legend Taiyo Matsumoto for you. Yes, the creator of Tekkonkinkreet did the character designs.

Speaking of characters, they are no doubt the weakest parts of the movie. The only real characters are the two protagonists, and they’re pretty simple for the most part. Honestly, there really isn’t much to say about them. However, that’s okay this time around, since the whole point of the movie is the music. 

By the way, Inu-Oh is a rock opera. It doesn’t take long for Tomona—hence known as Tomoari—to don garish makeup and glamorous clothes like someone who didn’t know whether or not they wanted to cosplay as Gene Simmons or a Buddhist priest. Inu-Oh’s dancing rivals that of Michael Jackson, while the troupe somehow manages to create show-stopping stage effects that match that of this century despite it being a thousand years before. Although there are only three musical numbers, they are long, intricate, and utterly moving. 

However, all of that is shallow compared to Inu-Oh’s voice actor… at least his Japanese voice actor. Inu-Oh is voiced by none other than Avu-chan, vocalist of Japan’s famous glam rock band, Queen Bee. I have spoken of them once or twice, and sadly, I ended up falling out of their music despite how much I wanted to enjoy it. Despite how little I care for Queen Bee to this day, I’ve dearly missed Avu-chan’s utterly amazing vocalwork. It was bittersweet and nostalgic to hear them again for the first time in years, and boy, they REAAAAALLY go ham in this movie. Inu-Oh is one of the reasons to never watch dubs. There is no way in hell anyone can replace Avu-chan in their role, and I feel sorry for whoever did in the dub.

If there is any real flaw with the movie, it’s that there isn’t much closure. To be as vague as possible, the main protagonists do find closure in a way, but for the most part, that’s it. I really can’t elaborate further than this. It has a bittersweet and anti-climactic end, but it’s thankfully not on the level of abrupt nonsense of Ghibli movies. 

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Final Verdict: 9.75/10

Inu-Oh is a truly spectacular movie. It is an example of the creativity of animation and why animation is better than anything in Hollywood. It also shows the power and passion of a nation that actually cares about animation in the first place. I could pretty much recommend it to anyone… except for those who are triggered by gore. There are only a couple of scenes, but they’re still there.

Pompo the Cinephile: A 2D Movie About a 3D Movie

I always have to specify when I’m reviewing an adaptation of something without consulting the source material… mainly so I don’t look like some normie who just watches movies without knowing where they come from. According to MyAnimeList, Pompo the Cinephile is an adaptation of a two-volume webmanga from several years ago. It sure-as-hell doesn’t seem available over in the West, and honestly, something that short could probably be adapted with most of its soul intact. Hopefully. 

In Pompo the Cinephile, movie magic is made in Nyallywood. A classic underdog named Gene Fini works with the titular loli producer herself, Pompo, who specializes in skimpy B-movies. She’s young, but really talented, being the granddaughter of one of the most famous producers in the world. Anyway, despite the movie being named after her, it’s really about Gene’s spiritual journey through the world of film when given the opportunity to shoot a contemporary drama as its director.

Like in actual filmmaking, there’s a LOT to go over, i.e. the actual process of making a film. However…

We can’t talk about that yet! This is an ANIME feature film, so we need to discuss the visuals. As expected with the better budget and less time to fill, Pompo the Cinephile is gorgeous. The movie does all kinds of clever edits that fit with the filmmaking motif it conveys. Every minute of it is full of life and color. 

Anyway, as I said before I was so rudely interrupted by myself, this movie REALLY shows how hard it is to make a movie. You have to book all kinds of things, arrange for flights to the filming location, make sets (or use CG if you’re Hollywood), get sponsors to fund the movie, and… a LOT of editing. Gene’s movie, Meister, ends up clocking in at ninety minutes, but there was SEVENTY-TWO HOURS of raw footage to go through! Is that… realistic?! For the sake of whatever Earth’s resources are used in filming, I hope that’s a gross exaggeration.

With Pompo the Cinephile itself also being ninety minutes, you can expect the story to be simple, approachable, and concise; none of that mundane stuff that boomers get dopamine over. It goes through the whole Murphy’s Law laundry list of hiccups, and they really end up getting down to the wire with this one. Furthermore, it has layers in that Meister has parallels to Gene’s life.

Oops, I talked about Gene’s character arc, which means it’s time to discuss the cast! Pompo is great, in case it wasn’t obvious enough. She’s short, spunky, and eccentric, and is basically the Roy Disney to Gene’s Walt… or something (you know what I mean). We’ve already talked about Gene, but there are more characters than just him and Pompo Natalie is a young girl who seems wholly inadequate to act, yet her existence inspires Pompo to write the screenplay for Meister. She learns the ups and downs of acting, and gets a little spiritual journey of her own. We also have a sad banker named Alan, who ends up compelled to invest in Meister, and learn what it means to run a bank. Wait… then wouldn’t that make HIM the Roy Disney to Gene’s Walt? Crap… my analogies suck.

There are plenty of supporting characters with a lot of charm, like the sleazy other director who works in the B-movies. We also have the famous actors, Mystia and Martin Braddock, the latter of which is the lead role in Meister. The cherry on top with all these characters is that there is NO ROMANCE on set whatsoever. That’s my kind of movie.

We all know how hard it is to make a film, but Pompo the Cinephile never fails to be light-hearted at its core. There’s plenty of good humor while still hitting us in the feels. It also gets pretty psychological and philosophical when the characters dissect what a “movie” really is. I, of course, humbly disagree—at least where live action is concerned—but they do a good job with the dialogue when viewed in a vacuum. What’s important is that it gives a shout-out to introverts by claiming that they are inherently more creative than people who fit in.

