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. 

The Night is Short, Walk on Girl: Monogatari But It’s Heavily Under the Influence

I read and wrote a review of the standalone Japanese novel, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, a long time ago. It was a month before the lockdown that changed all of us. Now, what feels like a lifetime later, I found myself watching The Night is Short, Walk on Girl‘s 2017 movie adaptation, since it was on HBO Max. One of the reasons is that I reread my review of the novel, and realized that it was god-awful. My opinion on the work will probably remain unchanged, but I want to give a more professional dissertation all the same. Also, one thing I didn’t mention in the book review is that I had a bad feeling about it even before going into it. Back in the old days of MyAnimeList, the movie was often paired with Monogatari and the like as a profound and mind-blowing examination of the human condition; the kind of “elitist” stuff that you can’t criticize without risking an insult to your intelligence (even if that criticism is very intellectual in and of itself). So, without further ado, let’s get to reviewing The Night is Short, Walk on Girl!

In The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, a young college student is finally about to confess his love to the girl of his dreams! However, she manages to elude him without even trying. Will he be able to survive a long night in Kyoto, and meet up with her by chance?

Before getting into the movie, I need to confess my love for the movie’s setting. City nightlife is a real experience, even more-so in urban Japan. The night is a rare chance for Japanese people to be their true selves, especially when drunk (a major theme of this movie). In fact, one of my research books said “you don’t truly know a Japanese person until you see them drunk.”

The strangeness of the night is brought to life with the movie’s unique visuals. It’s minimalistic and abstract, with cartoony movements happening alongside Dali-like surrealness. Already, I found this to be my preferred version of Night is Short just from the visuals alone. It’s a real surprise that the same team would end up doing Ride Your Wave.

In case you couldn’t tell, the dude spends the entire ninety-minute movie just trying to talk to this girl. Visuals aside, the movie is a pretty simple rom-com. Both man and woman end up in ridiculously silly situations, all while in relatively close proximity to each other. Just like the book, the movie is split into four acts. 

Of course, it takes more than whacky visuals for the anime community as a whole to consider Night is Short profound. The movie is full of philosophical nonsense, and you can bet your ass that people take it way more seriously than how it’s framed in context. The main profoundity (new word) that’s explored is fate. It’s a major symbol for the whole movie. Elements of the many different stories all have some sort of connection, in order to provoke your thoughts into thinking that fate is a real thing. The amount of coordinating all of this is admittedly pretty impressive.

Sadly, like the book, I did not give a rotting carp about it. I personally call philosophy “overthinking mundane things, the job”, and it’s because none of it matters in the long run. Like, what is the takeaway supposed to be here? Is it open to interpretation? Am I supposed to look at the world differently? Is it all a vain attempt at pretending to be smart? 

To go at this from a more personal angle, well… let me begin by stating that I have autism (in case this is the first post of mine that you’re reading). As an outlier, I overanalyze mundane aspects of life all the time, and it’s only led to mental anguish. To be perfectly real, a lot of the stuff that comes up in philosophy is all in our heads. Morality, for instance, is an entirely human construct. Any other species would go extinct if they had to live by our rules, simply because they would all be guilty of murder. To paraphrase Temple Grandin, the best way to approach all the mysteries of the human condition is to not even bother trying to figure it out in the first place, and works like this movie are the exact antithesis of that mentality.

Surprisingly, I ended up liking the characters more this time around. The voice actors all do an exemplary job at giving everyone a ton of personality. When I reviewed the novel, I accused the girl of having no personality, when she’s actually got quite a bit going on. She’s got a childlike innocence, and is attracted to pretty much everything (read as: “booze”). She believes in fate, yet ironically dismisses her encounters with the dude as coincidence.

Speaking of the dude, he’s a classic underdog. All he wants is love, yet it seems like the world is against him. Surrounding them are a quirky cast of characters, from the tengu whose name I forgot, to the old cynicist Rihaku. 

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Final Verdict: 8/10

I enjoyed this version of The Night is Short, Walk on Girl more than the book. However, it’s still a pretty pretentious movie. I don’t know what it is, but a lot of Japanese writers have a real thing with trying to make the mundane feel otherworldly. Call me an uncultured swine, but I just don’t get it. In any case, I recommend this movie if you love Monogatari, or the novels of Haruki Murakami.

Slime Rancher: A Wholesome Management Game Draws Near!

