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?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Scattered Thoughts – Nijigahara Holograph, Haruki Murakami, and the appeal of Inio Asano (3/3)

     This is the final part of the write-up and it concerns primarily Nijigahara Holograph. The first part about realism in Inio Asano’s works is here and the second about Asano’s dark world might be found here.


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     After all these thoughts Nijigahara Holograph, a manga of only one volume, seems as Asano-ish as possible, but also having its own charm. The manga doesn’t have as much optimism as Solanin, and in that respect it’s more like a similar iteration of Oyasumi Punpun’s world. The limited length doesn’t allow to delve deep into the characters’ inner worlds, but it isn’t that needed since Asano manages to get the message across by using old as ages method of “show, don’t tell”. For example, bruises on an arm of a child in just one panel reflect the relationship with his parents, and as in that case it’s the parents that are the center of that sub-story, the conclusions about them can be made very quickly without any elaboration that needs lots of words. It’s probably for the best since then the readers can come to their own conclusions without being swayed by the subjective thought trains of the characters themselves.

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     The reader must be prepared to think also because Nijigahara Holograph is somewhat further from other Asano stories since it contains some unnatural phenomenon – time loops, to some extent repeating events and the mystic atmosphere to create an unsettling mood. Characters live their lives as all normal people do, but you feel that everything is a bit more complicated. As everyday routine in all Asano’s stories is portrayed to be suffocating, Nijigahara Holograph goes further – many entangled lives are meshed into an endless repeating cycle of suffering. Some characters are slightly aware of it, and it’s only more painful. The mysticism is also expressed  visually, as many panels are invaded by butterflies that look like something straight from Junji Ito’s works – being something unknown, incomprehensible, awe-inspiring.

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     Broken characters are inevitably here. What made them that way? Well, just one wrong decision, one wrong step can lead to haunting memories for a long time. It may be thought of as karma at its cruelest – if one gives in to his desires, there will always be a dark shadow hanging over. Even the most normal looking person inside may prove to be not that harmless as there’s a monster in every character of the manga, only some are hidden better than others, but one way or another in the end they come out. It all comes out as an idea that you can’t escape your past – it follows you whenever you go, influencing your future decisions. Another neat idea Asano uses here as well as in Subarashii Sekai is that there are countless unexpected connections between the characters. Take for example a girl working in a cafe owned by the brother of her former classmate. Then one day the cafe is visited by the girl’s former teacher, who also has connections with the owner. The characters themselves might not be fully aware of their intertwining fates, but the connections exist, and in this way past events may have even bigger influence over the future. Also it’s interesting that some events may repeat themselves – not exactly, but enough to be recognized because of some specific prop, character circumstances and so on.

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     I know that everything I said is very vague, but just have faith that if you want to experience Asano’s stories but don’t have much time, Nijigahara Holograph may as well be a good start. This manga encompasses many of recurring themes and ideas, also having its own identity and overall working as a good example of what Asano is capable of. It’s rather easy to just skim through the pages getting only a sensation of something half-baked and weird, but I think on a closer inspection there’s lots of interesting stuff to ponder about.

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     I wish there was even wider knowledge and appreciation of Asano’s works. of course there was that Solanin live action film, but probably it would be naïve to expect an anime adaptation of pretty much anything Asano has written. Well, to think positively, there is a precedent of Aku no Hana getting an anime, and that’s encouraging, since Shuzo Oshimi is another mangaka whose exceptionally beautiful art is able to accompany mature and complicated stories. There is also one interesting connection between Haruki Murakami and anime – Yoshitoshi ABe was heavily influenced by Murakami’s imagery in his Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World when creating the world of Haibane Renmei. The Wall, the Clock Tower, the Library and other things appear in both works and evoke similar feelings, even if the circumstances are completely different. These facts are not much, but stories that invite thinking and reassessing your relationship with the world are slowly getting more appreciation and acceptance through different mediums. Well, you don’t even need to go far, last season’s Kuzu no Honkai provided some interesting food for thought. And what’s more interesting, there exists one photo of Kengo Hanazawa, the author of I am a Hero and a good friend of Asano in Asano’s office. And guess what manga lies on a table behind? No wonder since thematically Umibe no Onnanoko and Kuzu no Honkai have many common points.