Speaking of humbly disagreeing, I feel like the movie would start some interesting debates. Walking out of it, I interpreted that—due to the nature of some later scenes—it was trying to endorse that notion that there is no cost too great for living your dreams. Not even cutting away all of your loved ones, and having disregard for your own life. It’s ironic coming from a place like Japan, where that self-sacrificial lifestyle is leading it to its demise. Maybe there was something I didn’t get; I’m not exactly good at this subtext thing.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

Pompo the Cinephile was an excellent movie, even if it didn’t make me appreciate live action cinema any better than I already do (or lack thereof). It does just about everything right, and I’d daresay it was one of the best anime of 2021 (which sure holds water considering how little anime I watch anymore). Do you like anime? Do you like movies? Do you like anime movies? If yes, then watch this one.

Oni: Thunder God’s Tale is Baby’s First Crash Course in Shinto

I’ve known about Netflix and Tonko House’s project, Oni: Thunder God’s Tale, since its initial announcement in November 2019. Over the course of the three years it took for the show to drop… a lot has happened, on both a global and personal scale. We have at least seen an explosion in diversity lately, but I feel like a lot of it just becomes clout instead of doing anything substantial for the good of humanity. Despite that, I decided to watch Oni anyway; it’s short, so it’s not like I had to worry about time.

In Oni: Thunder God’s Tale, a bunch of yokai (who are actually kami because the terms are technically one and the same) live together to protect the world from the Oni. A large dude named Naridon enters their domain with a child. He lives there and raises his kid, Onari, who trains to fight the Oni. However, she doesn’t exactly have any powers (referred to as kushi) because Naridon is a bit of an oddball. Sounds like the perfect setup for a coming-of-age story!

Before discussing the story at all, I must praise Tonko House for their absolutely stunning job with the visuals. Tsutsumi brings that experience as a former Pixar animator to the table for sure. Oni, being in brand with the studio, is an ode to stop-motion animation, and simply put, it’s the most beautiful display of the style I have ever seen. Every motion and detail is perfect and full of life. I can’t really express how visually appealing the show is; you’ll have to watch it yourself.

Furthermore, the show does a better job presenting a mythological world than almost any other case I’ve experienced in Western culture, especially compared to the literature department. It hits all the right notes, and teaches you the basics of Japanese culture and Shinto folklore in memorable ways, instead of mindless exposition dumps that insult the viewer for not having encyclopedic knowledge of the stuff going into it. If only there was more soulful stuff like this out there to teach children about other cultures.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty straightforward stuff. However, it’s told with much more chutzpah than a lot of the crap that spews out of our screens these days. Oni isn’t exactly deep or profound, but it’s not mind-numbingly predictable either. It showcases the strictness of Japanese society all too well, with how much pressure the children are given to excel, especially for poor Onari, who doesn’t know what her power is. It’s not heavy all the time, though; there’s plenty of adorable humor sprinkled throughout.

Being only a four episode miniseries, Oni doesn’t exactly have time to tell its story. While it kind of sucks that I waited this long for such a short show, the length is to its benefit; if it was allowed to go on longer, it could’ve easily gotten boring. Oni, especially in the first half, is basically a character study. There isn’t much adventuring whatsoever, and there’s a lot of dialogue. Honestly, it would have been a REALLY bad show if it went on for twenty-four-plus episodes. Fortunately, it does what it needs to do in the time given.

As you can expect from a program aimed at kids, the characters are quite simple, and are hard-carried by how they are presented in execution. Unsurprisingly, the studio did a great job making them memorable and likable (well, except for the people who aren’t meant to be likable). Onari herself is plucky and full of energy, and as the main character, is the one who must find herself. However, the real star of the show is the tragic hero, Naridon. Although he’s doofy and the least expressive character in the show, I was somehow able to tell that he carries a lot of baggage. If Tonko House actually meant for you to pick up on that, then kudos to them. 

Out of Onari’s classmates, the only one who isn’t a jerk is her kappa friend… Kappa. He’s the socially awkward and sensitive kid that you just want to hug all the time. Unfortunately, everyone kind of exists to fill the class and be, as I said, jerks. Even her teacher, Tengu-sensei, is kind of one too. Once it’s found out that Naridon is a big hotshot, he puts too an unfair amount of stock into Onari; they couldn’t give George Takei a better character to voice? Even Naridon’s brother, Putaro, is kind of your typical jealous younger sibling. Holy crap, I said the cast was great, but in retrospect, a lot of them really aren’t. Well, props to Tonko House for clearly telegraphing whom the audience is meant to root for. At least the school principal is a cool dude.

If there is anything of note to add, it’s what you could argue is the show’s biggest flaw. In essence, it loses its whimsy by the second half. While still excellent all the way through, it’s… well… how do I put it? Basically, in some regards, Tsutsumi isn’t that much different from typical modern writers. Oni has social undertones that have been around since humans put pen to paper, and it kind of sucks that this is just another one of those cases. Fortunately, it’s one of the more respectable instances of it, and they kind of—as the kids say it—jabait you in a way.

Sidebar: I swear if The Dragon Prince becomes darker next week, I’m going to be really angry and sad. However, you won’t be hearing my thoughts on it until November 19th since I’m going to Walt Disney World again!