I had known about Slime Rancher for a while thanks to StephenPlays’ First20 video he made years ago. I never watched the video, but it at least got me to acknowledge the game’s existence. And when I finally looked at its Steam page, I kind of wanted to try it. So, here we are. I just love making time management increasingly difficult.

Slime Rancher throws you in like cold turkey as you assume the role of Beatrix LeBeau, who runs a slime ranch in the Far, Far Range. Raise slimes and profit, basically. That’s it.

Like many games of its kind, Slime Rancher is complicated. The basic idea is to corral slimes, and feed them food to earn plorts, which are sold for money. However, you have to account for the many different slime types, as well as their behaviors and diets. Also, slimes can eat plorts, and eating a different type than their own turns them into a largo slime. These poop out plorts of both source types when fed, but eating a third type turns them into dangerous tarr slimes that can cause SERIOUS trouble.

The game doesn’t hold your hand, but in a good way. You get all the knowledge you need in your Slimepedia, and it’s up to you to figure out how to make all these different systems mesh. If you jump the gun trying to raise multiple types of slimes too soon, it’ll get ugly and high-maintenance. Also, if you place too many slimes without the higher wall and ceiling upgrade for their corral, they can pile up enough to escape pretty easily and eat your stuff (and each other’s plorts, creating more tarr). 

Fortunately, things really get going once you get cash. Spend it on various facility upgrades, as well as expansions of the ranch to allow more variety (and room) for slimes to be raised in. Essential upgrades include the jetpack, for exploring, and the ability to store and use water, ideally against tarr slimes. However, new upgrades seem to unlock completely at random. There are likely hidden prerequisites, but it’s not all clear what those are.

Exploration is the key here. There’s a LOT to the Far, Far Range. It’s full of presents, which are pretty useless as they only contain cosmetic items. The important stuff are the map stations and gordo slimes. The former is self-explanatory, but gordo slimes are large, stationary slimes that come in every type. Feeding them a lot of the favorite food of that slime type will give you important rewards, from keys to unlock new regions, to your source of fast travel from one region back to the ranch. While the world ends up being pretty small, there is a lot to it. The best aspect about it is that its design allows for sequence breaking in a lot of spots. With enough jetpack upgrades, you can fly up to the highest point in the level!

The lab opens up a massive portion of the game. With it, you can craft gadgets with Slime Science. These gadgets can place automated devices to find resources, and more importantly, the ability to create your own fast travel points for yourself and for items found while exploring. Simply deposit plorts and the various resources found with the automated devices into the refinery, and consume them in the fabricator to create your gadgets. Buy blueprints to get more rewards.

However, despite the “family friendly” tag on Steam, Slime Rancher can be tough. Not only will it be overwhelming at the beginning, but those tarr slimes are very scary early on. You can easily avoid them spawning on your ranch, but they can naturally spawn in the overworld (and I wasn’t willing to test if they can spread to your ranch from there). They can’t even be dealt with until you get the ability to store water, but once you do, they aren’t so bad.

You can disable them by playing the game in Casual Mode, but that doesn’t remove feral slimes. These guys will very aggressively hunt you down until you feed them something. Unfortunately, slimes are weird with acknowledging food. While not a problem on the ranch, since you can just vomit it into their corral and they’ll eat it eventually, but obviously feral slimes are a different situation. There were way too many times that I fired their preferred food directly at them, and had that food completely ignored, while I got bodied. Also, the Slime Sea is an instant death trap, and there are areas where you will have to platform over it. If you want a real challenge, play the game in Rush Mode, where you’ll need to be the best dang rancher you can be to make money fast.

In addition to a large world, there are side distractions, one of which is The Wilds. Here, you’re thrown into an area filled with feral slimes, and the entrance as well as the exit is in a random location. Collect as much of the special fruit found only in this area and redeem them for rewards to aid you in your ranch.

There’s also a fun challenge from this narcissist named Mochi. With her, you do a timed minigame where you collect lightning projectiles to shoot at an area-exclusive slime for their plorts. These plorts are automatically collected, and you turn them in for a lot of money as well as other perks.

The third and final side activity is the Slimulation. This is a virtual replica of the overworld. Vacuum up glitch slimes, which disguise themselves as regular slimes (but with Ditto faces), and as geometry that isn’t present in the real version of the world. After a while, glitch tarrs will appear to cause chaos. Once the exit portal appears, follow the guides to escape before you become a virtual snack. All glitch slimes are converted to bug reports, which are redeemed for an exclusive resource as well as other rewards.

