Light Novel Corner – Baccano! Vol. 1 The Rolling Bootlegs

     To start from the very beginning, on this blog I’ve been mainly sharing my thoughts on various anime and just occasionally glossing over some manga. Recently this trend was challenged by a random post about a JRPG. Still the main focus remains anime and it only happens that sometimes I feel a need to share my opinions not about a particular anime itself but about its sources. It’s no secret that nowadays it’s almost exceptional to get an original anime – manga adaptations have been an ongoing trend for a long while but another similar tradition hasn’t been represented on this blog in the slightest, and that is the popularity of light novels. Without much search it seems to me that light novels aren’t that widely talked about, so there’s a niche that could be filled. On the other hand, reading isn’t something you can do easily while eating your breakfast or multitasking in other ways so the audience of light novels isn’t that big. Usually the interest declines once the anime adaptation ends (more often than not in not the most satisfying way) and a statistical person even with the best wishes to know “what happened after that?” gets his hopes smashed by unavailable (or available but in a pretty bad fan-translational way) and often enormously long series that keeps growing every second month or so. Recently there has been some quite convenient improvements in the sense of availability but it’s still a big investment to get into any light novel series. So yeah, the niche seems to be here and as someone who doesn’t shy away from a decent read, I thought that giving an opinion or two about some quite well known (or not) light novel series book-by-book wouldn’t hurt, especially if you as myself want to know what really happened next, even more so if an anime adaptation left you unsatisfied. And even among rather well-received anime adaptations I doubt there has been many series that fans craved to be translated more than Baccano!.


Author Ryohgo Narita
Illustrator Katsumi Enami
Genres Action, Historical, Supernatural
Published 2003 (JP) / 2016 (EN)
Pages 224
.

     The first volume of the series, subtitled The Rolling Bootlegs, wastes little time to throw the reader right into New York City of 1930. As expected, gang business takes a prominent place in such a setting but on the other hand it’s balanced by other elements, such as unexpected inclusion of things like an elixir of immortality. Probably a third of the appeal of the story comes from the fact that such a weird combination of ideas actually was made to work. The Rolling Bootlegs basically examines the idea of what would happen if alchemy truly existed in the Prohibition era.

   Still, it’s not the story that makes Baccano! unique. The Rolling Bootlegs has quite a few quite diverse characters and naturally quantity and quality are interchangeable. The characterization is minimal but often strong enough to leave deep enough impression so that the reader won’t begin to wonder why everyone is so one-dimensional and more often than unchanging. There are some noteworthy individual characters like Firo, a young almost-member of one gang, Szilard, an old evil dude, Ennis, his homunculus (that meaning an artificial human that can be mind-controlled), Dallas, a wealthy thug, and Isaac with Miria, a pair of ridiculously lucky idiot bandits. The level of characterization can be seen from the mere fact that Isaac and Miria have a single wiki page dedicated for both of them. Some cheesiness in such motives as “I was looking for you because you were attractive” also must be pointed out. As you see, characters come a dime a dozen and limited length of the volume doesn’t really let to explore much, especially since the web of interconnections takes some time to be established. Generally that’s not a problem because the characters are just tools for the story to evolve. Sometimes you can wonder if the story isn’t a character itself – wickedly pushing one character or another in a particular way so that all the individual little stories intertwine into one giant intricate web of coincidences. And that’s the biggest charm of Baccano! – as you run through the pages you aren’t that interested in the fortunes of most of the characters – the main question remains how everything will continue to develop and what will come out of different encounters between the characters.

     Characters themselves might not be aware of all the connections and coincidences and it gives the reader even more satisfaction when you can sit on your high (and all-knowing) horse and smirk because you get that two characters that for example crossed each other at a street had far more in common than random passerby should have. Knowing the full story when the characters are aware only of some parts of it somehow is very satisfying. However, that feeling is restrained because some remarks by the narrator point out that he knows even more than the readers.

“We’ve robbed eighty-seven places, and in all that time, have I ever put you in danger?”
“About eighty-seven times.”
“…………”
“…………”
“There, you see?! It’s not even a hundred yet!”
“You’re right! That’s amazing!”

—Issac and Miria being Isaac and Miria—

     One thing I was left wondering about was the nature and summoning of the demon who granted the immortality elixir. Sure, it was portrayed to be an extraordinary event but also it was given only the smallest part of the book and its purpose was only to justify having immortal gangsters. Still that leaves a lot of unknown during this earliest time period not to mention the idea that a demon can so easily manifest to people. All these problems and lose ends basically arise from the limited space of the genre – I’m sure sooner or later Ryohgo Narita will be (or have already been) forced to elaborate aspects of the story that need that and at the same time can provide some entertaining story material.