Actually, hang on, there’s just another small nitpick, and it’s this weird case where subtitles appear to translate text on various background objects that don’t really matter whatsoever. Well, obviously, they do matter as little details to make the world feel alive, but you know what I mean; none of it matters to the plot. Ironically, this DOESN’T occur during the one instance of actually relevant onscreen text.

Well… okay, there’s one more issue I have with the show; not really the show but its circumstances I guess. While it’s nice and all, it doesn’t do Japanese culture any favors. In this age of inclusivity in American pop culture, people seem to think that nothing exists unless observed by the American mainstream. As someone who’s read manga for ten years and studied Japanese culture directly for four, Japanese mythology is alive and well in its actual origin point: you know, Japan itself. From Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan to In/Spectre and beyond, Shinto is everywhere, much to the locals’ famous claims of not being religious. It is odd that, with how common Shinto is, most of those I.P.s fail to break through into the mainstream, with Spirited Away being the only one to have managed it. Not even Oni is mainstream; Netflix really didn’t do much to promote it at all, and I spent two years thinking production was axed by COVID.

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Final Verdict: 9.75/10

As far as representation is concerned, Oni: Thunder God’s Tale is by far the best portrayal of Japanese mythology in all of Western entertainment (at least out of what I know of). To be less hyperbolic, it’s just a really cute, amazing show that doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you wanna raise a kid who will swim outside of the mainstream, then Oni is an easy must-watch. In fact, if you’re a parent, you should probably watch it with them.

Dinkum (Early Access): A Farming Sim as Fresh as The Outback

One of the most contradictory genres in videogames is the farming/life sim. In theory, they are wholesome sandbox games with emphasis on relaxing and getting lost in their worlds. In practice, however, they are anything but that; instead, players must juggle massive laundry lists of daily tasks and NPC relationships with a suffocatingly tight in-game day/night cycle, all with the most punishing stamina system outside of Dark Souls. Animal Crossing in particular doesn’t quite suffer from these particular grievances, but thanks to real-world time being incorporated into gameplay, players are punished for not booting up the game EVERY SINGLE DAY, turning an escapist little world into the same stressful ritual you have to do IRL. However… one farming sim would appear in 2022, and win the hearts of thousands of users. Dinkum, while only in Early Access, is already being pegged as one of the highest rated games of the year. The reviews I’ve read seem to imply one thing: that it is, in fact, a farming sim that is ACTUALLY relaxing and quaint. I just had to know if this was true, so here we are.

In Dinkum, your customizable character notices an ad to accompany an eccentric old geezer named Fletch to an untamed land. Sensing your only opportunity to escape your dystopian life in South City, you join Fletch, and fly off to this land, seeking a better life. What awaits in the Australia-inspired wilderness?

What’s immediately noticeable about Dinkum is that it does absolutely nothing new for the genre in terms of gameplay. As a hybrid of Minecraft, Animal Crossing, and Stardew Valley, it has all the stuff you can expect. You gather resources, craft stuff, raise animals, plant crops, cook food, fight predators, bribe NPCs with presents, and try to fulfill a myriad of satisfying milestones as you do it all. There really isn’t much to say about these mechanics, since they’re more-or-less what you’d expect. The only novel thing are licenses, which are essentially your qualifications to buy and use various types of items. You spend Permit Points, earned through milestones and daily tasks shown in your journal, to obtain these Licenses. It sounds like an arbitrary gatekeeping mechanic, but I found them very satisfying to unlock over time. I’m looking forward to unlocking them all eventually. Keep in mind that the game has the time-honored tradition of setting yourself on fire if you touch a campsite.

What makes Dinkum so great is how all of these basic mechanics fit together. The most important aspect is how it handles the march of time. In-game days go about as fast as you can expect. However, here’s the real kicker. Similar to Garden Story, staying up past midnight FREEZES the in-game clock indefinitely, with the only penalty being a reduction in base stamina. Stamina, however, is much more tolerable. While it decreases in a manner similar to Stardew Valley, eating food will restore it, and unlike My Time at Sandrock, you have access to plenty of plants and cooking right out of the gate, so it’s no problem stockpiling a good amount of food. While it’s not recommended to do anything dangerous during the late night, it’s still a phenomenal security blanket for any last-minute tasks in town (even if your character looks miserable the whole time).

The other standout feature is its building mechanics. You decide the entire layout of the town, down to every single building and decoration. Right now, my town is a rinky-dink little splotch in the middle of nowhere, and I look forward to seeing it grow over time by my own hand. The building system is also intuitive and easy, plus you can relocate buildings and terraform the environment itself. 

As definitively amazing of a game Dinkum has been thus far, it’s actually tricky to recommend. After you recruit the first resident to the town, the game sets you free, which sounds great, but comes with the caveat of no more tutorials. This means you must learn how to do everything yourself. You pretty much need knowledge of games from three different genres; scratch that, it straight-up EXPECTS that knowledge. Fortunately, the brilliant design of the License mechanic is a great teacher. As you acquire licenses, new ones unlock in a logical order to introduce new mechanics organically. 

Unfortunately, there are still some early-game grievances. For starters, you can’t store most bugs and fish in crates (plus they don’t stack). Also, convincing visitors to move in permanently is an investment and a half. They only visit for one day, and since you can only do one favor a day, you’re not exactly going to win them over immediately, and have to wait until RNG decides their return. As per tradition, these guys can ask for items that are very rare or remote, plus they have specific food preferences that aren’t tracked in any way, shape or form, as far as I could tell.