The biggest problem with Slime Rancher is that completion, as is with most games like this, can be a hassle. While the map is good for your bearings, it’s not easy to find stuff in the world. Gordo slimes are marked off after you feed them once, and gadgets that you place get added to the map as well. But that’s it. Treasure pods—both unopen and otherwise—cannot be marked on here. In addition to a number of strange achievements, you must also earn a highscore in Rush Mode, which is a money-focused speedrun mode with a time limit.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Slime Rancher is an addictive and wholesome management game that puts a smile on my face. I already have the sequel wishlisted, and hopefully it’ll expand on the established mechanics to make something even better than this. I recommend it if you like management games like Stardew Valley.

Belle: Modern Fairytale Tropes Meet Internet Allegories

How long has it been since I saw an anime movie in theaters?! Oh right, 2021… Completely forgot about Earwig and the Witch (for good reason). More importantly, however, how long has it been since I saw a Mamoru Hosoda movie?! I actually own Summer Wars, his only movie I ever saw, and that was years ago. I didn’t exactly love it, mainly because I’m an autistic person who doesn’t understand neurotypical family relationships (i.e. half the movie), but his artstyle is pretty novel and I always wanted to give his other films a chance. The problem was that he apparently hates streaming? Call me a Zoomer, but streaming is a crucial money-saver in this century (and it helps Earth because it saves on the resources used to make a physical copy). Fortunately, Hosoda’s newest film, Belle, premiered in theaters just recently. I was skeptical due to it being a romance, but if I didn’t see it now, I wouldn’t be able to see it ever! Was the risk still worth taking, though?

In Belle, a social media network known as U is spreading like wildfire, dethroning Zuckerberg and becoming the most popular platform of its kind. It’s a virtual network that connects directly to your body and creates an avatar called an AS based off of your innermost self. It’s the perfect hobby for motherless, socially depressed Suzu, who ends up becoming Belle, the world-famous virtual singing sensation. However, things get dicey when she has a run-in with the Dragon, a naughty-boy avatar with a lot of cryptocurrency (and probably NFTs) on his head. 

Holy crap… Where do I begin with this movie? While straightforward, it ended up being way more involved than I had ever expected, especially compared to Summer Wars. Let’s start with the first thing you notice: how it looks. It’s called Belle (the French word for beauty) for a reason, and I’m not talking about the main character’s name. The movie looks absolutely spectacular. Hosoda’s style involves trading texture for consistent fluidity; basically, imagine a TV anime’s artstyle but with actual animation. The CG in Belle is some of the best I have ever seen in an anime, massive in scope yet able to incorporate the most minute little mannerisms. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, since it’s been over a decade since Summer Wars. I’m immensely glad I saw it in theaters.

I should also talk about the soundtrack. A lot of it is made up of original musical numbers, which are very orchestral and surprisingly powerful (for not being metal). One of these songs is called ‘U’ (like the setting), and it’s composed by King Gnu vocalist Daiki Tsuneta’s side band, millennium parade. They’re a band I tried when they were first starting out, but ended drifting away from when I converted to metal. I had no idea which song happened to be ‘U’, but since the whole soundtrack was solid, I feel like it was one of their better songs. However, you’ll just have to wait for my review of their debut album from last year before you know if I meant that as a compliment. Yay, marketing!

So, when it comes to Belle, it boils down to two major components: one, it’s inspired by Beauty and the Beast. No shit, Sherlock. The other aspect is that it’s an allegory to the beautiful digital prisons of our creation. It’s not new nor cerebral, but Hosoda conveys the general feel really well. Textboxes tend to clutter the screen as people mutter their crap. People make up stuff about themselves as well as stuff about others, such as the Dragon. Rumors form, cancel culture takes hold. The main villain, named Justin, is an SJW running a squad of Ultra-Mans who can literally reveal someone’s personal information to the world. As a blogger with a pen name, I could feel that anxiety of letting your other self be traced back to you. 

Of course, what it boils down to is some good ol’ fashioned waifu power. Suzu has to find the Dragon (or Beast, in case the symbolism wasn’t obvious enough), and make him less emo because… love? I dunno, she just gets enamored by his naughty-boy-ness when he first shows up. The plot is very straightforward for the most part. Despite it being Allegories ‘R Us, there’s nothing really left up to interpretation. Despite that, I still found myself surprisingly engaged throughout the whole film.