     As a starting point of the long series (Baccano! as of now has 22 light novels and it’s not finished yet) the first novel isn’t the best example of how you should do it. The Rolling Bootlegs can even be viewed as a self-contained story that doesn’t absolutely require much more exploration. The mindset of the grand story in the first place is just portraying a segment of characters’ lives and they naturally extend more than can be stuffed into a one specific story, so inevitably some minor quips are here. Still, the main plot is resolved (the culmination was enormously and unexpectedly lengthy though) and even the very ending is a few words short of “and they lived happily ever after”. This stand-alone quality doesn’t retract anything from the bigger picture, it’s just not a very usual way of wrapping up things when everyone wants to grab attention and make enough space for future sequels at the same time strongly hinting at them.

     I guess some words about the relationship between the light novels and the anime need to be said. The anime adapts first few novels but there the storylines are all intentionally mixed up. On one hand you get even a better impression about the hectic swings of fate but for me it felt a bit too confusing. You need to pay all your attention not to get lost between the storylines, even though by themselves they are fairly simple and linear. Shared characters, especially when you still aren’t familiar with them, suck you into a mess that’s quite hard to disentangle. I’m not even talking about the first episode that screamed “hey, I’m complicated, hey, sucks to be you, hey!”.

“Quietly, the spiral of destiny turned.”

—The Narrator knows it all—

     Another quite apparent difference is that the novel uses a framing story that is absent from the anime – a Japanese tourist just hears the story from a certain someone. The fact that the whole immortality (and fast wound healing) is talked about in the framing story detracts some of the mystery elements that surrounded the anime where a fresh viewer didn’t know that he could expect such things. To be frank, it’s a bit weird how matter-of-factly immortality, alchemy and summoning demons is presented. I think in this case I prefer the more subtle reveal of everything in the anime. Compared to the realistic world of 1930s (minus immortality but that isn’t a game-changer) the fact that you have to use demons (do demons ex machina exit?) to justify the core events of the story feels like pushing too far, especially since at least at this volume no demon has any prominent role at all.

     Reading Baccano! makes it very clear why the genre is called light novel – the text easily flows through your eyes and you’re left with a wish to get more of the same but after some time you begin to feel like having eaten some fast food – it was tasty but still not the best food in the world. To be praised and remembered, Baccano! needs to elaborate its characters, maybe offer a longer story and some explanations about elements that were just glossed through.

 I believe, this light novel is

 2Decent

     Should you read it? If you enjoy insanely paced fast-food books, yeah, definitely grab a bite. Still, it’s not as attractively complicated as the anime seems to imply. Nevertheless, reading enjoyment at least for was certainly there, and not only because I want to know the source material well and then take advantage of the opportunity to know what happened after the anime ended.

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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?

Little Witch Academia (I+ II) – more than Harry Potter: The Anime

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Studio Trigger
Genres Action, Drama, Slice of Life, Supernatural
Source Original
Episodes 1+1 (both OVAs or films, or whatever)
Season Winter 2013 + Autumn 2015
Director Yoh Yoshinari
Music Michiru Oshima

     My case with Trigger anime has been quite a weird one. At first  I was very annoyed by the countless ads of World Trigger anime on Crunchyroll – at some point it seemed that there were virtually no other ads out there. It’s quite a shame that I managed to confuse a name of an anime with an entirely unconnected name of a studio. The ads certainly didn’t pique my attention, but then I learned of Kill la Kill, and that did. Yet, I researched it rather poorly (at first confusing it with Akame ga Kill, dammit) and stopped after quite quickly getting an idea that it’s only a weird ecchi show that doesn’t interest me at all. Knowing that Trigger branched of Gainax did give some brownie points but experiencing a short by Hiroyuki Imaishi in Nihon Animator Mihonichi (ep. 14) I was just disgusted by the sheer vulgarity of it. Despite all these things eventually I decided to try some rather neutral Trigger stuff, as Little Witch Academia has been praised by a lot of people and it seemed no way that it could be a hentai. Yet…

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     Just kidding. It’s definitely not a hentai (though I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has made some hentai after LWA). Stupid jokes aside, to clear some points, this post concerns only the original LWA as well as its successor LWA: Mahoujikake no Parade and not the (currently airing) TV series. Now fairly popular franchise began with “Young Animator Training Project” (aka “Anime Mirai” at some point), which also was the reason for Death Billiards (and consequently Death Parade) among other stuff to come into being. As it was a success, a launched Kickstarter project – pretty unusual for an anime, eh? – became funded in no time (to be more precise under 6 hours) and so we got a sequel to the first OVA. And even later came the TV series, but that’s not the topic today. Why is LWA interesting? For starters, there aren’t many anime whose stories have so little in common with anything Japanese. Name the heroine otherwise and you have a script for a Disney production. Well, if you can imagine the world of Harry Potter genderbendered and made into an anime, you would get the general atmosphere pretty well. To be frank, even some story elements have similarities – for example the adversary of the good kids is a white-haired person from a family with a long lineage. It’s not only that. Near the end of the second LWA there is something straight from Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. The creators themselves acknowledged that they had various influences that made LWA what it is. Should it bother a random viewer? Definitely not, as even if LWA isn’t the most original piece of art (though such a story in anime is pretty novel), it was made with love and watching it is nothing but fun.