Fortunately, these flaws actually feel justified ONLY in Dinkum. In fact, it might be programmed this way on purpose. Shops aren’t open 24/7, and they are always closed at least one day a week. Because of this, you can—and will—actually make mistakes in Dinkum; your only penalty is reduced efficiency. Because of how Dinkum is structured, you can actually take the time to learn its ins and outs (it took me over ten hours to learn how to grow trees). You have time to do things, or nothing if you really want to. Any frustration I felt from Dinkum was because the instincts from other games like it took over.

In any case, Dinkum wants you to take your time, so keep that in mind if you do gaming as a job, and are required to beat everything in a timely manner. Dinkum is straight-up not meant to be steamrolled through. Plants take a minimum of a week to grow, and those Permit Points don’t exactly grow on trees either. If you undertake this endeavor, you better prepare to enjoy a slow life of leisure! It’s actually quite the experience for me. Whenever I boot it up, I never really have a plan. Sure, there are goals to work towards in the long run, but because there’s no viable way to gun for those, I’m forced to take each in-game day as it comes. There’s something wonderful about it.

One of the objective flaws that I’m sure have been pointed out is that the NPCs are souless. They’re so unremarkable that they have the same EXACT text as one another. However, I kind of believe that’s a good thing. Romancing isn’t an option anyway, so why make NPCs likable enough in the first place? Also, again, the lack of depth in your relationships just removes another mountain of daily rituals that you would have otherwise had to do. Besides, is it even realistic in other games like this? All you do is grind up their favorite thing (which you generally need to find out through trial and error or a guide), and gift it to them over and over and over again, until—suddenly—they have enough of that same thing like Clark Griswold’s boss in Christmas Vacation to want to marry you. Platonic relationships are better!

Another caveat that I’m pretty sure is just unavoidable even for Dinkum is the inevitable emptiness from having nothing left to do. Eventually, you’ll be flush with cash that you have no use for, with crops and resources by the thousands that you don’t need to sell, and enough Licenses to fill a wardrobe. I’m pretty sure this will happen no matter what. The fun comes from progressing to reach that point more than anything, and it’s a journey I’m more than willing to make with Dinkum. Lemme tell you… it’s gonna be long. 

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Current Verdict: 9.65/10

Dinkum is well worth the hype and price. It’s the Animal Crossing/Stardew Valley that actually manages to be what it says on the tin. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it evolves over the course of its Early Access period, and I suggest you hop aboard as well, especially if you’re sick of those other games.

Usotoki Rhetoric Volume 1 (Advanced Review): Liar, Liar, Heard you Lie Sir

Aaaaah… shoujo. The manga term for romantic relationships, giant sparkling eyes, and hearts being set a-flutter. Every time I read a shoujo manga, I didn’t exactly like it, including some of the household classics. Well, maybe that’ll change, thanks to Ritsu Miyako’s Usotoki Rhetoric. I was offered an advanced copy of One Peace Books’ first published volume (you know, the small team built on The Rising of the Shield Hero and a dream?), and I took it. You’ll know why once I tell you its novel premise.

In Usotoki Rhetoric, Urabe Kanako exiles herself from her rural village, because everyone hates her due to her psychic power to hear lies. In the big city, she runs into a financially unstable detective named Iwai Soma. Naturally, he has her help him solve cases so he can make fat stacks. Presumably, they’ll fall in love.

Oops, I forgot to mention the setting: Japan during the Showa Era, i.e. the 1920s. If you’re a real weeb, then Usotoki Rhetoric will feel quite interesting. People have the old-school hair and the kimonos. It also makes sense for Kananko to be discriminated against, since people would’ve been more superstitious at the time. 

Unfortunately, nothing is perfect, especially if you’re not a shoujo fan. On the bright side, the art is more tolerable than other shoujos, where characters have gems surgically implanted into their eye sockets and chins that can impale someone. However, it’s still shoujo art, trading intricacy for intimacy. The humor feels identical to literally all other shoujo manga I have ever read. There are plenty of the “person says something stupid and begets an overeaction from someone else” trope, but being a shoujo, the energy and spontaneity is toned down a lot from what I’m used to in shounen. Also, the constant running joke of Soma being poor just feels kind of unremarkable.

Furthermore, as a caveat of reviewing just the first volume, the duo already seems—as the kids say it—dummy busted. Kananko’s power is limited only to people who lie on purpose, and when dealing with criminals themselves, it’s not really that vexing. So far, they run into the perp immediately, and it’s only a matter of acting accordingly. Meanwhile, Soma is—you know—a detective. He latches onto small details and is actually more competent than his pockets would lead you to believe. As it stands, Kananko just seems to be an insurance policy.

So far, Usotoki Rhetoric is set up to be an episodic mystery series. They solve a case, and since malt shops weren’t invented yet, they just move onto the next one. They vary wildly in urgency, from attempted arson on a child to petty theft. I was hoping for a murder case, but that does not occur in this volume.

As far as characters are concerned, there are only three mainstays: Kanako, Soma, and Soma’s friend, Hanasaki (I think that was his name?). Well, if you know your shoujo, then you might as well have met them. Kanako is that weak and awkward girl who has to get used to not being hated for being unique. She starts to get more confident in this volume alone. Soma is handsome and aloof. He’s kind of a troll, and his willingness to swindle people in between cases—such as by using Kanako so he can read minds as a street performer—is supposed to juxtapose his hunkyness with some flaws. Of course, if you’re familiar with a lot of shounen and seinen, he’s still a saint by comparison to some OTHER people. 