This is especially surprising because the cast was… something. Suzu is extremely relatable; in fact, Hosoda didn’t need to pull the “kill the mom” trope at all to make a character that people will resonate with, especially in this day and age. She has the classic Internet celeb character arc of having to find her true self between her physical and virtual bodies. Most of the others are just plot devices. Her nerd friend Hiro does all the techy stuff when she has to, these old ladies at this choir club Suzu attends offer support when they need to, etc. There’s some cringe-inducing, very teenagery romance, including a subplot involving some saxophone-playing girl and these two studs from school, and it means absolutely nothing. Also, why does Suzu’s father exist? He is the most passive fictional parent ever, practically letting her do whatever she wants. 

Also, the Dragon doesn’t get much elaboration either. It’s sufficient if you understand visual storytelling, and narrative tropes in general, but a lot of his arc also feels very plot device-y. Minor spoilers, he ends up not being among the characters we discussed, making his big reveal anticlimactic. On the flipside, it is realistic with how kids these days lose their minds over people whose physical forms they’ve never seen in any capacity (plus, Dragon’s situation is pretty darn urgent). Of course, being a romance, the ends justify the means this time around. 

Justin, the aforementioned villain, doesn’t get much development either. There’s no big fight against him or anything; he just ceases to exist after some point. Maybe that’s an allegory to beating back cancel culture people: ignoring them. In addition, don’t expect anything regarding the reason why U exists at all. They simply say it was created by “The Voices,” but we never get any more than that. The main focus of the movie is the romance, and the lack of any explanation of U is something that needs to be shrugged off.

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Final Verdict: 8.65/10

I dunno why, but I really loved Belle. I was prepared to call its social commentary pretentious and its romance manufactured, which it arguably is, but I wasn’t mad for some reason. Hosoda has the same Disney-like vision that Miyazaki has, but he adds a lot more of that quintessentially anime nonsense that makes Japanese culture so exotic to Westerners. Most importantly, he’s a SIGNIFICANTLY better director than Makoto Shinkai! I’d recommend Belle, but by the time you’re reading this, you’d probably have to rent it off of Amazon Prime video. Hosoda movies on streaming services pleeeeeeeeease!

Weathering With You: 2019’s Best Collection of Desktop Wallpapers

Anime movies are pretty hard to watch sometimes. While HBO Max has everything by Ghibli, they don’t have much of anything else. Streaming services are all missing a lot of movies by various people, especially Mamoru Hosoda. The Fathom Events screenings courtesy of GKids is the only option I have to see a movie when it’s new. Or… I could watch Weathering With You on HBO Max. Its famous creator, Makoto Shinkai, directed 2016’s Your Name, Japan’s highest grossing animated feature ever (unless the Kimetsu no Yaiba train movie beat it). I’m also pretty sure he’s the only anime movie director besides Miyazaki to get nominated for the Academy Awards’ Best Animated Feature (even if, like Miyazaki, he’ll never win because the Academy is the Academy). While not as popular as Your Name, Weathering With You was still immensely successful, both commercially and critically. With a new Shinkai movie in the works, I might as well watch one of his movies now to see what the hubbub’s all about.

In Weathering With You, a boy named Hodaka runs away to Tokyo. He lands a job with a single dad named Suga, who is sent to investigate an urban legend regarding the recent emergence of strange weather patterns. The source ends up being a McDonald’s employee named Hina, who has the power to make it sunny whenever she wants.

I already knew that Shinkai’s movies had impressive visuals, but seeing is believing. Weathering With You is gorgeous, sporting impressive feats such as individually animated raindrops. Even in crappy weather, Tokyo looks like an exotic paradise. No wonder why this man’s been nominated for the Academy Award.

The plot is a lot simpler than the actual animation work, though. When people start catching wind (or rather, catching sun) of Hina’s power, they pay her fat stacks to make it sunny all the time. In case it wasn’t obvious enough, her power will cost Hina her life. Oh, and the police get involved because Hodaka just so happened to have stumbled upon a loaded handgun.

The main philosophy of Weathering With You (besides “love trumps all”) is that the weather creates a placebo effect in humans’ moods. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic, but I found that belief to be a bit on the “dead wrong” side. There really is nothing else to the lore of the movie, except the apparent fact that cumulonimbus clouds all have golf courses atop the big flat bits that are home to magic water-fish.

Look, in case you couldn’t tell, I didn’t exactly enjoy the movie. That is also evident in the fact that I didn’t remember anyone’s surnames (their first names took everything I had). Naturally, I didn’t like a single person. Weathering With You has every appealing trope, presented in super-stock-looking characters. While Shinkai movies know how to have splendid backgrounds, these characters have the least style out of any anime movie I have ever seen. Sure, Ghibli and Hosoda’s tend to have same-face syndrome, but there’s at least a style. There is nothing in the cast that can even mildly perturb anyone.

