Scattered Thoughts – tasting Tales of Berseria

     I’m not an avid gamer, and it’s even rarer for me to completely finish a game. Usually I just either get bored with the gameplay or get stuck (and then get bored). That looks completely different from my completionist-like stance towards anime, but I guess I just hope to finish any game I started some time in the future. Considering gaming that have ties with anime my portfolio is even scarcer – apart from some visual novels (still waiting to complete Fate route of Fate/Stay Night and finish several remaining routes of Tsukihime) I don’t think I’ve ever finished anything else, and my only knowledge about Tales series stems from the Zestiria anime, so for me Tales of Berseria is a big deal, so prepare for a lengthy post.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Theme of Velvet' by Motoi Sakuraba

     The story begins in not the most unique way possible – you, and that also means the protagonist Velvet, get your share of peaceful jogging around before being abruptly taken from this pleasant life to another, full of dark emotions and almost no hope. Velvet’s younger brother (as adorable as it gets) ends up being killed and that changes Velvet to the point of her only goal becoming revenge, no matter the means, no matter the collateral damage. As usual with such games, later on Velvet’s quest turns out to be a part of a far bigger problem that is the mandatory saving of the world.

Not that impressive dungeon

     The world provides plenty of beautiful locations – from cities to harbors and grassy plains, from icy landscapes to tropical beaches and volcanoes, though sometimes visual repetition isn’t avoided. Another great aspect of the game is that the story sometimes leads back to some already explored locations that changed from your previous visit – it makes the world more alive. Also a nice idea is that the NPCs over the world discuss the news (that usually are about Velvet’s travels). The facts they usually get wrong but that also enhances the realistic nature of such talks. You feel that it’s important what you have accomplished and you affect the world more than just going to a random dungeon and finding some stuff here that nobody cares about. Despite quite strong world building, when you get down to some caves, dungeons and old temples, the boredom slowly starts to seep in. These confined monster areas feel very much the same, closed by plain walls, one chamber not different by any means from another. There’s another problem with that. The monster areas feel a little too long – each time you start, eager to learn what kind of creatures roam around, but sooner rather than later you just end up mashing the same buttons for the best attack combination.  Later on you acquire more abilities but, as most of early stuff still works reasonably well, I ended up not using much of that.

Button mashing time!

When you have the battle system figured out and the combat has lost its novelty, it becomes a serious chore and the only remedy for that is avoiding the monsters. Speaking about an occasional lack of uniqueness, there is only a very limited number of NPC models and it actually took me a while to come into terms that all these people don’t really travel from one location to another with you but are just a way to cut the costs.  At least if you’re bored, there’s always some mini games here and there so you need only choose between card playing, doing the most damage or improving your reaction time among other things, but it’s only a temporary solution as you inevitably need to return to the main story.

What a bunch of weirdos!

     Staying true to the genre, soon a group of adventurers forms around Velvet, each with his own objectives and problems, but temporary goals still prove to be strong enough to more or less unify them. At this era of the world, most of the seraphim (basically spiritual beings) are bereft of free will, being used only as tools. A little seraph whom Velvet saves from such a fate soon becomes very important to her but Velvet struggles to distinguish him from her dead brother, to the point of also naming him Laphicet, her brother’s name. At first Laphicet was just a doll without any semblance of a character, but his development into someone who can speak his mind and make wise decisions was probably the biggest among all the characters. Laphicet’s emotional change is also helped a lot by another member of the group, Eleanor. The apparent unannounced fight between her and Velvet for the affections of Laphicet doesn’t take much time to get established and that ended up being quite fun. Anyway, Eleanor also has her own goal – being an exorcist and initially opposing Velvet’s movements, she started to question the decisions of her superiors and dig up all the truth about their works. That inevitably led her to become a part of this anti-governmental band of weirdos. Eleanor also has a subplot of recovering from her traumatic family circumstances by herself developing some motherly traits.

A cutscene of a 3D fight in the game...

The two male members of the group doesn’t have much going on – with Eizen constantly looking for his vanished pirate captain (and thinking about his mysterious sister but that sadly didn’t get much time) and Rokurou trying to find and kill his brother. Still, the biggest impression was left by the final member – a witch Magilou. At first she seemed to be one of those immensely full of herself and very annoying characters but eventually I ended up liking her a lot. A character who doesn’t take anything seriously, is able to exploit every situation for her own benefits and is absolutely unpredictable automatically is very charming. Magilou also has a more serious side beneath her wacky exterior and it’s even more fascinating to see it shine from time to time. Every important character (and location) has his own musical theme that well suits his characteristics. There are some interesting parallels between the characters and sometimes it allows for them to reconsider their options, to better understand themselves or just to see how different philosophies might lead to different outcomes from the same starting point. There’s also a negative side to that – too much of even some good stuff may go sour and I don’t even care to count how many different tragic mother-daughter relationship permutations Berseria used.

...and the same fight in the Tales of Zestiria the X anime, only in 2D

     As you see, the group of the adventurers is particularly varied and character designs convey that. Each character has his color code and alone looks at least ok. The problem is when everyone gathers together – the colors clash. It seems like no one bothered to give any thought about visual character chemistry. Cowboy Bebop for example did wonderfully choosing character color scheme that looks good when characters are alone as well as together and with Berseria sadly that’s not the case. There are other things like Velvet’s gear. It’s no doubt that it looks cool but practicality of it is questionable. A fantasy game may get away with a retractable blade on a wrist but even if at first Velvet only thought about revenge I doubt that she would never think of changing her attire into something more appropriate if not more practical compared to her default outfit. Who needs so many extra belts anyway? Continuing about character designs, naturally they change quite a bit between 3D gameplay and 2D skits and the effect is ambiguous. Well, the mere fact that some of the cutscenes are 2D and others 3D feels quite weird. Velvet looks far better in 3D without that so-pointy-you-can-prick-yourself nose. On the other hand 3D Laphicet looks anything but adorable with his too huge eyes that show very little personality which is present in 2D images.

Velvet, rags and belts included. Also a discount on a demon arm.

     Let’s get a bit deeper. Now what I’ll say may sound like a blasphemy to hardcore Tales fans, especially since (for all I know) it might be one of the trademarks of the series, but here it is – the world is not consistent considering its seriousness and believability. One moment you might encounter a very emotional scene with Velvet struggling with her humanity and a few moments later end up collecting lost souls for some crossbreeds between cats and teletubbies. The game lets the player acquire and use various cosmetic outfits, varying form maid or school uniforms to beach clothes, pirate eyepatches and other random stuff. Personally I can’t imagine myself playing a game where a person with cat ears argues about serious battle tactics with a person with a dog’s tale, while a third person with a bikini (leaning against an iceberg) casually observes everything. Of course there’s no need to take advantage of this possibility so that’s not a big deal. Nonetheless, even without believability-bending cosmetic outfits constant encounters with Katz people (and the like) and especially the enormous silliness of Magilou’s companion normin Bienfu in my mind clash very hard with the mere idea of being in a story of saving the world. I understand that some comedy is needed and for the most part it works fine (not to mention that marketing loves mascot characters), but I think that such a foul-mouthed, annoying and just plain ridiculous (not even considering his hat) character like Bienfu adds little to the game. If the game is marketed as a very serious one, exploring deep matters and dark themes, I expect it to retain all these aspects more or less for the whole game, not only at certain times. Well, Velvet herself sometimes seemed to get carried pretty far away from her initial resolve to dedicate all her energy to the revenge. That may emphasize her human side but how much her resolve is worth then? Also laughable seems the scene where Velvet refuses to drink because she isn’t the legal age yet. I appreciate the message but I doubt anything else should feel as out of place as this from the lips of a person who apparently doesn’t give a damn about anything else except her sole objective.