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Current Verdict: 7.5/10

This volume of Usokoti Rhetoric lays the groundwork for what could be a decent mystery series, but that could easily fall apart if the cases don’t get complex enough. The portrayal of Showa Era Japan feels quite minimal to the point of seeming entirely irrelevant. The main characters’ relationship isn’t cringy, but I’m not exactly attached to them either. I’m sure shoujo aficionados would love Usotoki Rhetoric, but I am simply not that kind of person.

Atlas Shrugged: The Sci-Fi Dystopia Novel That’s Also a Self-Help Book

I have the longest story with this book. I’ve been battling serious depression over the past two years (longer than that by the time the post actually goes out) because it feels like human civilization is falling apart. Heck, you could argue it’s been happening longer than that; since the #MeToo movement in 2017, it feels like violent protests have been a way of life. Of course, 2020 set a new precedent of despair, when COVID took the world, and simple matters of health became political. That same year, George Floyd was murdered, and divided the human race amongst itself overnight. 2021 began with a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill, organized entirely by American citizens with a political agenda. At the time of writing this paragraph, Russia is invading Ukraine, laying the groundwork for World War III. To top it off, earth is being ravaged by climate change, at a rate that keeps increasing at an exponential rate despite all the efforts that have been put in to delay it. As of completing the book, Ukraine is still at war, and abortion is now illegal on a constitutional level following the result of Roe v. Wade, not to mention a spike in mass shootings.

This is where Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes in. I was at a point when I finally figured out how to enjoy life, but now I’m drowning in despair. I can’t begin to list the violent emotions and twisted thoughts I’ve felt. To give you an idea, my mother has considered sending me to the psych ward numerous times. After some intense discussions with her, she offered up Atlas Shrugged. According to her, it would—at the very least—expose the media and these new-fangled activists as the BS-spewers that they allegedly are. I was skeptical, but Atlas Shrugged is apparently one of the most influential novels of all time; second only to The Bible.

Atlas Shrugged, however, is massive. This is the kind of book that I can only read with the new purging of pop culture media that I have committed to. One chapter can take about an hour, and there’s a lot of chapters; over a thousand pages’ worth. I started the book in February 2022, and you’re reading this post not long after I actually finished the book. That’s how much of an investment it is.

Like any hard SF novel, completing it is a monumental task. One aspect of these kinds of books is that merely figuring out the basic premise is a headache that you’re meant to experience, and thus, it feels like discussing any aspect of the novel is spoiler territory, even though it’s super old. So… Here’s a spoiler warning then. Read on if you wish.

Right off the bat, Rand’s prose feels like what a lot of modern writers, whom I consider pretentious, try to be. A lot of Atlas Shrugged is very verbose, and at first, it feels like nothing is happening. However, unlike books such as Monogatari, I wasn’t mad. A lot of passages give you hints pertaining to the book’s worldbuilding and how characters think and feel. The writing is also very poetic, describing things metaphorically but in a way that can be understood by anyone with a basic grasp of the English language; unlike a lot of YA and light novels that vomit nonsensical similes at everything. 

You are given your first signs of how messed up the world of Atlas Shrugged is with the initial conflict centered around Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad company. The organization has always been run by Taggarts, and this generation is brother and sister James and Dagny Taggart. When one of their lines desperately needs fixing, Dagny is literally the only person to do anything about it. She orders an untested metal from a company that James doesn’t trust, while his “trusted” metals haven’t been delivered in over a year since being ordered. What jumps out is that she is the only one in the whole organization who’s proactive; everyone else, except a guy named Eddie Willers, sucks. 

The story also involves the creator of the aforementioned untested metal, Hank Rearden. He went from slaving away in the mines to owning his own steel plant, an achievement that he knows he’s damn well earned. Dagny’s order for his metal is the first big order his company has ever received. The reason for this is because everyone else is afraid to risk using it.

Right off the bat, Atlas Shrugged should resonate with just about anyone alive, especially these days. Heck, a lot of the stuff brought up in this book is stuff I’ve had internal debates about for years. I one hundred percent relate to Dagny and Hank, who feel like they’re surrounded by morons at all times. Well, I say morons, but a more literal term would be sheep; they just stick to doing what they’re told, with no drive to make anything better. This isn’t even remotely a new trope, but in Atlas Shrugged, it feels more grounded and real. Every writer and their grandma these days would chalk this up to how humans are wired to behave and there’s nothing we can do about it. Good ol’ Ayn Rand, however, presents this behavior as an unnatural, conscious choice that most people—unfortunately—decide to make. 

Words cannot describe just how vindicating Atlas Shrugged is. Every other scene, there’s something that feels like Rand literally wrote for me specifically. The inane ignoramity (professional term) of mankind feels like every day of my life since Donald Trump ran for President. On a side note, Atlas Shrugged is significantly easier to digest than what I thought going in. It’s lengthy, sure, but the actual content of the book is incredibly straightforward. If you could get through crap like Of Mice and Men in high school, then Atlas Shrugged will be no problem.

The plot starts off in earnest at the end of part one. Dagny and Hank go on a road trip and stumble upon a mysterious machine, abandoned in a junk heap in an equally abandoned factory. Turns out that this device, if seen through to the end, would literally solve all of humanity’s energy problems and save the world. However, its creator is unaccounted for, and she scrambles to find that creator or reverse engineer the machine, all while surviving the ignorant world she lives in. Survival is not easy, especially when the few smart people that remain start abandoning their businesses unannounced.