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     So yeah, I guess you have grasped a bit of what kind of person Inio Asano is and what his stories are like. At this point it’s useful to remember Haruki Murakami for a second. Both of the creators wander along existential themes and their characters to some extent are very similar. Why does that appeal so much to me?  I guess because I (as probably everyone) have come to question my place in the world, what am I really supposed to do with my life and whether am I not wasting it and if yes then if it’s really wrong; is it ok to dream knowing that you can’t achieve something you wish for? If not, when is the right time to stop? Should I be content with everything I have or should I try more? And then what would be the point of achieving anything? The answers the readers find may be completely different, but that’s beside the point.

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     It’s interesting and a bit disheartening that Asano’s manga is, as he himself put, a blend of things that have meaning and things that have absolutely none. It’s like a gamble trying to guess what the author intended and what he didn’t. Either way even if intended to be meaningless (for Asano), some symbols still can be interpreted. Also, some at the first sight meaningless things might have some symbolism, but knowing Asano, sometimes you just have no chance to guess the right answer. Some ideas are deeply integrated into the narrative, others are there just because Asano wanted to do that for apparently no reason. It’s a bit of a mess, but I’d call it  one of Asano’s strengths – you can achieve many different interpretations, and some of them can be completely opposite to what the author intended, but they nonetheless can be seen as valid in their own right. There are many possible meanings, and you can chose what you like.  An author who makes his audience think about the meaning of the art is automatically a very good one. Every piece of art that encourages you to question anything is a step towards being a wiser person, being able to avoid some of the mistakes of the unlucky characters, and Asano can certainly provide that.

     Have you read any of Asano’s works? What do you think of them?

Scattered Thoughts – Nijigahara Holograph, Haruki Murakami, and the appeal of Inio Asano (2/3)

     The first part where I talk about the realism in Inio Asano’s works and from where does it originate may be found here. Now it’s time to think about how Asano transforms the world to suit his stories and finally to bring some thoughts about Nijigahara Holograph in the third part.


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     It’s not hard to agree that generally manga industry tries to promote positive, inspiring and uplifting stories (pretty much typical shounen stuff), so inevitably there appears a niche for some deeper studies of darker characters that may come close to being antiheroes. Though the world in Asano’s manga is shining with realism, it also is created to be very dark, a place where no one would rather live. For example school life in Asano’s works definitely isn’t the pinnacle of human existence as many anime seem to propose. Children are often left to their own devices as adults have their own problems and that ensures survival of the fittest with bullying at its best. Asano portrays school experience as a journey to a wider and always expanding world, but it has little parental guidance or visible influence by the teachers – kids try things on their own, discover ways to deal with various problems on their own, and just try to survive an environment that’s certainly not the most sympathetic.

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     It’s not only school – anytime and anywhere tragedies sometimes just happen, sometimes you invite them yourself, but nobody is safe. There’s no such thing like “oh no, my friend was eaten by zombies, but after two chapters I’m absolutely alright like nothing happened”. Unpleasant things ensure that the characters are affected to the core as it provides means to dig deeper into human nature. Characters may not show how their experiences influence their decisions, but at critical moments you see that even the most secretive emotion may find a way through all the barriers. Widely appreciated Oyasumi Punpun begins like a somehow weird but ultimately harmless tale of a little boy trying to find a place under the sun and his journey through years, but the influence of the unfriendly world increases as the time goes on and by the end you end up being almost terrified what became of that sweet little kid, and the saddest part is that many of his not the best decisions weren’t his fault. Also, the viewer is left to ponder whether at the start Punpun’s life was any different from that of a random statistically averaged person and if truly everything that occurred could happen to anyone – is it true that either you’re just lucky or you aren’t? The effect is enhanced by the fact that Punpun himself is made to look like a bird-like doodle – naturally his emotions are visualized in a limited way so the reader may imagine himself in Punpun’s boots a lot easier. Punpun isn’t a character meant to be clear cut and having a rigidly defined personality – you may construct your own Punpun from a doodle to an actual person like any other.