Some drama in a nice field of flowers

     There are also some other dislikeable things. There’s a tiny treason subplot and in terms of the story it should be something big and important but it get brushed under the rug never to appear again. The guilty character doesn’t even get any inconvenience because of that as others just shrug off everything as it is a completely natural thing and nobody needs to worry about that. Another thing concerns the villains. It’s believable that the main one thinks he’s a good guy and it’s possible that to some extent what he’s doing is for the greater good. Nevertheless, his lackeys lack any complexity. Thus all the hard work spent staging Velvet as an antihero feels a bit pointless. I think it would’ve been far more interesting to have Velvet’s opponents better explored or just to make them at least somewhat likable or their actions justifiable. Velvet’s original revenge goal already is sinister enough and going on only because of selfish reasons until the end would’ve created far more complicated conflict. Velvet already struggled to acknowledge that what she has been doing isn’t really justifiable but that was undermined by making her opponents too evil and step by step reshaping Velvet into the herald of good people.

Need some comedy?

     I can’t say the ending was applaudable. At first the lead up to the final battle was rather unsatisfying. It’s natural that games try to hype you up quite a lot before the ultimate fight, but Berseria stumbles a bit in that department. When a character says “let’s prepare for the final showdown” and you do, but then follows a monster area, twice or thrice longer than usual ones (in no area the repetitiveness was so irritating than in this one), and apart from that many map areas that interconnect in various ways made it particularly easy to get lost there. The final fight itself proved to be deliciously challenging, and using some potions became a necessity, and that never had occurred before due to my normal difficulty setting. When the fight ended, there inevitably was an animated wrap-up. I guess its biggest problem was that overall it felt more like a “now go play Zestiria” kind of ending. On the other hand, pretty much the same thing happened to Zestiria’s ending itself – everything was just cut off, and in a completely unforeseeable way. When you get invested in an intricate story, one of the most fun aspects is trying to guess how the characters will achieve their goals (because they always do). All the fun evaporates when the story doesn’t find some clever path that has been hinted through the journey but ends in a Deus ex Machina way because of magic (or some alternative of that, the essence is still the same). You then just think “Oh well, I guess it’s also possible to do that” and go on with your daily stuff. The fate of Velvet was just like that. I don’t know if anything of her ultimate end was said in Zestiria and it would be even more frustrating if the answer is negative. Most of the other characters just went on with their lives almost as if nothing had happened. I can’t really say that apart from Laphicet any of them accomplished much in the first place. A fan of the Tales universe will probably find many lovable points that interconnect both Zestiria and Berseria, and recurring characters are one such thing. Despite the fact that such a connection gives more historical depth for the story, that comes with a price of having less options to wrap Berseria up, and that in my mind turned out to be not the least problem of the game. Maybe making Berseria a stand-alone game would’ve worked better?

Excerpt from the OST: 'Magilou, the great sorceress' by Motoi Sakuraba

     Overall I think I’ll remember Tales of Berseria quite fondly. Thanks, Tales of Zestria the X, for directing my attention to  this game, even if you as a story failed quite a bit yourself. The overarching question of Berseria – whether interests of a single person or society are more important – gives some food for thought and in the end the game provides a definitive answer to that – individuality must always be considered no matter what. Because it’s rather the journey and not the conclusion that counts, the story was engaging enough. Game mechanics may not have been the thing in the world, but as I stayed for the journey and the world, I think my time spent was worth it.I still don’t have the slightest idea what does the name Berseria itself mean (unless it’s a confirmation that Berserk manga will have an ending).

     Some time ago Lethargic Ramblings posted some thoughts on the whole Tales franchise and that, apart from assuring me to write about Berseria, also was entertaining in its own right, so check it out if you haven’t yet.

     Have you played Tales of Berseria? What do you think about it and other games of the franchise?

Musings and Reflections – Summer 2017 Week 2

Ballroom e Youkoso (Ep. 1)

     Well, it truly is a shounen underdog story featuring Haikyuu. If it weren’t for the visuals I doubt that it would make an interesting premise for me. The way Fujita ended up joining the dance studio isn’t the most believable. I mean what are the chances that a guy who isn’t apparently interested into anything suddenly finds out that he has an irresistible wish to dance? Why not try some sport, volleyball for example, if he has wants to do something? Too many coincidences undermine the idea that a person might need only a little push to get into something if he’s just waiting for the right opportunity to show itself. Also, from where does the devotion to dance all night come – that time it was his only second visit to the studio? I think the story would’ve started in a more powerful way if we had been shown more of what a person Fujita really is before giving him this fascination about dancing. Now we only know that he behaves a bit foolishly sometimes and doesn’t have many interests. As the show at the very start introduced the dancing itself, Fujita has been used only as a shapeless clay and he’ll gain any new characteristics only through dancing. It’s a pity because we’re just thrown into the fray with a loud exclamation “This is the protagonist and you should care!” but so far there’s no reason to do that – he’s just more or less a blank doll until he overgrowns that state but that will happen only through dancing. Speaking about the art, it’s rather astounding. The count of lines seems far greater than only necessary, the movement combines gracefulness with not that smooth but precisely calculated angular movements, the famous giraffe necks also stand out quite a lot. Well, the show has its own aesthetic and it should fit the theme rather well. So yeah, it doesn’t look like the show I would drool over but nonetheless it should be entertaining enough from time to time, especially when the competitions will come.

Made in Abyss (Ep. 1)

     Not bad, not bad at all. The initial stage of the story definitely feels childish but many manga readers only smirk knowingly about that. An unexplored location always is a good start to any kind of story, and also having a character who only recently got attached to a group of local people is a classical way to start everything with a justified reason to explain everything. The info-dump that’s almost inevitable to such kind of stories is kept until the very end, and overall is very limited, so both of these things are positive. The whole location as well as that giant slug monster reminded me strongly of Ghibli production, both by the feelings they evoke and just because of detail put into everything. Shots here and there giving more depth to the world payed off really well, giving more ideas into what kind of place we’re invited and what kind of society exists near the Big Hole. Character designs as well as a guy who’s basically Astro Boy with some Spiderman capabilities may not be the most exciting aspect about the show but again – only the time will judge the end result. Anyway, the premise sounds unique enough, the atmosphere was just brilliant and I’m more than happy I decided to try the show out.

Re:Creators (Ep. 14)

     Millions of questions. How widespread is the knowledge about the creations? Is it wise to tell so many people about the truth and the plan? Also, can the government expect that the anime industry will find enough resources to produce something big and cohesive when already in the real world some animators are dying from overworking? Why does Kikuchihara give a presentations while standing in front of her slides and thus blocking the view? Do we really need another character? Where is Magane? Anyway the meta part of discussing the creative differences and problems of creating such a huge collaboration was quite interesting, though everything once again boiled down to lots of static shots and taaaaaalllllkiiiiiinnngggggg. The creators only showing written ideas to each other and not just simply discussing them by speaking feels silly though of course it’s for the dramatic profit. The same goes for showing a black screen during the main guy’s mysterious suggestion. Regardless of the usefulness of his ideas as far as I remember, he can’t really draw that well so trying to involve a kid with no experience in such a huge project have infinite ways to backfire. And doesn’t anybody need to go to school by the way?