Of course, you could look at the publication year saying “1957” and chalk Atlas Shrugged up for yet another McCarthy-ist novel written during the Red Scare. The thing is, due to everything discussed up to this point, I would’ve never guessed this was a Red Scare book because it sure didn’t feel like it at all. Despite the difference in eras, I could attribute so much more about Atlas Shrugged to real life in this day and age than any other cyberpunk I’ve ever experienced. However, the fact that Atlas Shrugged feels even more relevant than it did at the time isn’t exactly a good thing.

If you couldn’t tell, Atlas Shrugged is meant to have only two likable characters, and they are Dagny and Hank. Let’s talk about Hank first, since I’m saving the best for last. He loves his career with Rearden Metal, especially more than the stupid people he’s surrounded by, including his stupid wife. He doesn’t let other people’s thoughts get in his way, including those in the media. It’s ironic that someone who cares so little about people contributes more to their lives than most… or at least he would be if there weren’t politically correct idiots trying to ruin his business.

Meanwhile, Dagny… ho-hoh boy, lemme tell you. I daresay that she is the Best Girl in all classic literature. She’s like Hank in not caring, only better. Her proactive personality feels so modern compared to any other character of classic literature. Dagny is unimaginably badass, and if you told me that girls like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind or anyone from Little Women were better, I would absolutely not believe you. 

Among these two awesome protagonists whom you’re meant to love, and these wingnuts that you’re meant to hate, there is an anomaly named Francisco d’Anconia. You could argue he’s the main villain of the book, despite him definitely not being an ignoramus like the rest of mankind. He has iconic and inspirational moments that feel amazing, like he really understands how life works, yet he seems to be working against the human race with most of his actions. I’d say he’s the extreme end of Dagny and Hank’s personalities, but at the same time, he could just be a massive troll.

If there are any flaws in the book’s writing, it’s that I always had trouble telling where anyone was in 3D space. The dialogue is the heart and soul of Atlas Shrugged, and it’s so easy to get absorbed in it that they can seemingly teleport to another location. You could also argue that some of the big long passages that convey the book’s themes get redundant (including a seventy page speech that is more-or-less a summation of all the themes explored), but the way Rand thinks is so unconventional, that you kind of need to see it multiple times to really process the full weight of her words.

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Final Verdict: 10/10

Why does anyone bother with any classic literature other than Atlas Shrugged? I’ve read crummy books with blurbs that say “I’ll be thinking about these themes for a long time”, but Atlas Shrugged is the first time I truly feel that way about a book. It’s so insane that—scratch that—it’s saner than almost anything else out there. If Ayn Rand wrote and published it today, it would get canceled ten times over. Heck, the FBI would’ve personally hunted her down. Atlas Shrugged would be considered by many to be pure evil, and that’s precisely why it’s a must-read. Just keep in mind that it will not give you hope for mankind; it’s only meant to give you hope for yourself.

The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes: The Light Novel That Tries to be a Shinkai Movie But Ends up Being a Ghibli Movie

Okay, so I MAY have said once that light novels are a pain in the ass to invest in and that I would never cover them on my blog ever again. However, that stress factor is almost negligent for standalones; it’s just one and done. I had planned to read The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes for some time, even before the anime movie announcement (that I will probably watch if GKids or Netflix gets it). With a title as weird-sounding as that, curiosity beckoned me into its pages.

In The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes, we enter the daily life of resident nihilist Kaoru Tono. He’s got about as much of a hard-knock life as you can get; a dead sister, no mother, and a mentally unstable dad. Perfect for making emotional youth be able to connect with him! Marketing aside, Kaoru finds a mysterious tunnel that can grant any wish, but causes time outside of it to move faster. Oh, and a mysterious girl named Anzu Hanashiro is involved.

The thing that jumps out about this book is that it’s not terrible; something I rarely feel in the light novel market. Its prose isn’t as excessively verbose as its contemporaries, which is likely due to the perks of being a standalone. The story it tells in what amounts, page count wise, to a little over two volumes of a regular light novel, feels more substantial than five volumes of most longer series (okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it sure feels like it’s not with the crap I’ve read over the years).

Unfortunately, it falls for the same trap that most supernatural romances fall for: not being very supernatural at all. Most excursions into the tunnel last mere minutes, thanks to its time-altering properties, and the vast majority of the book consists of pretty standard school life drama. There are many little subplots, such as the deal with the school bully, and Kaoru’s messed up family life, but it just doesn’t seem to matter in the end, since we know it’ll end with that final trip through the tunnel.

Naturally, the characters leave much to be desired; a fatal weakness of standalones. Kaoru is, sadly, a lot like me with some of the cynical stuff he says. I don’t like myself when I’m like that, so I naturally don’t like him either. And like I said in the premise, it feels like his family’s divorce is just a marketing scheme to make people sympathize with him.

Anzu is likable at first, because she deals with bullies with force, and looks great while doing it. However, as she gets to know Kaoru, she becomes less of a rebel, and more like the idealized waifu that is indistinguishable from the female lead in a Makoto Shinkai movie. And don’t get me started on Koharu, the aforementioned bully. Her arc is alright, but it doesn’t feel like it belongs in the story at all.

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Final Verdict: 7.5/10

The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes is not the worst light novel ever, but that’s not saying much. The book is overwhelmingly okay, with its only novelty being that you can say you knew about the movie before it was cool. To be honest, I don’t even know if the movie is gonna do too hot either. As always, there’s better fish in the sea, especially in the world of light novels.