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What is it about then? A young girl Akko after seeing a really impressive (no kidding) performance of magic by one particular witch, becomes infatuated with the stuff you can do and energetically (as always) decides to go to a magic school. Her problem is that she has no knowledge and obviously isn’t as skilled in all of the witch-y things. Getting a protagonist to overcome such problems is a basic premise of many shounen anime, but what makes LWA stand out is the execution. Especially the first OVA is incredibly tight paced – every single frame is thought out and couldn’t be removed by any means. The creators already confessed having to cut lots of stuff due to the expected limited length. Still, the OVA doesn’t last even half an hour (which passes in an instant) but you feel that the material could have been spread out into a full feature film using a more relaxed and therefore probably less charming approach. The second film continues the doings of Akko and her friends, expands the universe, but isn’t as entertaining as the first one. The story becomes less tight, there are fewer new exciting locations, the characters start some inter-conflicts and that slows down everything quite a bit. After all, it’s almost inevitable that a sequel isn’t as unique as the original material. Still, even if it doesn’t manage to reach the heights of the first LWA, for every fan of the franchise (and not only) it’s much recommended.

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    About the characters of LWA I have written a bit here. To think about them in a broader scale, they don’t really stand out. Especially in the first film, when the pacing lefts almost no space for a breather, the girls are presented really quick and then only their actions speak for them.  You have the enthusiastic Akko, who loves magic with every cell in her body but often screws up only because, being from a non-magician family, she has no idea how things work. Akko’s sidekicks Lotte and Sucy, being a normal girl and a pretty typical witch respectively, provide some character dynamics and catalyze some drama in the second film. Diana, whose family is apparently very proud of their ancestry with many generations of witches, acts as an antagonist in the first film, but sadly doesn’t retain any more prominent role in the second, which is a shame. The second film also introduces three more girls that have some minimal impact on the story, but don’t do anything special. When you think about it, the character aspect of both shows may be a bit lacking, but after so much that happens you just don’t care about it. Also, another perspective was provided by the director himself – Akko symbolizes a new animator coming into the business, without a clear vision of the real work he has to do, and that not always is as interesting and easy as he thinks. Everyone, with Diana acting as an embodiment for them, despises such a carefree attitude, but ultimately Akko finds her place in the community. Sure, this allegory isn’t apparent if you don’t know about it, but it‘s a nice little touch, giving the franchise a new meaning.

Excerpt from LWA: Mahoujikake no Parade; animation by Yuuto Kaneko

    Doubtless the animation is the most enjoyable part of both of the films. You can only wonder how much passionate work was put into every single scene and how effectively everything came out to be. The director Yoh Yoshinari is known for being a perfectionist to the bone so working under him probably wasn’t the least stressful work on Earth, but despite that the end result is nothing but gorgeous. It’s easy to recognize Studio Trigger behind the work because of the character designs and especially character animation. Such exaggerations in it not always work well with me, but this time I was only astounded how well it reflected the characters and their emotions. Forget the usual anime trend of only lips flapping – there everything is moving and characters are as expressive and dynamic as anywhere. You can probably make a whole sakuga guidebook just from the first LWA. The animation wasn’t the only thing to stand out in the department of visuals – Studio Pablo did a wonderful job (as always) providing backgrounds – vibrant, colorful, and beautiful beyond any doubt.

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     The soundtrack is another aspect linking LWA to the Disney productions very tightly, and at the same time being close to Ghibli soundtracks. That’s no wonder since the composer is Michiru Oshima, who usually handles orchestral music very effectively. Just look at her portfolio that contains FMA (the first one), Yojouhan Shinwa Taikei (that is Tatami Galaxy) or Akagami no Shirayuki hime. Orchestral pieces provide an airy atmosphere with enough quirks to mirror the misadventures of Akko. Having a full orchestration also gives a feeling of something removed from your daily life, just like a fantastic fairy tale with a usual “once upon a time”. A more minimalistic soundtrack (maybe just usual piano and strings) would have made everything look way more familiar, but now there’s a sense of wonder and also curiousness how anime girls can be mixed with classical Disney atmosphere, and the most important thing is that the mix really works.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Chariot's Theme' by Michiru Oshima

    At this moment the new TV series is still ongoing but I think it’s safe to say that the short length of the previous installments to the franchise was a positive attribute. Of course, there have been many anime shorts that waste the time they’re given, but LWA is not the case. When the creators have thought out the universe and the story that they want to tell really well, and it turns out to be longer than intended, as painful as it might be, generally cutting some material works way better than having to stretch everything out. Also it’s notable that TV series has a whole different timetable so not very satisfying strategies as outsourcing become inevitable. I guess it’s just my slight concern that the TV LWA so far isn’t doing anything more impressive than its predecessors (though it also has its moments). Knowing that the first and second LWAs look even more beautiful, full of freedom and devoid of limitations makes them a really enjoyable experience.