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     Punpun starts as a fairly normal person, but as the characters are just the products of their own universe, probably there was no right way for him from the start.  Asano’s rather pessimistic world just isn’t forgiving for any little mistake that may come to haunt you later, seemingly harmless choices may lead to sad outcomes. Then it’s no wonder that pretty much all of Asano’s characters are broken people in one way or another. Each of them comes into the society naïve and hopeful but then the life just bashes their hopes, dreams and entire worldviews and in return thrusts a question “What will you do now?” The answer obviously is “I don’t know” and at this point characters begin to differ by trying to answer the question properly to the best of their abilities.

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     As Asano’s world is unrelenting, it’s filled with various individuals some of whom may appear to have gone absolutely nuts. To some extent that’s again a confirmation how hard is to live there. Some characters use this kind of behavior only as a way of dealing with their problems but everyone has his own internal logic and what’s perfectly fine with them. On the surface that may seem abnormal but that’s how Asano’s characters are. To think metatextually, some of these weird moments provide a little bit of comedy relief that brings a tiny ray of humor in seeing how ridiculous the world actually is apart from all the gloomy stuff. The humor often comes from totally unexpected and at the first glance illogical actions of the characters, almost on the same level as in Nichijou. Anyway, ultimately Asano’s existential questions lead to the conclusion that virtually no one knows exactly how to live. Everything just happens and in a blink of an eye you can end up in a horrible mess that no one warned you about. The harsh environment has broken many, shattering dreams and wishes, but as lonely creatures as they are, Asano’s characters strive to form connections and somehow live on.

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     Even a person without goals or aspirations still needs to live somehow. An idea being explored in practically all of Asano’s work is the necessity to choose your future. Probably the two most important decisions in human life are the choice of a partner and a choice of profession, and Asano’s characters struggle with both of them as there is no right way do one or another and everyone just has to find his own path which usually isn’t that filled with joy. It’s practically impossible to find a perfect partner, especially since at first we are prone to overestimate the good points of a person we want to like. Entangled in imperfect relationships, Asano’s characters sometimes try to go their separate ways only to begin a new cycle of imperfectness. Sometimes they try to work things out and stick together even if there seems to be no logic behind it. Speaking about relationships, Asano doesn’t shy from sexuality. He tries to portray it as a very casual thing, just like eating lunch or something similar and that makes his works exceptional among many stuff nowadays where there’s tons of teasing and fanservice, but everything ends with only that. Well, I myself am not a person who particularly looks for such scenes in manga and anime, but the idea of treating it as a normal thing once again brings the realism, or rather a world without thinking about sexuality as a stigma. A perfect example of that is another Asano manga – in Umibe no Onnanoko characters (that are just in the beginning of their independent lives) experiment, err, try again, and just continue living on as best they can.

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     The other big question isn’t any easier. No one during their school years wants to become an average person, that is to work long hours of a salary man or, even worse, to be able only to achieve a position of a part time shop assistant. Continuing education in a college in this regard is a no better solution since a person at that point usually still doesn’t have a slightest idea what he wants to do with his life. Or rather, what he could do with his life because as children the characters have many huge dreams but virtually all of them are shattered sooner or later. Despite of that, usually there are opportunities to break out of all these cycles of misfortune. Not every character is able to make the right step, but among all the unhappiness there are moments of joy and salvation, moments when someone just finds the right answer to one of the multitude of questions that the life continues to ask.


     Please continue reading the final part about Nijigahara Holograph here. The first part examining Asano’s realism may be found here.

Scattered Thoughts – Nijigahara Holograph, Haruki Murakami, and the appeal of Inio Asano (1/3)

     A week ago this blog celebrated its one year birthday. Well, celebrated might not be the best word since I think it’s a pretty arbitrary amount of time, but anyway I’m generally very pleased that this project keeps going. To be frank I didn’t expect to manage not to stop some time soon in the beginning, but finding people who read your stuff and, more importantly, people who themselves write some interesting things has been an amazing experience. Thank you everyone for encouraging me to continue, I hope this won’t be the last time I can write something like this. What is better in this case than some musings over my favorite mangaka among other things?

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     The post ended up being a lot longer than I thought so this is the first part (concerning realism in Asano’s manga), the second (about the darkness in the Asano’s world) is here, and third (finally about Nijigahara Holograph) is here.