Ballad & Dagger: We Don’t Talk About San Madrigal

If you’re reading this post, then that means I have managed to complete the first YA novel published under Rick Riordan Presents: Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger. But before we begin, we need to talk. No, I’m not breaking up with you! Anyway, the past two years have been really rough for me. COVID tore us apart physically, and the murder of George Floyd followed up on the mental side of things. The latter is what really broke me. Since his unfair death, some very influential, and politically extreme, individuals have been on a steady growth rate. And only a couple of months ago, I began to realize that almost my entire world—both I.R.L. and online—have been viewed through a lens provided by the political party that those aforementioned individuals follow. My parents insist that the followers of those people are few and far between. However, if they are really so few in numbers, how have they nonetheless influenced virtually every aspect of Western pop culture for the past two years? From South Park doing pandemic episodes, to childrens’ picture books teaching today’s generation how to be woke, the biggest conglomerates in the world now lick the boots of those people, regardless of their quantity. While I am struggling to comprehend life as I now understand it, one thing is certain: Ballad & Dagger will more than likely be the last novel of its kind I ever read.

In Ballad & Dagger, Mateo Matisse is a starving artist who just wants to play the piano. Sadly, fate has other plans for him. On a very special night for his little community in Brooklyn, someone announces that the long lost island of San Madrigal, where said community originated, will rise again. All it needs is the children who contain the three founding spirits’ souls. Naturally, Mateo is one of them. Oh, and some girl murders a guy for some reason.

Refreshingly enough, racism isn’t a big theme in this one. Or rather, you’re not constantly bludgeoned with it. The most brutal aspect of Ballad & Dagger is the fact that San Madrigal sank like Atlantis. As a result, the three big families that make up Brooklyn’s Little Madrigal are not inhabiting San Madrigal, and you’re supposed to feel miserable for them. The word “diaspora” is a favorite in the book, because apparently, the idea that home is where you’re surrounded by the people who love you is invalid. 

In case you’ve read some of the action-packed books from Rick Riordan Presents, just keep in mind that Ballad & Dagger is more like Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, in that it is way more slice-of-life oriented than other installments. While trying to find the two remaining demigods, Mateo lives his normal life, hanging out with his friend, Tams, and the famous folk rocker, Gerval. Without the occasional blurb of supernatural horror, it’s easy to forget there’s anything supernatural in the book.

Things do ramp up in the second half, though. Sh** hits the fan, to say the least, and Mateo’s little community starts crumbling out from under him. A lot of the sequences are legitimately powerful. However, you have to put up with a lot of fluff to get there. 

My biggest problem was that I couldn’t connect to almost anyone. Mateo is one of two characters who felt engaging at all. As narrator, his feelings come in full force, and he ends up with quite a lot of baggage in the second half. The female lead, Chela Hidalgo, is the aforementioned girl who murdered the dude in the beginning, and she’s alright. She gets some legitimate character development, but is a pretty standard YA protagonist through and through. And yes, their transition from friends to lovers is as sudden as any YA romance novel (oh spoilers, as if it wasn’t obvious enough that a YA novel has romance).

Everyone else felt like a plot device. Tia Lucia was there to be the wise old lady, Anisette was there to be the political extremist b****, etc. Gerval plays a pretty pertinent role, but in the end, his character arc will feel very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Saturday morning cartoon.

Sadly, I must also criticize the book’s worldbuilding. Riordan’s blurb says that San Madrigal is “as real as Wakanda or the Shire or Earthsea”, and I don’t get it at all. All that is divulged of the island, back when it wasn’t underwater, is that people worshiped the three gods who get trapped in the chosen ones’ bodies. Sure, its history plays a role in the plot, but that’s about it for the actual culture, beyond what you see preserved in Brooklyn. There is also next to no folklore present, except for some ghost who’s just there, and these weird mutant things.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I do respect and admire Rick Riordan. If it wasn’t for him, I might’ve never gotten my fetish for Japanese culture and folk metal. However, almost every time I read one of the Presents books, I am utterly flummoxed at what he saw in it. Ballad & Dagger is a great read by the second half, but there are so many urban fantasies that are more than just fifty percent enjoyable. I don’t really know what to think about it, but I do know that I’m pretty much alone in my stance. Maybe you’d enjoy it more than I did!

Turning Red: Kung-Fu Panda But Wholesome

Full transparency: Pixar’s Turning Red was the studio’s first movie since Toy Story 4 that I did NOT want to see. I know that they generally undersell their masterpieces in the trailer, but Turning Red didn’t even LOOK like a Pixar movie. The idea, the character design, the inclusion of at least one famous popstar in the music… It looked like Blue Sky Studios, or any of the non-Disney studios whose movies tend to ONLY appeal to kids. However, with the war going on, there is a chance this could be Pixar’s last movie ever made, on account of the possibility that we’re all going to be vaporized in a nuclear explosion. Also, these movies—regardless of quality—are important to support the Disney industries that I truly care about (that and the fact that I do not use Disney+ often enough). Let’s see if Turning Red describes what my face looks like after watching it!

In Turning Red, Meilin Lee enjoys a quaint life in Toronto, Canada. Unfortunately, she has the classic case of overbearing parent. Oh, and the classic case of turning into a red panda during heightened states of duress.

So… despite all my build up to a negative review, I ended up having my words eaten pretty thoroughly. Right off the bat, Turning Red has a lot of personality, from anime-like flourish, to watching Mei’s dad cook dinner. It also has the level of humor expected from Pixar; whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to your discretion.