That basically leads into my core gripe with the movie. I expected something that was at least so laughably bad, and manufactured, that I would enjoy roasting it. However, Weathering With You isn’t even that. Like Ride Your Wave, it is completely and utterly devoid of risk. Everything about the movie is precisely and perfectly set up. The commissioned musical numbers are also timed perfectly based on the mood to provide maximum emotion. Add the visuals to all this, and I completely understand how Shinkai works his magic. However, Weathering With You was still not an awful movie. I liked it more than Ride Your Wave and SIGNIFICANTLY more than Patema Inverted. The compliments end there, though. 

Be forewarned of the typical logistics issues that exist by nature in movies like this. I didn’t find them funny because… I guess I just expected them to exist, and they exist with no flare whatsoever. In essence, it’s a lot of the whole “kids constantly one-up the police” a la E.T. What makes this particularly stupid is that Japan has an uncompromisingly powerful police force when they’re actually needed, and it shouldn’t have been possible for anyone to oppose them. Also, at some point, Hodaka gets like a billion yen as “severance” pay. Yeah, sure, okay. Whatever, Shinkai.

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Final Verdict: 7/10

Weathering With You is very manufactured and accessible, and like many mainstream things, I do not understand why people think Shinkai is a genius. Yes, he knows how to pluck at your heartstrings, but I don’t consider that a compliment. This was extremely middle-of-the-road, and I can only be glad that I saw it included with a streaming subscription.

With that being said, I will probably pay to see his upcoming movie, Suzume’s Locking Up, in theaters when it comes around. I’m at least putting faith in Shinkai that his formula has some amount of variation. If not, then I disrespect him on an artistic and professional level. You, on the other hand, may enjoy Weathering With You to an extent, because it was tailor-made that way, but if you want a better anime feature with similar philosophies and actual balls, then watch the tragically underrated Children of the Sea instead.

Spiritfarer: The Ultimate Casual Game

I’ve definitely been getting a bit more into indie games lately (mostly because they’re relatively cheap), but most of the ones I’ve played are very much in the raw gameplay category. Of course, indie games are just as well known for being more “video” than “game”; as in, they fall into the realm of artistic and emotional experiences that have definitely turned the meaning of the word “videogame” on its head. From Journey, to What Remains of Edith Finch, Gris, and more, a lot of these are highly acclaimed and have brought tons of gamers to tears. I’ve watched people play a lot of the aforementioned titles, mostly from StephenPlays and his wife, Mal. While those games definitely presented themselves really well, I never cried over them. And honestly, it does kind of make me self-deprecate when I’m literally watching people break down in sobs and I… don’t. Basically, the crux of this long-winded preface is me thinking “What if it’s because I’m not playing these games myself? What if I need to be the one moving the character and pushing the buttons and looking at them from my own TV?” This is what’s led me to trying one of the latest emotional indie games, Spiritfarer. Well, that and the fact that you get to construct a cool boat in it.

In Spiritfarer, a girl named Stella suddenly awakens in the River Styx (or something). This creepy hooded guy named Charon looms above her, and says that he’s retiring from his job as the Spiritfarer. Stella, and her cat Daffodil, are given Everlights, which make them the new Spiritfarers. Their task is to find any spirit who isn’t ready to pass on and help them to pass on (which, in terms of gameplay, is to spoil them rotten until they’re happy). When they’re ready, she is to take them to the Everdoor, where they will finally join Prince in the afterworld, a place of never-ending happiness, where the sun shines both day and night. 

Normally, I discuss story, gameplay, and audio-visuals in that order. However, because of how Spiritfarer is, I’m actually going to discuss it in reverse, mostly because I want you to writhe in suspense over whether or not I—as the heartless machine I am—cried over the game’s story. For reasons I’ll get to throughout the review, the gameplay and story rely on how the game looks and sounds.