Sakura Quest (Ep. 15)

     To think about it, just the fact that Sakura Quest included a foreigner as a dweller in a rural Japanese town as well as some foreigners that are neither Americans nor Russians (and not English either) makes the show exceptional. As usual, Sakura Quest manages to create some sort of a cliff-hanger so you would eagerly await the next episode, but this time I’m a bit cautious. Earlier such situations were usually downplayed for laughs or just explained in a too normal way – that happened with the ominous dude in the match-making event (oh, but he’s just an ex-boyfriend) as well as the apparent Yoshino’s run from Manoyama just a couple of episodes ago (oh, but it’s just her vacation) or the very question who the Spanish were last week. Maybe this time something that starts interestingly will retain its attractiveness until the very end. Though again, the preview of the next episode showed a picture of a band that apparently consisted of the old chief, the exoskeleton guy and Riri’s grandma, and that looks not exceptionally exciting. I’m not even going to guess what is the thing that was drowned in the pond, it can be anything from a boat to some weird statue but as it’s going to shed some light on the past of Manoyama, I’m all in. Speaking about Riri’s longing for other places than her own town, it’s great how the show manages to weave this thread with the Spanish and the secret in the pond. Even when some other story is in the focus, the girls are not left without some minor but still essential developments, and that’s commendable.

Musings and Reflections – Summer 2017 Week 1

Re:Creators (Ep. 13)

     Ain’t it meta when an episode starts with words that in order to defeat Altair much stronger plot progression is needed? And it actually turns out to be a witty recap.  By definition recaps aren’t an exciting thing to watch, especially since I wasn’t prepared for one. Nonetheless I can do nothing but applaud the creativity with which the episode was constructed. One way of creating a good recap is retelling everything with plenty of new footage, but making one full of meta and jokes also turns out to work well. Who else than Meteora can once again talk about everything? To some extent the recap emphasized some of Meteora’s relationships, such as her respect for Selesia. I wonder whether the real Meteora also has some secret wishes to be the hero she portrays herself as or it was just a deviation from the norm because it should’ve been funny. To some extent it was. Justification why the recap happened (and the whole idea of breaking the 4th wall) probably were the highlights. Even Rei Hiroe got some rocks thrown at him for too intricate character designs. Well, overall as a DVD special this recap was a good and innovative one but as a normal episode – not that impressive.

Sakura Quest (Ep. 14)

     Why is it that a second OP always seems worse than the first one? This one isn’t bad but doesn’t have the same energy and sense of constantly moving forward. To some extent that suits the episode when three girls take a break from Manoyama. Only Riri and Shiori still work and encounter these Spanish people. Even if I would, I couldn’t possibly think of anything more random. This joke as well as others landed pretty well. Well, concerning the Spanish, I have a premonition that Sandal has (or will have) something to do with that. Anyway, the episode still concentrates on the other three. All of them are unable to completely forget their job and try to remember all the ideas their old friends talked about and decide if something could be used in Manoyama. Also, none of them were that happy at the very beginning being stuck in the middle of nowhere but now only Maki hesitates (still, she hesitated but didn’t accept instantly) when someone suggests putting their jobs at the Tourism Board aside. It’s just like a little confirmation that the girls have grown to like Manoyama as well as each other’s presence and despite having their own lives and interests still try their best for for the town.

Musings and Reflections – Summer 2017 Week 0

     I can barely remember the last time I was this unexcited about a new season. Last one was plagued with sequels and this one just fails to intrigue me. Yes, there are some tried and tested leftovers left that should provide enough entertainment but other than that… Usually there’s at least several shows that look exciting either because of their premises, their studios or just some particular creators. This time? Not really. Apart from a few only mildly attractive ones there’s lots of light novel adaptations (particularly those that deal with isekai), some romcoms, shounen battle series or silly comedies but I feel that I’ve already seen enough not to fall for anything particularly hard. On the other hand since I’ve become part of this community fairly recently, there’s lots of good stuff stuck indefinitely in my backlog, so this summer might be a perfect time to experience some classics that I feel uncomfortable for not having watched yet like Madoka Magica. Also it might be a good time to get into Monogatari franchise. So yeah, let the backlog season begin!

Re:Creators

      Re:Creators didn’t have any break so the story continues as if there was no change in seasons. The group came up with a plan to stop Altair and all the remaining episodes (weirdly only 10 of them) will probably tackle that. Well, it’s nice to have some direction where everything is going, even though some yet unseen fictional dudes will probably appear and make everything more messy. I just expect more talking (quite a lot actually) and some cool fights. The continuation of the story that makes sense would be welcome. Tying all the loose ends and explaining all the mechanics of fictional characters appearing in the real world might become a huge problem for the show, but we can only wait. Anyway, Hiroyuki Sawano should be at his best, as well as Maya Sakamoto’s lovely Magane, and that’s a lot.

Sakura Quest

      Again, I doubt a second cour will be that different from the first one. Stakes may become higher, Yoshino might have more trouble acknowledging everything good she has brought to Manoyama, but the same pace of having two or three episodes for one mini-arc should remain. As there are 5 main girls it’s natural that their charatcers are still very much in need of exploration and though they all had their moments and did experience some changes, undoubtedly there’s still much room for new stories to be told. The fact that Yoshino has been to Manoyama in her childhood might gain more significance, the backstories of the girls also could be expanded much more. If everything will go as it has been, I’ll be more than content.

     Apart from these two that I’ll definitely continue, Fate/Apocrypha looks like just another random spawn of the franchise that has little meaning to me now because I’m still determined to finish the original visual novel one day.  Princess Principal has Yuki Kajiura on board and I don’t even know how much stuff I’d need to watch in order to understand Owarimonogatari. Only these four might look more promising:

  • Ballroom e Youkoso looks exactly like Haikyuu and seems to aim to appeal to the Yuri!!! On Ice audience. It’ll probably be the flagship of sports anime and end up being not a bad one, just very sports-anime-like nothing innovative apart from the setting.
  • Kakegurui looks like another anime set in a high school despite having nothing really to do with it. Over the top (almost Shokugeki no Soma level) reactions are guaranteed, but it might just end up being an ad for the manga.
  • Katsugeki/Touken Ranbu distinguishes itself only because of ufotable. I still have respect for them but the CG road the studio chose isn’t something I like that much. Some scenes definitely will be nice and all but considering that it’s a game adaptation I don’t have much faith. Especially after God Eater and Tales of Zestiria.
  • Made in Abyss is still shrouded in mystery (for those as myself who haven’t read the manga) but there are rumors that this show isn’t what it seems – cutsy character designs don’t automatically mean a harmless story.

    As always I’ll just wait for the reactions of the community. Well, it might be not a forgettable season overall, but I think the choice to pay more attention than usual to older anime might be a better one than blindly plunging into everything that statistically should be only of average quality.

     Have I missed anything prominent? If you have any recommendations since it’s clear that I could use some, please share!

Hand Shakers – “I can” doesn’t mean “you should”

Studio GoHands
Genres Action
Source Original
Episodes 12
Season Winter 2017
Director Shigo Suzuki
Music GOON TRAX
.

     When Hand Shakers aired, it was more than clear that the show was a serious contender to be elected as the worst anime of the season if not of the whole year. Yet, when the show ended, no one seems to remember it anymore. On one hand it barely deserves to be remembered, particularly so when far better shows are becoming forgotten so soon after the end of their airing. Nonetheless, even if you despise Hand Shakers with your whole heart, the show might have some interesting quirks that should be mentioned. Just for the sake of curiosity let’s try to find some good in this mess.

Is it a cooking show?