Of course, the actual plot is more straightforward than a Saturday morning cartoon. When I said that the idea wasn’t interesting, I meant it. Turning Red is a classic story of a girl with an overbearing parent who inevitably learns to accept herself for who she is. The main “MacGuffin” is a K-Pop concert that Mei wants to attend without her mom’s permission (I know that band is multinational, but I don’t care; boy band=K-Pop). 

I don’t want to sound pretentious here, but I have to mention something that I’m pretty damn sure EVERY review of the movie will be incredibly hoity-toity about: Pixar acknowledges periods. This is the first time in the studio’s history, and it has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the movie to me. Maybe my opinion would be different if I was an actual woman, but I digress. Of course these days, when people have to constantly vomit their humanity to the world, this minor thing that comes up twice in whole movie is way more important than any of the other content.

The cast of Turning Red is as Pixar as you can expect. We already discussed Mei, but the real stars are her friends: Miriam, Priya, and Abby. Packing quirky personalities of their own, their chemistry with Mei is priceless. The mom is, more-or-less, the antagonist of the movie. If you’ve seen her type of character trope before, then you can probably guess how her arc resolves. However, the real MVP is the dad. He has one scene with Mei, and he basically tells her what’s important in life. If he had done it sooner, then a large portion of the conflict of the movie would have never had to transpire. Classic Saturday morning cartoon tropes.

If there is anything negative that I can actually say (other than the generic idea), it’s the setting. Canada is a really lovely place (at least according to its pavilion in EPCOT), but it’s really easy to forget that Turning Red is set in Canada at all. If it rained even one time, I would’ve assumed it was in Seattle. In fact, the movie frequently shows the Canadian flag on T-shirts and stuff, as if they knew you’d forget. In all honesty, I’m just salty that they didn’t set it in Quebec, where the beautiful French architecture is.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

Turning Red was way the heck better than I thought it would be. It’s a fun and cute movie to tide us over until Lightyear comes out. It’s no masterpiece like Soul, but it at least has some soul. 

Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End is Exactly What it Says on the Tin (First Impressions, Volumes 1 & 2)

The combination of slice-of-life and fantasy seems to be a dream come true; basically, it’s a look at everyday life in a fantasy world, which is probably what a lot of us want. However, I’ve only seen it as a recipe for disaster. They’re slow, with boring characters, and fetishize women as much as any trashy isekai. Despite this, I had high hopes for the popular new manga, Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End

In Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End, the titular elf and her entourage have just defeated the Demon King. In the aftermath, they go their separate ways. Years later, and Frieren’s comrades die of old age, while Frieren still looks the same. 

Unlike other manga of this type, Frieren at least tries. In case you couldn’t tell, the main theme of the manga is death, which is particularly poignant through an elf’s perspective. Almost eighty years pass in the first volume alone, and the abruptness of the timeskips shows how little time that is to Frieren. More on that little aspect of the story later.

The main goal for Frieren is to head to the now-former site of the Demon King’s castle to perform a séance that’ll allow her to speak to one of her companions, Himmel, from beyond the grave. Because of this, the bulk of the manga is the typical, episodic, slice-of-life—well—slices that permeate this type of story to—well—permeate. Here comes the transparent honesty: I didn’t enjoy a lot of Frieren.

One reason is that I just simply don’t understand the theme of death. Of all the things humans have made overly complicated in this world, death remains the one, objective, simple truth. To quote what I’m sure is an old meme: “people die when they are killed.” While I do get the whole thing about Frieren not really knowing her old companions well enough during her original journey with them, I didn’t exactly care. Also, despite death being such a time-honored topic, it really doesn’t get to be as poignant as you’d think; a lot of the time, it just boils down to a running joke where someone says something in reference to a long passage of time and Frieren commenting on how it isn’t long at all. 

Something I will give the manga is that the demons are cut-and-dry cruel. They’re so cruel, that they trick people by playing the waifu/husbando card to gain humans’ trust, and then turn around to kill even more people. However, there’s a flipside to this. Once you learn this information, any plot twist to the effect of “the evil-looking guy was evil the whole time?!” is no longer a plot twist but something you’re made to expect. 

Slice-of-life is all about laid-back, grounded, nuanced characters. Even as someone who doesn’t always get hooked on this genre, part of me wonders if the cast of Frieren even qualifies by said genre’s standards (which they clearly do since people LOVE this manga). Frieren herself is basically a deadpan loli who cries a whopping one time at the beginning and then remains deadpan for the rest of the two volumes I read. She’s supposed to learn the meaning of life by watching everyone die of old age, which is another one of those weird human quirks that I don’t get at all. Also, it’s very explicitly explained that she’s insanely powerful, which makes any instances of action in the manga completely moot.

Her former companions basically have the same tired tropes, and this being their aftermath doesn’t really make them less tropey. The other lead protagonist is a fledgling mage named Fern who, well, exists. She learns magic, and gets really good at it. Say it with me: “Which means any instances of action in the manga are completely moot!”

To add to how flat Frieren feels, the art is flat as well. The setpieces are your typical Game of Thrones-type world which can easily be mistaken for medieval Europe if you take out the elves and dwarves. Also, the character designs are just… meh. Not even the demons look particularly sexy, which is really saying something.

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Current Verdict: 7/10

I really wanted to love Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End, but these two volumes didn’t sit well with me. It’s a case similar to Horimiya, where it takes a viewpoint of the human condition that I—as a man with autism—do not feel. Even with that being the case, there’s probably better you can do.