At a glance, Spiritfarer seems just alright visually. Indie games with hand-drawn art styles are nothing new, and this one looks no better than an American graphic novel (and if you’ve read my review of The Witch Boy, you’ll know how much I don’t care for that artstyle). However, you can’t truly appreciate Spiritfarer’s visuals without actually playing the darn thing, and lemme tell you… this ended up being one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever looked at. The colors are striking and vibrant, with beautiful lighting effects. The character design is fantastic, with every person having a unique and creative look. What really surprised me was the animation. Like I said, games done in hand-drawn style are nothing new, but I daresay that Spiritfarer has phenomenal animation. They know that good animation comes down to subtle mannerisms and minute details. And despite being a silent protagonist, Stella dynamically reacts to dialogue, which helps make her feel alive as well. Word of warning, though. Remember how old videogames loved giving you seizures? Something similar occurs in this game during specific scenes, such as when you welcome a new character to your boat.

The soundtrack is just as deceptively fantastic. As one of the few people who actually loved Zelda Breath of the Wild’s soundtrack, Spiritfarer’s was just as enchanting. It’s super chill (except at certain points, which I’ll cover later) and soothing. But unlike Breath of the Wild with having one overworld theme and then the final dungeon theme, Spiritfarer has several different themes. Sometimes, I’ll play as inefficient as possible just as an excuse to chill (that, and the fact that I’m never efficient in these kinds of games).

Regardless of what I end up thinking of the story, what made me more invested than anything was Spiritfarer’s gameplay, which will be discussed at length. In essence, Spiritfarer plays like a 2-D Raft, where you collect resources through various methods in order to craft facilities and structures for your boat. The system is pretty simple and intuitive, and you can place buildings anywhere within your boat’s space, since it’ll auto-construct ladders. The tricky part, especially early-game, is wrestling with the boat’s size. The various facilities come in wild shapes and sizes, and it’s as fun as it is frustrating to try and clutter it all together. Fortunately, there is an edit feature where you can freely move the buildings without having to dismantle and rebuild them. 

There’s also plenty of upgrades for your rig. You can go to Al’s Shipyard to increase the boat’s size, unlock new facilities, and a host of other things. One of the best aspects of this is that your quest menu will actually list the next upgrades, showing you what you need without having to go to Al’s just because you forgot what was required. You can also upgrade individual facilities, but you need to unlock those upgrades as they come. Stella herself also has upgrades. You earn Obols as payment from newly welcomed spirits, and by donating those to various shrines found throughout the world, you can give her improved mobility and whatnot. It gives the game a sort of metroidvania vibe, even though it really isn’t. 

So how do you get resources? Well, the main way is to visit various islands. Your map starts out pretty small, but expands as you explore further. And while you could theoretically shoot in the dark for a new island (especially on repeat playthroughs if you know where they are), you can also receive quests and random messages in a bottle that will mark out those otherwise darkened areas. Like Wind Waker, your boat actually needs to sail to it. And honestly, I think the sailing in Spiritfarer is better than in Wind Waker by a long shot. Once you start getting new facilities, you can kill the long sailing times by doing tasks (more on that later), fishing, or just straight-up relaxing. The ship cannot move at night, but that can be remedied by going to bed. Just remember to ring the bell just outside of your room to wake your guests (and also remember to never ring it unless the time display on the HUD has the bell symbol, especially not while they’re supposed to be asleep). 

Also unlike Wind Waker, there are a lot of resource gathering areas that regularly respawn en route (although you can and should go out of your way for them if you don’t have a straight shot to your next island). THESE are where things get fun. Despite the game not having any stakes or feeling of death, these special respawning zones (with the exception of collecting drifting crates) make resource collecting fun and exhilarating. From jumping around to collide with space jellyfish that live in random rifts in space-time, to letting yourself get struck by lightning to capture it in empty bottles, Spiritfarer somehow makes an adrenaline-pumping experience even though you can’t die. The soundtrack ramps up during these sections to make it even more fun. One of the best parts is that despite how “casual” Spiritfarer is, you are still rewarded for having intrinsic platforming skills, since you get more resources that way.

That philosophy extends to the facilities in the boat. Normally, the loom or the furnace are used like normal crafting tables, except you sometimes have to wait a minute for results. Here, you have to make them yourself. From playing a rhythm game to speed up plant growth to precisely cutting logs into planks, there are different mechanics for making various resources. Again, you are not straight-up punished for doing bad, but doing good gets you a bonus increase in results. They really keep you busy while the boat is moving. If you can’t stand the long journey (or don’t have any speed upgrades), you can sail to a bus stop (once unlocked) to fast travel around the world.