     And a mess it really is. Hand Shakers is an original series but, as many have pointed out, it’s mind boggling that originality isn’t one of its distinctive aspects at all. Hand Shakers rather feels like yet another light novel or computer game adaptation, just because of the unending feeling that there should be some coherent story around, the world should be interesting but it just can’t escape its embryo stage. Everything begins with the main guy Tazuna whose only characteristic besides being the main character and having appropriate to this rank plot armor is that he can fix things. Tell me it isn’t similar to Shirou Emiya from Fate. Anyway, Tazuna manages to inadvertently awaken a certain girl named Koyori from coma and it just happens that the two of them now become Hand Shakers. That, as an annoying but very convenient scientist dude explains, means fighting other Hand Shakers. The best pair is said to get an opportunity to ask a god (oh well, that escalated pretty quickly) a wish to be granted. It’s not all, sadly. At first it’s told that because of some circumstances Koyori mustn’t let go of Tazuna’s hand because then she’ll die. Oh well. So yeah, we just have a death-game scenario that doesn’t feel that different from shows like Mirai Nikki or the same Fate franchise. The clichéd premise is only the top of the iceberg as Hand Shakers never tries to move anywhere from it. The concept of Hand Shakers themselves is never expanded that much after the initial info-dump as if it was the least important thing in the story. The whole season is spent fighting pairs of villains, defeating them (how else?), then somehow befriending them, spending some time just randomly chilling out and moving on to fight another pair. I’d guess that if everyone would be so thrilled to get their wishes granted, every other episode shouldn’t be about cooking but that’s not the case. There’s even more stuff that is painful to remember – apart from the story that doesn’t try at all to make sense there’s some sisters crazed for their little brothers, bizarre superpowers, characters even more boring or annoying than the main guy – you name it. I can almost bet that any single trope you despise about anime in some form or another is embedded in Hand Shakers.

Where is the focus in this scene?

     Characters definitely aren’t an aspect Hand Shakers can be proud of. As I’ve already said, Tazuna is noticeable only because of the screen time he gets. Tazuna’s partner Koyori is even worse. She starts as a doll character, for some reason unable neither speak nor do a single thing herself. Her main accomplishments through the series seem to be learning how to make a conversation and eat some ice cream. Watching our main pair is as exciting as looking at a robot taking his dakimakura for a walk. Probably the next important character is the scientist guy. Apparently his personality should be akin to Okabe the “Mado-scientisto” from Steins;Gate but the attempt only proves that Mamoru Miyano has a voice and personality so unique that any copycat is destined to fail from the very start. The temporary antagonists sometimes provide a glimpse of some interesting story (for example about an idol that has to deal with the fact that she doesn’t have any audience) but as with everything else, the execution isn’t competent enough. The show just fails to provide a believable world by making pretty much everyone silly or mentally challenged. I doubt that normal parents would gladly approve of their son bringing home a random girl saying “Hey, it just happens that I can’t let go of her hand, so she’ll live with me”. The sense of humor is also questionable. Just take a look at a screenshot below, explaining why the main pair has to help a school festival by making some food.

Whut?

     Say what you will about the generic story and characters but what really sets Hand Shakers apart from other forgettable shows is the visuals. There’s no doubt that much work has been put into assembling the series but sadly it looks like the team consciously thought of every possible way of making the experience less enjoyable. Hand Shakers can be distinguished by constantly and needlessly moving camera (especially in the first part), causing serious disorientation to the point of some people complaining about headaches. Each and every surface, be it a character or a background element, looks very glossy and constantly reflects light rays that sometimes move even when the camera doesn’t. The colour scheme is all over the place – you can expect countless colors, hues and shades at the same time, so it’s even difficult to say what is the most important element in a particular shot (in other words, the staging is virtually nonexistent). To some extent the coloring problem had to be expected since it’s not the first time that GoHands plays with this fire – Mardock Scramble trilogy already showed the root of this disaster. You can have insane amount of colors but it works only in rare cases such as my favorite example Mononoke. The same glossiness also creates a cold atmosphere and characters look more like they are fully CG. And CG itself is also a problem because there’s plenty of it, and it’s not good. The moving chains from the first episode is probably the worst thing in the show you can experience in terms of both making sense and appealing visually. The problem of CG not “meshing” (to quote the show itself) with 2D is also aggravated by the moving camera. The characters, CG objects and backgrounds all create a dissonance between themselves, and that may be even worse than the infamous Deen’s dragon. To return to the character designs, I can call them everything but pleasant. The glossiness doesn’t help, but even without that the same (and bland) face syndrome isn’t a disease GoHands if free from. Much attention was payed to the eyes (it’s an anime after all) but it doesn’t help at all sympathizing with the characters. Koyori rather looks like she could easily be taken as a blind person in another show. If I had to say one good thing about the visuals, some crowd scenes were surprisingly lively. Of course it was just a rare occasion before moving to static crowd shots but when it worked, it seriously looked good.

Excerpt from Hand Shakers

     The music is an interesting thing to talk about because it’s probably the only thing about the show that can’t be bashed right away. More interestingly, the credit for the soundtrack is given to GOON TRAX but its site says that it’s a label, so I can’t even name a single human being who’s responsible for the music in Hand Shakers. The soundtrack itself is composed of tracks that make not the worst playlist to listen to when you do something else. Usually there’s some relaxed piano over a background beat, just the thing you’d expect from, say, a music in the background of some YouTube video. The problem is that there’s nothing more to the soundtrack than these laid back tracks. When the show delves into its more slice of life segments (where nothing happens) such a music fits quite well. On the other hand when pretty much the same tracks are played over more serious battle scenes, it doesn’t “mesh” at all. Overall the soundtrack leaves an impression of being absolutely bland and uninteresting as an integral part of an anime series. At least the ED was quite nice, even if I didn’t care about a sad girl that doesn’t know how to do anything.

Excerpt from the OST: 'There's No Way' by GOON TRAX

     What can I say? For the majority of people Hand Shakers is a “burn it with fire” show, others (for the most part myself included) may find some entertainment for the “so bad it’s good” factor and probably no one will find it enjoyable enough. The story is pretty much garbage but it still has the gall to try to tease a second season by the end. Hopefully that won’t be realized any time soon. Or ever. To think about it, a studio that spends so much time for details and unconventional animation techniques just got incredibly unlucky because of the incompetence to play to their strengths right. Such detailed backgrounds by itself look pretty good, and I think a more experienced studio like ufotable wouldn’t be embarrassed to use such art of such level for their productions. To continue the comparison, ufotable also likes to use some CG space and where the action happens (for example Kara no Kyoukai 5 or Tales of Zestiria the X) and while their CG for me isn’t something that seamlessly harmonizes with 2D stuff, ufotable knows far better when to use their arsenal of means. Employ someone who understands what color design is, don’t be that ambitious, and you might become a half decent studio, GoHands. A writer also wouldn’t hurt.

How about no?

     I believe, that you should just

0

Don’t bother

     I can’t in good conscience recommend the show to anyone unless you’d like to laugh at its incompetence and bad choices everywhere. Even then it might be a very difficult task to endure all that Hand Shakers has to offer. Better stay away from it.

     Did you watch Hand Shakers? Can you think of a single positive point about the show?

Musings and Reflections – end of Spring 2017

     Yet another season has passed and while I can’t say it didn’t have its moments, it’s really hard to single out its key features. Even the huge hits like Boku no Hero Academia and Attack on Titan were only second seasons, and while they seem to had gathered some audience, I can’t say they brought much novelty to the table. Seikaisuru Kado might be a show to check out later on, but I guess I chose my seasonal watchlist pretty well. All of the watched shows somehow feel very similar in terms quality and while their stronger and and weaker points vary a lot, I doubt that any of these will be that relevant two or three years later, though by no means I can consider them bad.

Re:Creators

    I decided to try Re:Creators only because of the staff and some initial warm reactions from some fellow anime fans. What’s it like? Lots of talking, talking and talking. The main guy even after so much time doesn’t feel like he has a slightest reason to be in the series. But it’s not bad. Fictional characters becoming real, bringing with themselves their outlooks on everything based on the stories they were created for, some mystery elements whose explanations (e.g. more talking) are taking forever and are getting more and more complicated… Well, usually it’s fun, especially since Maya Sakamoto’s character is always there to liven up the pace (otherwise dead from talking) and add some more chaos to already not that clear mess of various motivations and goals. I wouldn’t call the show that exceptional but there’re far worse ways to kill your time. Oh, I almost forgot. There’s some talking.