     To start from pretty far, let’s talk for a bit about Haruki Murakami. Yes, he’s not some obscure animator or mangaka, he’s the guy who almost won Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m not particularly well-versed in his works, but they have definitely left an impression on me. As far as I know, there always has been an easily observable theme uniting many of Murakami’s stories. That is, his protagonists most of times may just be the same person, experiencing different lives in parallel universes, but ultimately his character remains more or less constant.  Murakami’s protagonist is usually going with the flow, being not especially happy about his place in the world, but in the end being rather content, or just not courageous enough to make effort and change. Reading the surreal stories (A Wild Sheep Chase for example – you can’t get more mystical than that) brings a melancholic feeling, not unrelated to the intellectual side of the protagonist and particularly his interest in music. There also appears some secret wish to experience a different world, to escape from the ordinary life, to be able to do something different and avoid being just a quite unsuccessful and lonely dude with some regrets, a person whose absence wouldn’t be mourned. Precisely this feeling and the ability to create stories to be as realistic as possible is the connection that arises between Murakami and the person I really want to talk about.

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     If you have ventured at least a little into the world of manga, the chance is pretty high that you have heard of Inio Asano. His best known work Oyasumi Punpun (or Goodnight Punpun as it’s named by the current release by Viz) stands in a very high 5th place on MAL – not that it’s a very meaningful fact, but still. Asano definitely has much to say and his stories inevitably invite discussions, though not every comment about them may be a positive one. Still, I deem Asano to be one of the top creators in the seinen demographic range, being an expert in not shying away from topics and ideas that are usually marginalized or completely omitted from many mainstream manga. Yet, despite all the weird or sometimes even creepy elements Asano’s works are very deeply rooted in the reality and suspension of disbelief that is needed in any, say, “stuck in an RPG world” kind of anime here isn’t as needed. To think about it, pretty much every manga Asano has written could (in theory) be fairly easy adapted into a live action movie (Solanin already has been). Also, as the mangaka himself said, he’s trying to create stories that are not solely based on experiences of a single character, but rather an ensemble of several, and that makes sense – everyone is the main character of his own life and can be perceived as a temporary co-protagonist of some huge story going on. Another virtue is that Asano consciously doesn’t try to fit into a single genre – life doesn’t attempt that either. In the real life about anything could happen at any moment, from comedy to horror and beyond.

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     All these things sound good in theory but it would arguably have far less impact on the reader if everything had been only made up. There are some interviews on the Internet where you can get to know Asano better than just an empty name on the title page. It’s fascinating to get some glimpses of his own life and mindset in order to get a better understanding of his manga. The fact is that Asano (as probably any other creator) pulls inspirations from his own experiences, and that makes his manga feel more genuine, if not more personal. Take for example such little and pretty unconventional detail like a character (a boy, just for the record) having a complex because his chest is a little caved in and because of that he shies from the pool activities at school. It feels a little weird, but you can’t deny a specific flavor that grounded real life experiences like this one brings to a fictional story. Murakami-ish feeling of nihilism and existentialism that’s so inherent to Asano’s stories to some extent may be traced from the mangaka’s perspective on life. Asano clearly isn’t the most untroubled person in the world, and not only because of the difficult dilemma how to find balance between drawing what he really wants and what actually sells. Sometimes drawing manga for him is a way to experience some kind of an auto-psychological help. It’s probably impossible to tell which experiences and story elements had been real and what is only thought up, but the base is clearly heart-felt and it shows.

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     Another case of Asano’s life seeping in his works might be well illustrated by Solanin – a manga about young adults who try to counter their bland lives by playing in a band. Asano himself isn’t any stranger to music, during his time at a university having played in a band. Sometimes he still returns to music for his own personal indulgence. In Solanin you can feel a mindset of a person who wants to continue doing what he enjoys, but also understanding that to be able to earn a living from that is not that realistic since you have to be particularly talented and lucky to be able to climb up in the entertainment business. Not everyone is meant to become a professional musician and this notion stands heavy above everyone. At this point I can do nothing but introduce some thoughts about Asian Kung-Fu Generation, a band (that I adore very much) that probably reminds the majority of people only of Naruto openings. Yet, it’s not unrelated to Asano. I’ve mentioned that Solanin has been adapted to a live action film and the ending song (lyrics by Asano himself) that is the climax of the story was created by AKG, whose garage-rock existence began just as any other music club experiment. AKG is the dream that Asano’s characters want to achieve and because of that AKG’s music for me feels very compatible with Asano’s stories. It’ s nothing strange after all, as both the mangaka and the band are the faces of the same generation with pretty much the same worries, same influences and same worldview.