Cooking is done really well in Spiritfarer. At first glance, it seems like the usual “put ingredients in, get a thing, and slam your head against the wall trying every possible combination in order to get all the recipes”, but it’s a bit more than that. One thing I learned was that you could insert up to five of the same ingredient to get five that dish at once with the cost of more cooking time. Furthermore, your kitchen is a deceptively good source of coal because the sawdust you obtain from cutting logs can be cooked into it. There are also treasures that contain recipes so you don’t always have to brute force them.

SO… all of that covers what you can do on your way to a given island. How about when you GET to an island?! Sadly, the islands are hit-or-miss. Some are just flat albeit lovely plains, while others have a fair share of nooks and crannies. In any case, you will regularly need to visit these places to replenish your basic resources. Fortunately, the preview of it on your map will indicate if resources have respawned, which is a really nice touch. 

As expected from a resource collecting game, the platinum trophy is tied to obtaining at least one of every item in the game. These are presented to a lovely walrus named Susan, who is probably one of the best collector-type characters I have seen in any videogame. At certain milestones, you will get some great rewards, so stop by often.

Anyway, I’ve just talked about the faring part of Spiritfarer for about ten years but not the spirit part. Basically, you find wayward souls on various islands. A lot of people are dead in this world (for some reason), but the ones you want will have a silhouette over their heads. When recruited, they will begin to make the ship their own. As previously discussed, you need to make them happy.

The main way of doing this is to complete quests. This ranges from building new facilities (like their own private quarters) to going to particular areas of story relevance to them. You also have to worry about their moods. You’ll have to feed them regularly, keeping their individual tastes in mind. One of my gripes with the game is that the feed menu itself doesn’t show you their preferences, but honestly you just need to regularly look at their favorites (in the Mood tab) BEFORE you select feed. Unfortunately, they also fail to show what you’ve fed them already, making it an incredible grind to find their favorite dish. As far as I know, there is no trophy for finding everyone’s favorite food (and if there was then I missed it).

You also need to make sure you talk to them whenever an exclamation point or a random text box appears. Usually, it’s just a reminder that they’re hungry or have a quest; but sometimes, you get random tidbits of their backstory. You should pay attention to what they say, because if they talk about an unpleasant memory, it will decrease their mood, and you should respond appropriately by giving them a hug (yes that’s a thing in this game).

So, we’re finally onto the story. The story that many have said is emotional, heart-rending, and powerful. I’ll admit that I was impressed. The writing is phenomenal, with a lot of dry humor that somehow fits in well with the more emotional stuff. All of the characters have basic personalities, but are given more life by the excellent writing and emotive expressions. The game is great at building anticipation for releasing them, and the actual cinematics when that happens are breathtaking. 

And yet, I didn’t shed a tear.

There are some reasons that can be blamed on the game. While the writing is really good, a lot of the more nuanced aspects of the spirits’ character arcs are very loose. Heck, you won’t even be explicitly told exactly how they died. Also, you could literally just be checking on them while you make your rounds, and they’ll suddenly be like: “Let me share with you this traumatic memory!” I tried to pay attention for the most part, but it’s hard to pay attention while you’re trying to make sure everyone (including assorted farm animals) are fed, your windmill is actually rotating, your plants are watered, while also squeezing time to smelt ores or use the loom. This game was something that had to be left up to interpretation, but the Lily Update that came out early 2021 straight up tells you Stella’s backstory and each spirit’s role in the overarching story.

However, the blame still rests on me, and it probably has to do with my autism. I say that the characters are loose and interpretive, but that could easily be my inability to understand people. There are some aspects of the brain that completely elude our best neurologists to this day, which are part of some sense of “understanding” that I do not have. Most neurotypical people can probably read the lines of these spirits as it is, and piece together exactly what happened to them—down to their cause of death—with no problem. In fact, based on one of the patch notes I read, the fans knew more about one character than the devs themselves! Honestly, I feel jealous. Games like this are part of why I question if I like having autism. 

Regardless of what the exact backstories of these characters are, with Spiritfarer being a slice-of-life, they’re all going to amount to being a normal, realistic, human issue of some kind. People and critics seem to think that those are the most objectively and unequivocally fascinating narrative themes, but I don’t. I suppose you can blame my autism again.

Also, my impression has sort of been colored by the content updates. It’s not really the content of the updates, but the fact that they were announced when I was in position to beat the game. Since I wanted to play those first, I ended up waiting months for them. And as a result, a lot of the plot was lost to me. My clearest memories are the above passages that you just read, written while they were fresh in my mind (this review, consequently, took over a year to write to completion).