     Re:Creators receives the award of the favorite OST of the season. I can’t say it stood out that much above others but Hiroyuki Sawano is a thing. Or rather the thing. Probably no other music (maybe besides made by Yuki Kajiura) can pump you up that much during an action scene.

Little Witch Academia

     Probably everyone who watched LWA can summarize it in a very short sentence – good, but not enough. It’s almost impossible to top the effect of the original OVA, and the series clearly showed that. I was quite happy when the second cour turned the wheel to a different direction compared to the first one, deciding to scrap episodic nature and add an overarcing story. Some steps towards the finale were rather unimpressive, other times some of the original LWA spirit was just burning through, but in the end the level of excitement wasn’t that high. The side characters more often than not felt abandoned and forgotten, the final goal felt too vague and unimportant for day-to-day use. The last episodes despite trying hard to provide as much sakuga as possible, wrapped everything in not the most satisfying way full of conveniences and a sense of never really providing enough satisfaction.

     LWA receives the award of the most memorable character of the season – Akko showed lots of spirit and to deal with some crushing news she got by the end of the show for her was very hard. Nonetheless our enthusiastic heroine retained her grin and by the effort alone came out on top.

Natsume Yuujinchou Roku

     Well, it was just more of Natsume. The 6th season had both great and endearing moments that probably only Natsume can provide, but also the show wasn’t free from less interesting stories. Content-wise this season wasn’t exceptionally better or worse compared to previous ones but what really caught my eye was the presentation. Studio Shuka never has been praised for perfect scheduling and flawless visuals and sadly more times than not it was clear watching Natsume. Characters barely moving, getting off model more than is comfortable to look at and painfully rare sakuga moments often got more attention than all the stories. Sure, Natsume’s source material usually is strong enough to carry all the weight despite the lack of support from the visuals but at this point it needs to be addressed. Such Natsume is better than no Natsume, but come on, Shuka. With some slight but very interesting developments by the end of the show I look forward to the possibility of getting the 7th season very much. Shuka, at least don’t get bankrupt until then.

     Natsume Yuujinchou Roku receives the random award of keeping the top-notch quality for the 6th season, but that only applies to non-moving side of things.

Sakura Quest

     The show was advertised as an anime about girls working, and that’s ultimately what we got. Seeing what problems might a random rural Japanese town face has been very educational and provided enough material for the characters to deal with. It doesn’t look like each of the girls received much focus individually but in the end I became more or less attached to all of them. You can easily believe that such a team could really work someplace and come up with the ideas they do. And there are plenty of ideas, taking advantage of many possible marketing areas – be it local cuisine, crafts or even weirdos (everyone loves Sandal). The novelty of constantly learning new things about  the characters and the town itself, providing an endless stream of various situations and problems a tourism board could have to take on – what else could you ask from a piece of entertainment?

     Sakura Quest receives the award of the favorite show of the season. The competition was very tough but I guess the least flaws and very relatable characters are attributes the show can boast of. Sakura Quest also gets the award of the of the most impressive scenery of the season. Manoyama might be a rather dull town but the girls brought lots of colors. It might be a bit too far-fetched but the attire of the heroins must also be mentioned – someone must’ve spent lots of time designing a multitude of different clothes.

Tsuki ga Kirei

     Oh, the lovable kids. A love story without any hidden twist like “but look, one of them is a zombie (or a vampire)” and staying very close to fundamentals of romance wasn’t probably the most exciting show ever but it did hit pretty much all the points needed to make an entertaining show. I can’t deny that some of the actions of the characters reminded me a bit of myself when I was a school-kid, and that itself makes a show far more relatable. Sure, there were some missteps like CG extras everywhere and very limited animation to save resources for other times that probably contrasted too much to poorer parts of the show. Nonetheless, the story was told, and I’m very glad that it didn’t end like many anime – a kiss and an unfulfilled promise to tell what happened next. The end of the final episode showed exactly that and, when you realize that you care for our couple, feels very gratifying for deciding to stick until the end.

     Tsuki ga Kirei receives the random award of having the most disturbing CG students from time to time.

     Favorite OP of the season was that of Re:Creators. I guess Hiroyuki Sawano is a point that almost automatically throws out any competition, though Sakura Quest this season also got quite a good OP. Sawano’s heavier (compared to usual J-pop OPs) sound paired with some serious-faced character motion scenes creates enough suspense to say that the show means business.

     Favorite ED of the season was that of LWA. Again Sakura Quest again came close but the sheer effort of Masanobu Hiraoka who soloed the  incredible and unique animation and a nice song to go with it – what else can an ED need?

Musings and Reflections – Spring 2017 Week 13

Re:Creators (Ep. 12)

     It feels like a season finale structurally but there’s nothing of sort in terms of visuals. We finally got a plan and remaining episodes should be devoted to its execution. It turns out the main guy was a bigger jerk than it was clear after the last episode. Of course now there’s nothing that can be changed but if he had so little friends he may have thought of having a close conversation with the suicide girl and sorting everything out, even if it would’ve been pretty painful. Still, the main guy’s only characterization so far remains just the fact that once he behaved inadequately and now is sorry about that. It’s weird that no one in the group looked impressed or just cared enough to offer some help or something.  I’m bothered by the fact that Altair’s fanfics are able to give her new abilities but there’s no similar thing concerning other characters. Don’t tell me a random character without a story receives more fanfics than acclaimed stories do. I still don’t understand how a published book is different from a tweet in terms of getting power. Let’s say that twitter (because of its nature) provides only temporary boosts but are then Altair’s abilities based only upon temporary skills? As far as I understand she was created and became popular via some web platform that isn’t too fundamentally dissimilar from twitter but her powers seem pretty permanent. Well, I’m starting to wonder if I should keep trying to understand everything at all. Some things just doesn’t make much sense. After Alice’s external brains sadly died she looks to be finally taking advantage of her own personal neural network. Nothing too impressive so far but it’s still a step to a thinking personality. I’m almost completely positive that the new guy from the scene after the credits is one of Selesia’s buddies, because in the ED there’s a scene with Selesia flanked by two dudes whose clothing closely resembles the attire of this new guy. If that’s true, some interesting encounters are right on the way. So yeah, let’s go forward with the power of doujin crossovers!

Little Witch Academia (Ep. 25)

     So where do I begin? Starting from the positives, the message that you need to believe and only from that comes the magic is clear and it nicely summarizes the whole show. The final scene where Akko finally learned how to fly also brought back memories from the very first episodes and worked well as a conclusion. I don’t even need to say anything about the animation – it’s obvious how much work was put in. The story though… To think about it, the power of friendship worked too literally and Deus ex Machina moments weren’t scarce. I doubt any self-respecting missile would wait for some witches to talk a bit, then open their tech-support kits and construct a pseudo-reaction-engine-powered-tandem-broom (witch by itself is pretty cool) and start a race. Not to mention that the rocket itself came out of nowhere, and the same thing can be said about that mad broom from the first episodes. Powering up by wearing special clothes isn’t very convincing, as the fact that it took so long for anyone to notice that people’s wills may generate magic. Maybe the whole world of LWA is full of idiots who need to announce publicly that “I’ll start believing these girls” before doing that. It’s jaw dropping how everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten that Croix did some nasty things. Apparently not nasty enough since her role as the main villain was so easily stolen by a random missile whose character was developed using far less time. Andrew was as useful as always, and that means he just provided time for the animators to take a break from hectic movement of Akko and friends. I expected much more from LWA but oh well, it could’ve been way worse.