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     Visually anything Asano draws is an eye candy. The character designs might not be realistic per se, but they are definitely beautiful, and when you’re immersed in the story, the difference from the real faces is negligible. Every emotion is conveyed well so you can do nothing but admire every single page. The backgrounds also deserve a mention. According to the artist himself, “if you googled “Inio Asano” back when my first volume came out, you’d only get six results, and one of them described me as being “just awful at backgrounds”, which I really hated, so I started trying all sorts of different methods”. That included tracing the backgrounds from photos. That’s a lot of work, to the point of becoming a pain in the ass, but the results are just incredible. There are opinions that such extremely detailed backgrounds may distract from the real action or undermine the emotional value of some key panels, but I believe it just deserves lots of respect, making every panel a true work of art.

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     It can be argued that every manga has these features – the author getting inspirations from his own life and trying to adapt his art to the stories he wants to tell. Yet in Asano’s case I think these features are pushed far beyond average – sometimes it looks like you are reading a diary of a person who chose to be represented by his characters. That feels exceptionally real, and the photorealistic artstyle enhances it many times. Still, as realistic as it is, Asano’s world doesn’t offer a rosy-colored life to the point of becoming a truly dark place. And more about that in the second part. The third part covers Nijigahara Holograph.

Scattered Thoughts – Usagi Drop and My Girl

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     A single man starts looking after a little girl, ponders about his romance perspectives and woes of a single father. The bond between the man and the girl becomes stronger and stronger, both of them also make a friend of a boy whose family circumstances are complicated. Now please guess which manga I’m talking about – Usagi Drop by Yumi Unita or My Girl by Mizu Sahara (yep, the pen name’s pretty hilarious, isn’t it?)? As this is more of an anime blog and Usagi Drop is fortunate enough to have received a brilliant anime adaptation by Production I.G (by the way, Usagi Drop is one of those rare cases when fans after receiving an incomplete anime adaptation remain more content than not, but more about it later), this may be your answer but actually the premise holds for both of the manga. Even some situations encountered by the characters are coming close to being identical. Yet despite striking similarities, My Girl and Usagi Drop remain vastly different.

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     Let’s begin with Usagi Drop. The story follows 30-year-old Daikichi, who after his grandpa’s death decides to take in Rin, grandpa’s illegitimate child. The situation seems awkward since Rin despite being 24 years younger than Daikichi in theory is his aunt. The confusion doesn’t appear that important after all – Rin quickly adapts to her new life, as well as Daikichi. The story then revolves about everyday life of the new family, with some more interesting elements added, such as Daikichi trying to investigate Rin’s mother’s identity or the family making acquaintances with Kouki, a boy of Rin’s age, and his single mother. Some of the most heartwarming moments come from this cohesion of the two incomplete families, affirming that through empathy and care even broken things don’t have to feel broken. All the sweet stuff goes on for 4 volumes, as much as the anime has covered (and that’s the reason why it’s so good). Then the story takes a huge turn, introducing a 10 year time leap to the period of Rin being a high-schooler (with some flashbacks to Rin being in a middle-school) which corresponds to the volumes 5-9. The time leap isn’t bad in itself but it almost completely negates the premise of a father and daughter relationship told from the father’s perspective, as Rin (and Kouki) more times than not assume the position of POV characters. Later on, and that’s probably the main reason of the disfavor of many fans for the later part of the manga, a certain character pairing is introduced and some social inconveniences are removed in a very deus ex machina way. The last volume covers some untold side stories from the whole time period. Seeing Rin as a child again feels refreshing but at the same time a bit pointless because knowing all that’s yet to happen to that lovely family later on adds some bitter taste.