Beyond all I’ve discussed, there are still a couple of flaws with Spiritfarer. It’s nothing game-breaking, but I don’t want to sound like that guy who glosses over issues just to sound “right”. First off, while the game appears to be pretty open world, progress is deceptively linear. Usually, these kinds of games gate you from certain progression by just not giving you certain resources, and having you craft what you can in order to gradually find those resources. Spiritfarer is a lot more strict than that. The resource collection events, such as lightning and stuff, are tied to a specific character, requiring you to have them on your boat before you can obtain the resource. Also, certain regions of the game are locked behind specific boat upgrades. Those upgrades require a Spirit Flower, which is only obtained by releasing a spirit, making the game even more linear. This also, sadly, can make you look forward to releasing a spirit, which kind of kills the emotional value of the sequences. Other than that, some chests require blind leaps of faith to reach. There’s no punishment for missing, of course, but the lack of bottomless pits doesn’t make that kind of level design any less annoying.

It also gets grindy if you go for the platinum trophy. Fishing isn’t too bad if you can find the optional upgrade that allows you to catch even the most difficult fish in less than a minute. The problem is the cooking. If you don’t look up all the recipes, you’ll end up brute-forcing a lot of them. While most items take any of a given type of food, some are more specific. It didn’t make the game fun anymore, so I just gave up on it. Oh well, like Hudson Hornet said: “It’s just an empty digital cup.”

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Final Verdict: 9.65/10

Spiritfarer is one of the greatest casual gaming experiences of my life, and definitely one of my favorite indie games. It didn’t make me cry, but it’s something I will never forget. I’d try the other two games by this team, but they—in a stark contrast to this game—look rip-your-ass-off-difficult. Hopefully they’ll start working on a new project soon-ish? In any case, I recommend Spiritfarer if you like Stardew Valley and Edith Finch and stuff.

The Girl from the Other Side: Wait, How is Dark AND Wholesome at the Same Time?!

There are times when a manga is so unique and otherwordly that you can’t even come up with an intro to segue into a review about it. This is the case for The Girl from the Other Side: Siúil, a Rún. It’s no surprise a weirdo like myself would find this among his favorite manga of all time.

In The Girl from the Other Side, a curse has ravaged the world, turning people into undying beasts (which is also contagious, by the way). A young girl named Shiva is sheltered from it all, in the care of one of these creatures, simply named Teacher. She seems to be immune to the curse, but that only paints a “Kidnap Me!” target on her back.

The Girl from the Other Side is straight up whimsical. The plot is simple to follow, yet it constantly asks new and intriguing questions about what’s going on. I found myself sucked into the narrative, and always wanting more. It felt relaxing, yet suspenseful. It gets confusing fast, but everything is tied together shockingly well towards the end. There really isn’t anything wrong with the story as far as cohesion goes.

Given the fact that it stars a girl and a monster who live together, The Girl from the Other Side is incredibly easy to compare to The Ancient Magus’ Bride (also, both manga are published in the same magazine to boot). In comparison, The Girl from the Other Side is much darker in tone, and has a lot more focus on its overarching narrative. There’s also no hints of romance, unlike The Ancient Magus’ Bride, which has romance to spare. Due to the fact that Magus’ Bride has sort of devolved into a Harry Potter clone in recent volumes, I’m willing to declare that The Girl from the Other Side is the better of the two.

The characters are its only flaw, though. While Shiva and Teacher’s interactions are one of the manga’s greatest strengths, everyone else is kind of just there. Fortunately, the bulk of the story is centered around Shiva and Teacher anyway, so it’s not as consequential as something like Overlord

Something else you may consider a flaw is that it intentionally leaves some plot threads unresolved, namely, closure when it comes to the curse itself. While we learn of the reason behind it, there is no effort to lift it once and for all; the story is strictly about the relationship between Teacher and Shiva. Call it a cynical social commentary or a liberty taken to help the story flow, but that’s just how it is.

Everything comes together with the manga’s downright enchanting and mysterious artstyle. While the cover art is both dreary and quaint, using simple desaturated colors, the actual manga itself is where the art shines, or rather, where it darkens. The artstyle in this manga uses the Gestalt theory of art, and creates shapes by filling negative space with black in just the right way. It makes an otherwise generic fantasy world stand out really well. I want every page as a desktop wallpaper, please.

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Final Verdict: 9.5/10

The Girl from the Other Side is a short and practically perfect manga. It might not have waifus or pulse-pounding action, but it’s something that is very unlike most series of its kind. Hopefully the movie adaptation will be just as good!