Sakura Quest (Ep. 13)

     You know the show has achieved its goal when it makes your own emotions align perfectly with everything it tries to evoke. Every single change from total excitement seeing the huge crowd to the horror when the quiz flopped or the TV program finally aired felt like I was watching my own friends succeed or fail, that’s the power of characterization P.A. is capable of. To think of it, it’s definitely sad but inevitable that business world is based on profit and not on good will. TV program just wants as many viewers as possible, and, as the film crew previously, will do everything they can through editing or other means to ensure the success of their own goals regardless of the actual outcomes for anyone else. To be frank, Manoyama isn’t a place whose beauty and other perks come clear at first sight so it was quite natural that the mob just went to see a concert that could’ve easily happened anywhere else. In that regard Manoyama gained only a little profit from a huge but one-time-only surge of people. Yes, it’s still a huge step forward compared to all the Chupakabura marketing before Yoshino came but there’s still a long road to go to get people come to Manoyama because it’s Manoyama itself they want to see. Well, the story of the episode was just like the real life goes on – something might go extremely well but inevitably there will always be many things that can be improved. Sandal again proved to be a weird source of entertainment, trying to go travel to Guam with a random dude.

Tsuki ga Kirei (Ep. 12)

     Damn, that was beautiful. Last time I said that I wanted to know what the far future holds and it seems like someone heard me. I guess the real climax actually was the last image of the show and every single episode, every single scene were only building up to it. You can say that the whole final sequence was too idealistic and very rarely everything ends up so well. On the other hand, the whole show is very idealistic – both Akane and Curly are very down to earth but optimistic human beings, trying as best they can to learn how to live on, and that optimism and hope that everything will be ok drives them on even when some circumstances are not that favorable, such as Curly not passing the entrance exam. As the show tried to be as realistic as possible such an outcome as Curly failing was a natural one – sometimes you just are not meant to succeed no matter how hard you try. The ending sequence was even stronger due to the fact that Chinatsu entered the same school as Curly. Knowing how pushy she has been against her own better judgment I can almost guarantee that Curly experienced some uncomfortable situations during his high school years. Anyway, even if the show tells as that everything ended in a way that’s probably too positive, that heartwarming conclusion made up for many flaws during the whole airing.

Eeeeeeh?

     Well, I’m quite irritated. Imagine yourself finally getting a review finished, with every piece thought out as well as possible. As I tend to stick to some sort of a form while writing reviews, it’s always a good idea to check some older review if I haven’t missed anything. And then, ladies and gentlemen, I imagine splendidly finding that not a single one of images in the reviews is shown. I’ve hosted pretty much everything on PhotoBucket and it turns out they just decided that images can no longer be hosted on any 3rd party website. Of course there’s a way out of it, and it costs only 400 dollars.

     To be frank, when I started, I didn’t pay much attention to what hosting site was the best and for the most part PhotoBucket was doing quite well for me. There was that space limit so inevitably some time in the future I would have had to move somewhere else but there still was plenty of time. Another issue was that PhotoBucket didn’t always wholeheartedly accept my images, maybe it had to something with the fact that I don’t live anywhere near USA. Particularly it was hard to upload gifs but usually with some additional attempts everything would come out all right. More or less.

     So yeah, it turns out I have to move every single image on this blog somewhere else and it’s going to be a huge pain in the ass. Well, at least the images themselves didn’t vanish altogether, they’re only unavailable to view on the blog. It’s quite weird that some of my newer posts have retained their images but that’s only a slight positive.

     Cheers PhotoBucket,  you may as well choke on those 400 dollars but they won’t be mine.

Musings and Reflections – Spring 2017 Week 12

Re:Creators (Ep. 11)

 photo MR12.1_zps2itxyc2w.png

     First of all, especially because of the OP I start to miss Mamika. I’ve never thought of her as a very interesting or particularly essential character but seeing her all happy knowing how everything ended for her feels sad. The 2nd-rate-Shinji unexpectedly got much screen time, apparently content about his role of saving the world and not bothered anymore by “get into the damn robot”. The conversation later on might become the first spark to ignite the creativity of the main character who still isn’t useful at all. He can’t even draw particularly well, so why is he featured in the show at all? His story with the creator of Altair is finally info-dum… sorry, explained but I still don’t really get the mindset of keeping everything secret. It’s understandable that the main character wanted to escape telling about his role in the story but still. Firstly, if the story of his involvement is complete, it’s hardly him that triggered the suicide of the girl. Yep, he wasn’t the most helpful guy ever but simply being a jerk doesn’t automatically mean he killed her. Also, to a person who doesn’t know anything the main character’s role in the suicide story is extremely tangential so it appears to me that telling everything straight away while omitting his own role wouldn’t have been a very difficult thing to do, especially when there’s a question about safety and lives of many people. That is if the backstory is complete and the main character hasn’t done anything more jerk-like. Either way, he still feels very redundant.

Little Witch Academia (Ep. 24)

 photo MR12.2_zpsthloo1ly.png

     I’m very sad to conclude that I’m disappointed. The last two episodes raised the stakes pretty high and the first part of this episode just made little sense. Trigger’s approach to make references to their previous works or other phenomena is worth some praise, but this time Chariot’s lightsaber (and other visuals of this kind not even mentioning the tone) just detracted me from the story, making me remember all of the Star Wars stuff, or, even worse, similar stuff in SAO.  Moreover, isn’t using a lightsaber based on magic? So why then Chariot can’t fly but is still able to do something magical? Was the effect of the pollen somehow selective? How (and when) did the two other witches appear in Croix’s tower inclined that she’s the culprit? Isn’t it a bit of a mind leap? When you think of it, Croix by the end had monopolized all the magic (don’t ask me how that works) so what did she try to achieve by all that Grand Triskelion stuff? That should have just reinvited normal magic to the world so as far as I understand there’s no clear profit for Croix. Anyway, her plan didn’t work, but still, getting some sparkles and a bit brighter colors in the world as the reward for the two-cour journey feels like not the best joke ever. Sure, it might be nice to tease the viewers with such a worthless result, but why the buildup then? next we have a random technology randomly morphing into a random dragon. Ain’t nothing too random about that, eh? How did Akko manage to cast the Shiny Arc spell if all of the magic was disabled? The conversation between Chariot and Akko was a nice one, the characters were surprisingly on model in the second part of the episode but that’s not enough for me. If you create some rules, you should stick to them and neither break them randomly because “magic” nor start inventing something new because that’s convenient. By the way, why that Grand Triskelion magic (or whatever it’s called) was sealed in the first place?

Natsume Yuujinchou Roku (Ep. 11)

 photo MR12.3_zpspkq1qone.png

     It’s quite funny that even if the story was quite unusual for the last episode of the season as far as Natsume goes, it still managed to insert a montage of various moments between Natsume and all his friends, so the episode ultimately did retain some predictable qualities. While I can doubt of a possibility to capture images of youkai in a photo, that may be the only negative thing I can think of. Leaving some mystery over what really was the old exorcist researching and what exactly was destroyed was far more interesting than an outright victory of achieving the full knowledge would’ve been. Natsume’s ability to deal with the dragon familiar confirmed how much he has grown – it turns out enough respect and persistence can win over everyone. As I thought before, Natori didn’t react that much about the story of the Book of Friends, but a possibility still remains that he may at some point succumb to more mischievous desires, but for now everything remains unchanged. Probably the most surprising idea presented was that of a mysterious male relative of Natsume. Shuka definitely has problems with scheduling and realizing their ideas but I’d offer much to see another season of Natsume elaborating the ancestry more. Reiko and her human relationships have always been an unexplored and very attractive part of the Natsume universe, and such a tease as we now got nothing but screams asking for more. Well, hopefully it can happen, and not in a very far future, and preferably with far improved visual quality.