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     My Girl begins in quite a similar way. Much younger (than Daikichi) Masamune, sometimes struggling office worker, suddenly finds out that his long gone ex-girlfriend Youko died in an accident and that for Masamune, who still harbors feelings for her, it’s some devastating news. Even more unexpectedly it turns out that Youko had had a daughter Koharu by him without his slightest knowledge and now as the child somehow manages to find Masamune himself, he decides to fulfil his responsibility to Koharu, to Youko and to himself. The 5-volume journey of My Girl doesn’t take any twists and turns as Usagi Drop did and even if Koharu is shown to grow, the story (also being shorter) doesn’t expand more than a few years which are more due to the different tales to be told rather than to be the focus of the change in the child and her needs. The only complaint I could have about Koharu would only be that she appears to be a tad too mature despite her age. Sure, traumatic experiences may hasten the process but to hear such deep things that Koharu sometimes says from a girl who’s not even a middle-schooler yet requires some suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, it accompanies the general mood of the story which takes a more emotional route than Usagi Drop which before the time twist was centered mainly on not so dramatic events.

 photo U1_zpsg39ospem.jpg      To start comparing things in more depth, in Usagi Drop Daikichi always remains the adult. Sure, later on Rin sometimes may hold the initiative, but at first every important decision must be carried out by Daikichi himself. Daikichi’s parents as well as the rest of the family in the beginning treat Rin like a very uncomfortable and irritating thing, almost not even a person so the responsibility from the get go is Daikichi’s alone. Later on seeing how adorable Rin is everyone warmed up but the center of Rin’s family world remained Daikichi. Masamune is far more inexperienced in such matters and when Daikichi tries to think out everything by himself, Masamune doesn’t shy to seek help from his parents and Youko’s mom. The family in My Girl look more cohesive and everyone tries to help Masamune in every way they can, even so when Koharu just like Rin wins everybody’s hearts. Another vast difference lies in the dissimilar romantic situations of the both of the fathers. Daikichi seems to be the embodiment of a middle aged man who still tries to get a partner but more and more just because of the social standards than from the actual need. When Kouki’s mom appears in the horizon Daikichi sure doesn’t remain indifferent but let’s leave the spoiler field untrodden. On the other hand, Masamune remains very strongly attached to Youko and is unable to move on by any means.  photo M1_zpsexn4iwej.jpgHis parents find that a bit troubling and try to take some measures but ultimately it remains Masamune’s decision to make.
As Daikichi (sadly) doesn’t go through any more significant transformation (even if Usagi Drop tells a longer story), Masamune’s character arc of constant struggle whether to keep his heart for Youko forever or to change something makes him a very compelling, relatable and realistic character to read about. This also leads to Masamune’s discomfort of not being able to offer as much time to Koharu as he wants (and she needs) and provide so important maternal care. Daikichi doesn’t have such big a problem since Kouki’s mom usually isn’t that far away and is able to give help and also receive some fatherly help from Daikichi to her son.

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     Going to a different level of comparison, I think the artstyle definitely favors My Girl. Of course that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with Usagi Drop. There everything is kept fairly simple and minimalistic, which in turn adds to the light-heartedness of the general atmosphere early on. Character face expressions may not be the most complex ones but they convey the message pretty clearly and more times than not it’s enough. Also, it’s told that Daikichi himself isn’t the most handsome man and the depiction of him clearly shows that. For the other characters sometimes relatively ungraceful hands may not seem very appealing but that’s coming too close to nitpicking. On the other hand, My Girl can definitely be proud by taking an extra mile and making the characters look as realistic and compelling as its gets in manga. Sure, it may be just the matter of preference but Mizu Sahara (or however you find her signing as) holds the second place in my favorite mangakas (by artstyle) list only after Inio Asano. The only slightly weird feature I found in the art of My Girl is that the ears of the characters sometimes stick a bit too much for my taste. As well as emotions are portrayed in Usagi Drop, having a much wider variety of them as well as making the faces of the characters far more detailed, gives more points to My Girl. When emotions are involved, subtler facial differences make the characters more relatable, and more simple designs that fit well with comedic moments aren’t able to hold their position as well in this case.