Sakura Quest (Ep. 12)

 photo MR12.4_zpsflqdntoa.png

     I guess at this point it’s worth pointing out that Sakura Quest has created its own identity and it’s pretty much not an option anymore thinking it might be just a discount Shirobako. Yep, the shows have similarities, but the scenarios make everything seem vastly different. I’m actually quite amazed that there are still many things you can do promoting a town, and a TV documentary turns out to be one of them. Seeing the girls act too self-consciously but after some time getting more natural in front of the cameras feels very natural itself. I’m still afraid a bit that the TV producer’s ideas how to get more attention might clash with the views of the Tourism Board, but so far it’s just a pleasure to see how everything comes into place and another public event (and a very large one) comes into being. Of course, everything isn’t without problems, but after some considerations it’s gratifying to see that a common goal can make things happen. It’s nice to be reminded that Yoshino has come to Manoyama before as a kid, and that actually might be a story to be told on TV. Yoshino as she is now might not seem like the most colorful person to talk about and it’s hard to pinpoint any specific quality that she gained after becoming the Queen. Nonetheless it’s clear that Manoyama has greatly benefited from everything she has come up with, and, similarly to Akko from LWA, Yoshino’s most important accomplishments might be changes induced in her environment and, even more importantly, her companions.

Tsuki ga Kirei (Ep. 11)

 photo MR12.5_zps6ykob27b.png

     At least this time there were no additional skits after the ED. Curly’s clash with his parents was quite well executed. It’s clear that both sides were right to some extent but also failed to completely understand one another. As expected, everything got sorted out completely, even if the change of the mother’s perspective anticlimactically happened off screen. Otherwise it was just a more or less typical episode of the kids trying to do their best. And that wasn’t too exciting to be frank. Everything just went at a pace of a snail. Of course it can be argued that Curly’s and Akane’s relationship is steadily building up, that both of them are getting more and more comfortable being together, their blushing is seen less and less. Gifting something to one another a few episodes back probably wouldn’t have been even thinkable as a remote possibility. It’s nice and all but knowing that everything is just going on normally without many relationship-threatening problems isn’t going to increase my investment in the show. on a side note, I’d very much love to see what would become of such a pair in ten or twenty years.

Scattered Thoughts – what do you get by mixing Urasawa and Tezuka?

 photo 2_zpsudyjprkv.png

Pluto vol. 2 and Astro Boy vol. 3, both covers feature Astro Boy

     Let’s think for a bit about various remakes, reboots and reimaginings concerning our community. Probably what first comes to mind is the constant stream of news that one anime or another is getting a live action adaptation. And we all know what the general opinion about such stuff usually is – “Oh god why? Not another one!”. Technically, these cases aren’t really remakes, as it involves changing the original medium. Anyway, it’s not unheard of for an anime to get a true remake, as usually it either takes advantage of new technical capabilities (NGE) or, more importantly, also changes the story because the original anime wasn’t very satisfactory (for example FMA or Fate/Stay Night to some extent). Sometimes remakes as well as unending sequels are also used to rekindle interest in long-running franchises such as Sailor Moon. But have you ever come across such a phenomenon in the manga world? Naturally, it’s not common since drawings don’t age as fast but that doesn’t mean that such things don’t exist.

 photo 0_zpsliwazurc.png

Osamu Tezuka among his works and a post stamp showing him with Astro Boy

     Let’s move on to the mandatory appreciation sentence about Osamu Tezuka – there probably hasn’t been a more influential person in anime and manga history and there will never be. The details of the history of manga and anime are an interesting topic by itself but it concerns today’s theme only a little. Many of you probably already know that Tezuka was heavily influenced by Disney animation and American comics of the same time period. Tezuka started imitating characters and stories available for him in pre-war Japan, little by little moving on to find his own voice. For a long time his character designs and characters themselves remained very Disney-like, just the right stuff for uncomplicated stories that usually fall into contemporary family friendly slice-of life comedy genre. As Disney and generally all of the Western animation up until now has concentrated on providing entertainment for younger audiences, Tezuka in his time managed to move on. His manga gained more depth (both visually and story-wise), more complex themes such as psychology of human mind and social problems started to appear. Tezuka’s medical education also became an influence to his manga and it wouldn’t be too bold to say that medical schools became more crowded because of his art. Tezuka deserves all the credit for influencing the general look of modern anime, more cost-effective outlook on the animation production compared to the Western animation and most definitely types of stories that both manga and anime tend to tell.

 photo 5_zpsutbb5icw.jpg

No way this could be a bad guy

     It’s probably impossible not to have heard anything about Astro Boy or as it was called originally Tetsuwan Atom, meaning Mighty Atom. Tezuka’s famous manga series about a little robot dealing with various usually robot-related problems in a superhero way have received many adaptations, first being live-action tokusatsu series in 1959. The first anime series in 1963 despite featuring some really limited animation also deserves a mention since it was directed by Tezuka himself. Astro Boy franchise proved to be particularly alive and influential, promoting Tezuka’s visual style and forming both anime and manga mediums for years to come. Yet, I don’t consider myself a huge Tezuka fan. The only Astro Boy related material I’ve consumed (that is specifically for this post) is The Greatest Robot on Earth arc from the manga. This arc seems to be among the most liked, and not without a reason. Generally the arc (as I guess more or less the rest of the manga) never really gets out of its simplified storytelling with inconsequential conflicts and not the most believable character actions and motivations. It’s crucial not to expect many deviations from a tone and style that would appeal to children. Most of characters appear to be one-dimensional – for example the evil ruler behaves the way he does because he’s just evil. Some of the choices of the story are questionable if anyone wants it to be realistic – characters fight, then reconcile, then fight again while maintaining a semi-friendly relationship, help one another or just decide to postpone a fight for silly reasons such as not being allowed to fight because someone just said so.  Fighting seems to be the main factor that decides if someone is better than someone else. Even if sometimes some other characteristics are said to be important, ultimately it’s fighting that answers all the questions. The overall mindset of the manga can be clearly illustrated by an example when the bad guy saved Astro Boy and then Uran, Astor Boy’s sister, gave the bad guy some stickers as a reward. Oh dear. The artstyle further emphasizes not the most serious nature of the manga – the cartoonish origins of Tezuka’s style are clear. Both characters and backgrounds appear to be very flat, techniques that are more known to be used for American comics such as squash and stretch are used in many occasions. That works for little comedic moments but also undermines the stakes of the story. For me it felt quite weird – as if I was reading comics knowing that it was actually a manga.

 photo 6_zpsfakkqsas.jpg

Just two robots enjoying an afternoon

     Nonetheless, Astro Boy also gives some food for thought, mainly through the main antagonist robot Pluto who is told to destroy all of the most powerful robots, Astro Boy included. Pluto constantly emphasizes that he doesn’t want to fight Astro Boy and does that only because he was programmed so. That creates sort of an inner conflict and ultimately makes Pluto not as much as a villain but more of a tragic character who isn’t fortunate enough to be able to behave the way he would like to. Even so, Tezuka’s shounen world is able to give chances to Pluto to overcome his programming sometimes when it’s convenient to the plot. Ultimately, the story has some interesting aspects but I don’t think you miss anything skipping this arc unless you’re interested in the history of manga.

 photo 7_zpsh1khgara.jpg

A nice background with a part of Naoki Urasawa

     At this point Naoki Urasawa comes into the picture. One of the most prolific mangaka of our times, author of such masterpieces as Monster. I don’t think much is needed to be said about him because his works speak for themselves, being far more accessible than some part of Tezuka’s dated legacy. Having admired Astro Boy since his childhood and possibly naming his protagonist in Monster after a character in Astro Boy, Urasawa opted to rework the The Greatest Robot on Earth arc into something completely different. If you more or less know anything about Urasawa’s style, you should be at least mildly interested – Urasawa’s realism and deep interest into the psychology of the characters at first glance shouldn’t mix well with full of conveniences and very childish Tezuka’s creation.

 photo 3_zps4bcsevy1.png

An improvement in art of Gesicht, though the handshake remains the same

     It turns out that Urasawa’s end product named Pluto has very little in common with its predecessor apart from the some general plot points and various not necessarily Astro Boy related Tezuka references. To some extent recreating the story and giving soul to the characters wasn’t the most difficult task because Tezuka’s pace was just insane. The original arc’s length doesn’t comprise a full volume while Pluto tells the same story through 8 volumes.  The change of pace can be illustrated by the fact that the first powerful robot to be destroyed – Mont Blanc – in Tezuka’s version appears in only 2 pages but instead of that Urasawa elaborates how Mont Blanc’s destruction affected everyone else in the world – lots of tears, funeral and stuff. That’s a very characteristic feature that makes both versions different. Tezuka just can’t stay in one place for a longer period of time wishing just to continue the story so that the readers won’t get even a slightest chance to be bored. On the other hand Urasawa spends a sufficient time to portray every character as realistically as possible, building relationships and pondering how each of the events concerning really powerful and known robots would affect everyone in the world. To make things more interesting, Urasawa also shifts the main character role to a robot detective Gesicht who received barely any time in Tezuka’s version. Another difference is that Urasawa’s version of the story has far more mystery elements. Tezuka showed the main antagonist from the get go, while Urasawa delayed its complete appearance four fifths of the total length of the story. Needless to say the effect is stunning.

 photo 8_zpscsglqpcg.png

War isn't pretty

     One huge addition in Pluto is the idea of a past but still quite recent conflict that affected pretty much everyone in the story and shaped their motivations. It’s not hard to guess that United States of Thracia declaring a war to Kingdom of Persia because the latter allegedly constructed robots of mass destruction is connected to the Iraq War. Regardless of what you think of it, Urasawa makes himself clear considering his stance toward the conflict – war can accomplish absolutely nothing. Such moments like when one of the most efficient killing machines wants to learn to play a piano just scream about the meaninglessness of war. The said background then is used to make the characters more connected to the world they’re in. In Pluto every of the most powerful robots gets his own story, sometimes made of vague hints of Tezuka’s version. For example Epsilon at first was just a cautious Australian robot who for some reason cared about some kids. Urasawa expands Epsilon into a person who declined to participate in the Persian war and rather became a caretaker of some of the orphaned kids from the same conflict. This Epsilon is naturally being looked down on for that but just as is with humans, rejecting a fight doesn’t necessarily make you an irredeemable coward. Other robots also receive various motivations such as behaving because of the love of one’s country, developing a healthy rivalry, or just wishing to live the most fulfilling life possible.

 photo 9_zpstfecznpl.jpg

Urasawa's art at its best

     The original Astro Boy had ideas about robot rights and how life would be when there’re robots everywhere. As with everything else, Urasawa expands the idea. The end result is a really interesting world where robots are still bound by strict rules not to lie and not to kill humans but on the other hand they are conscious. Robots try to mimic lifestyle of humans, forming families, adopting robot-kids, in other words just pretending to be what they aren’t. It’s fascinating that the act of crying for a robot might ease a little a great pain, even if the robot has no idea why and how. The portrayed state of society is also thought provoking because robot rights and stuff are still a fairly new concept, evoking even secret anti-robot movements, clearly bearing significance to racial discrimination. One of the most tranquil moments in the early chapters came when Gesicht came to announce the death of a police robot to his wife and experienced her subtle response to that. A little later this scene was heavily contrasted to another one when the same killed robot after some scientific examination was just scrapped into trash with other ordinary junk. Some robots might even feel complicated emotions and be just barely distinguishable from humans but it’s a no brainer for the government to play with robot memories if it suits the needs. Also, if ordered, a robot must kill his fellow robots no matter his own thoughts. All the rules concerning robots and general understanding are just not yet developed enough to make them truly equal to humans, and such a theme is always intriguing to explore.

 photo 1_zps7iommxs7.png

Epsilon turns out to be reincarnated Johan from Monster, but only visually

     As well as the story, the art of Pluto is very much Urasawa-like. Perhaps sometimes even a bit too much Urasawa-like. Gesicht’s personality and appearance to some extent resemble inspector Lunge from Monster, but Epsilon is just a twin to Johan (not to mention that both of them are good with kids). Technically that means Nina Fortner, and that’s also pretty much true. Other than that, it’s a usual wide range of facial features that Urasawa excels at. While Tezuka’s character designs are very simplified in order to suit the cartoonish style and various squashing and stretching attempts, the same can’t be said about Pluto’s cast. For example it’s clear from the first panel that there’s something ominous and sad about dr. Tenma even if you don’t know anything about his own story (that actually is quite sad. Check out the origins of Astro Boy if you will). Having more realistic versions of the characters let the reader connect more with the story via many subtle facial expressions that weren’t possible to portray through the cartoonish Tezuka’s designs. To overcome the nature of Astro Boy’s essence, sometimes inventiveness needs to be employed. In Pluto all the powerful robots look precisely like humans, even Astro Boy himself possesses a body of a normal boy. But while in Tezuka’s version two of the most powerful robots were especially inhuman and machine-like, Urasawa decides to make these shapes into mechas wherein actual human-like robots may sit. The locations in Pluto also received more focus – you can easily tell that characters live in an organic world where some technology is present but it doesn’t overshadow the story itself while Tezuka’s world didn’t seem to be that different from our own.

 photo 4_zps3mtmzya0.png

The two masters

     Probably the only thing that I wasn’t particularly happy about Pluto was the ending that felt too brisk. The story had been woven for a long time with much interest being waken about some certain characters and it feels slightly disappointing when you find out that not all backstories and motives will be told. Yes, it’s a great way for each reader to find his own answers but some clarity and as detailed elaboration as other characters had received would have been welcome.

     Well, the most important difference between the two manga seems to be that Astro Boy was created to suit needs of children – to fascinate them with unusual stories, to let their imaginations run wild with all the possibilities that the future may hold, to show a clear sense of justice when the good guys win and the bad guys are not made fun of but rather being reprimanded, getting embarrassed over their deeds and, if possible, turning to the good side. On the other hand, Urasawa is one of these kids who were touched by Tezuka’s stories and that enabled him to make a new rendition of the same story, only transformed to suit the needs of a more mature person. The mere built-in ability of the story to be transformed speaks much about the deep ideas that Tezuka has hidden in his manga, but it took another master to entangle them and make them presentable mixed with some other expanded statements.

 photo 10_zps7swzflr1.jpg

You don't want to make a robot policeman this mad

     If it wasn’t clear enough up to this point, I’d highly recommend reading Pluto. It’s a sad story about some part of sentient people being discriminated, having a clear anti-war message and delving into the human psychology that’s made even more interested because of the fact that the majority of the analyzed characters are robots. Moreover, the story was already created way before Urasawa even got the idea to start Pluto and that let many details to be put into the beginning of the story that aren’t that comprehensible from the very start and become clear only gradually. It also means that the manga has a high rereadability value, and it’s definitely worth it. Pluto is a very interesting story, combining wonders of a more advanced version our world with deep human drama. The idea to push Astro Boy himself into a supporting role in order to give the spotlight to a more tragic and mature character worked wonders to the story. I think you could enjoy Pluto better without any prior knowledge about the Astro Boy franchise but that doesn’t mean that even a die-hard fan wouldn’t find any unforeseen twists.

     As I’ve already said, Astro Boy is incredibly famous, which might be illustrated by, say, current airing Atom: The Beginning anime. Nonetheless, just recently Pluto has also been noticed – M2, the new studio of legendary Masao Maruyama is going to adapt the manga into an anime series. Don’t miss it!

     Have you read Astro Boy and/or Pluto? What are your thoughts about Tezuka’s and Urasawa’s styles in general? Don’t be shy and please do share your experiences!