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     Well, after all I would gladly recommend both manga to read. Usagi Drop is a bit trickier because for anyone who expects only a father and daughter relationship of the manga the second half may be hard to stomach. Yet, even the high-school drama should be easier to take than in most cases because at that point the reader already knows the characters and is invested in them. As far as the ending goes, I can only say that with a pinch of tolerance and open-mindness it’s serviceable. You may not like it as much as the first half (practically my case) but that can be treated just as a possible scenario. Not very probable but still possible. After all, life doesn’t always go the way you want. Anyway, if you don’t feel brave enough, the anime is always a safer route so you should check it out in any case. Yet, I feel that My Girl comes only slightly but still a bit better off – probably more relatable and emotionally affecting situation with a struggling protagonist who feels a lot more thrown out of balance because of the taking in of the girl and looks more accomplished by the end of the manga. Anyway, both manga provide slightly different perspectives of a father and daughter relationship and though they share many differences, I think and hope that both are worth your time and fingers crossed they would provide an enjoyable experience.

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Scattered Thoughts – Thunderbolt Fantasy

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     To start with, this is not meant to be something like a review paying attention to every aspect of Thunderbolt Fantasy but just as some (random) thoughts that have crystallized after the watching of the show.

     Well, if you at least sometimes check the news of the anime world, I think it was nearly impossible for you not to notice a strange creation that has appeared out of nowhere and has become quite popular even if now the talks about it are not that prevalent anymore. Thunderbolt Fantasy technically isn’t an anime but nonetheless share many similarities with the medium. The show basically can be summarized with two words – “puppets” and “Urobuchi”. If that doesn’t intrigue you, I don’t know what will.

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     To start from the very beginning, the puppets came into being in China some hundreds of years ago and spread in the area. The trend reached Taiwan and that’s where the show’s origin lies. A studio called Pili has made such puppets for some time now and it just happened that many of the staff are not indifferent to anime in general. That’s were the second part of the equation comes in – Gen Urobuchi (well, everyone knows who the guy is – Fate/Zero and Madoca Magica speak for themselves) was impressed by the artistic possibilities that the puppets may provide so it was fairly natural for the two parties to come together and do something. The anime-ish side of the show was also bolstered by the composer – Hiroyuki Sawano, best known for Attack on Titan, who agreed to write a score, but frankly I don’t think it was one of his better works – too many reused themes with too little impact.

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     Well, Urobuchi is Urobuchi but for someone who has already savored his style and probably is not unconditionally head over heels about it the main selling point of Thunderbolt Fantasy is the visuals. To a person who is accustomed to watching anime or live action stuff puppets may look very weird. Still, there’s grace and artistry in everything that is done with them. A wooden puppet is made hollow so a puppeteer can mount it on his right hand and with it move the puppet’s whole body, some limited facial expressions included. With his left hand the puppeteer controls the puppet’s left hand so it’s no wonder that all the puppets are left handed and use it with great dexterity. Well, you may say, what about the stunts? There have been scenes in Thunderbolt Fantasy when characters were jumping, falling or just moving in a way that couldn’t been done sitting on a puppeteer’s hand. The answer to that is stunt doubles. Yes, the puppets as normal actors do, did have them. Sounds weird but it’s only natural that a different medium encounters different problems and finds some ways to deal with them. The sets also need to be mentioned. Every smallest prop was handmade and you can probably imagine how much work needed to be done to have a decent looking banana on a decent looking table that would be used just for one scene only. The details, given the amount of hard work that needed to be done are amazing. Of course, as you can see from the first episode and maybe the last, some CG effects were added. The rate of usage of CG never was that high compared to the first episode but some credit must be given to the creators because the effects look fairly organic with the world they appear in. The comparative sparseness of CG lets other aspects of the show to shine – for example the dust that sometimes appeared and many other effects were strictly practical, which on its own is fairly astounding.

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     The visuals can’t be discussed without mentioning the appearance of the puppets themselves. I can’t possibly stress enough how beautifully they are made – every piece of cloth and accessory is polished to the level of brilliance. Every puppet by itself can be easily treated as a piece of art – take for example those wooden heads – each carved with an amazing precision. Sure, some time is needed to get accustomed to the typical movements of the puppets but after that it’s only a joy to watch. At first it was quite difficult not to notice some critical differences between the puppets and anime characters. Well, it sounds dumb since the puppets are real while anime characters are drawn, but let’s compare other differences beyond that. In anime the animators use every possible trick to make the characters move as little as possible and in this way save lots of work needed for the animation. The puppets on the other hand don’t have this in-built limitation – during every conversation they gesticulate very expressively and move much more than you imagine a real person would do. Exaggeration of movements may look odd but after a time you begin to wonder how these wooden pieces of art manage not only look good but also to be so versatile and use every opportunity to show that. Versatility is a good thing but it’s also limited in a way. A puppeteer just can’t move everything and that ends up being the immovability of the lips of the characters. Yes, the lips can move up and down but certainly not at the frequency a normal person would do. Also, the lips look exceptionally huge, almost swollen. Oh well. So there you have it – the characters that move excessively while their lips barely manage to go up and down. The eyes are only able to blink from time to time compared to the huge variety of anime eye expressions. After so many words of praise about a visuals it seems almost inappropriate to mention that in some cases things were too flamboyant for their own good – the mystical sword that is the center of the story looks like the least practical weapon anyone could have imagined.

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     Continuing the thought about the lips, the aspect of language need to be touched. As the company Pili who created the show is Taiwanese, the original language of the show was Chinese and that means Chinese names and stuff. Of course, there was a Japanese dub made after that but one problem was still left and that is names. The mythology of the show allows the characters to have multiple names, all more similar to epithets of the personalities and deeds of the characters than some actual names. But the real problem for me was that I watched Thunderbolt Fantasy on Crunchyroll. There the Japanese dub was used and subtitles were English but oh boy what they did with the names… The dub used the names translated to the Japanese while the subtitles only transcribed the Chinese ones. Well, I’m not even able to read some of the symbols the transcription used and to hear some word, completely different sounding from a written one, was just too much for me. Well, I just ended up learning hardly any names of the characters.

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     To be frank, that wasn’t an issue I couldn’t cope with after all since the story itself wasn’t anything special and I doubt I would have started watching Thunderbolt Fantasy if it were made into an anime. You have a set of pretty ordinary characters – a hero, a heroine, a plotting mastermind whose allegiances aren’t clear, a demon (basically a witch), a bunch from Fate/Stay Night (Archer, Lancer and Assassin) and a villain (with some lackeys) that looks so cool as if to turn any possible male opponent gay. Almost every character is made to be of some use to the story but after all I feel like it was a bit too much of them. Much of the narrative could have been condensed, some of the cast just erased and the time left spent exploring the world. The world certainly looks organic and interesting, having its own history, magic, wars, mysteries… Well, everything that would have been a very enjoyable thing to see more of, especially since the creators are so good at building the environments. The only excuse I could think of is that of course everyone just wanted to show what they are most capable of – as many diverse puppets as possible. The ending seems a bit lacking. Yes, it’s the journey that counts but I would have liked something akin to a climax and not just casually dealing with a final boss in a surprisingly brief battle, even if the story to reach that stage required the whole season. Well, of course opening your Unlimited Blade Works stash ends things quickly but the feeling of fulfillment there has no place. Some traits of the characters and elements of the story speak of a rather mature series, but Thunderbolt Fantasy manages to negate that with shounen-esque special attacks (with their names shouted to the wide world, how else?). Also, sometimes the story would just stop in order for the characters to talk. I wouldn’t call it strictly info-dumping but some scenes would drag for a very long time with nothing happening. However if you are able to withstand that, the fighting segments prove to be very rewarding.

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     If you remove the visuals, the show remains very Urobuchi like – with uncertain loyalties, mysterious characters and the plot that can change drastically any moment. Sometimes even the Urobuchi-layer seems too thin to be able to carry the story. Luckily the visuals are always here to mask any flaws. To be frank, that’s one of those shows that requires your brains to leave some things unnoticed but if you’re able to do that, it’s a real feast for eyes – the technical aspects are amazingly stunning. So yeah. I think it’s beneficial for anyone to watch at least the first episode of Thunderbolt Fantasy – at least to be able to grasp how many beautiful things are possible to be made. To some the fact that it’s a puppet show and not an anime might be a huge turn off but I think that Thunderbolt Fantasy in its essence isn’t that different from the mainstream anime. If you can deal with, say, differences of the style of Masaaki Yuasa compared to any other creator’s, this show shouldn’t be a big problem. By the way, the 2nd season is already announced so now is as good time as ever to sample some unconventional art.

/Much information came from here, but you are still welcome to delve deeper./