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 I believe, this anime is

 3
Good

     I think that for any anime fan LWA (especially the first one) is a must watch. I can’t remember when was the last time that so much fun was so tightly packed and delivered with amazing animation. Well, it’s Trigger at its best. If you have been burned out because of too many boring anime or just want to reignite your love for the “Chinese cartoons”, LWA is as good an option as you are ever going to find.

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./

Dimension W – an interesting mess

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Studio Studio 3Hz
Genres Action, Sci-Fi
Source Manga
Episodes 12
Season Winter 2016
Director Kanta Kamei
Music Go Shiina and Yoshiaki Fujisawa
     More times than not anime and manga are thought to be interchangeable. Usually manga precedes anime and the latter is meant to be more of a promotional material than a stand-alone piece of art. The fans of the manga expect the adaptation to be as close to the source as possible, as far as just animating all the existent panels without any additions or omissions. Because of that a fundamental problem arises since manga can go on as long as a mangaka wishes whereas the anime adaptation just can’t extend over a fixed time. Sometimes a second season or some OVAs are the answer but not every anime can do that good to earn it. As this quite roundabout introduction makes clear, Dimension W is one of the shows that suffer from the exact problem. As it turns out, it isn’t the only flop, but outside of that there are some positives, too, albeit they are not so numerous.

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     The premise of Dimension W may catch many an eye right on since in this day and age anime that doesn’t concern high-school or just teenagers is not that common. What else could you wish for, if not for some classic sci-fi with some new dimensions, robots and a cool looking protagonist? The start really looked promising – in the future some scientists somehow found another dimension and a way to harvest unlimited energy from it (sounds pretty dumb, but that’s not the end of it). The technology is monopolized, but as always, some illegal schemes are bound to show up. Enter our protagonist Kyouma Mabuchi, a gruff guy, who deals with these things for a living. During one of the operations, he finds an uncommonly well-made android Mira (well, it turns out we couldn’t escape teenage characters after all…) and those two unlikely companions wind up into some big business. Sounds good? Well, that’s when everything else comes up. As I already mentioned, pacing is not the strength of the show, as well as the composition. The first 3 episodes are pretty much a usual introductory stuff, with an almost-honorable thief called Loser introduced a bit randomly. Next 2 episodes contain one arc that could have easily extended over half the season – everything just happens without much explanation or meaning. I think this arc could have better been omitted rather that shrunk into this mad ride – it holds rather little significance to later events. All the rest of the episodes make up one large final arc when everything should come together and make sense. Would that it could. Still, the biggest problem probably is the Dimension W itself. In each arc it works like a different thing, overall turning out to be able to construct some abominations that could easily belong behind the Gate of FMA, to make some alternative realities with ghosts and zombies, to entangle various concepts like dreams, souls, time and almost everything that can come up to mind. It’s pretty much omnipotent. Having something like that without any limitations makes for an excuse to pull various Deus ex Machina stuff, but that doesn’t make a believable and, above all, an interesting thing to watch. Not to mention the depiction of the Dimension graphically. Come on, do you really think that a negative X axis contains unlimited energy? All in all, it’s just a poorly constructed game with a toy that can do anything, and that becomes worst near the end of the series, when random characters are tossed in, various fights begin and end, people remember things, people do things, the Dimension does things, conveniences happen and, well, that’s a trainwreck. I believe I could rewatch everything for the sake of understanding every single action and motivation of the characters but I just don’t have the will to go through everything again and I’m not entirely sure that it will actually answer many questions. Moral of the story – go read the manga, kids. At least it should have a proper pacing.

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     What is popular nowadays? Moe? Add Mira – check. What do people long for when they have seen enough moe? A badass guy that operates on the verge of law? Add Kyouma and – check. Actually there is hardly anything more to say about our two leads that could be positive. Mira is made to be cute, a bit clumsy and, of course, just has to become an object for some fanservice. Apart from quite memorable appearance, Kyouma isn’t the most original character, either. How can any cool character not have a dead girlfriend or convenient amnesia about some important past events whose absence would have probably saved much time for everyone – characters and the viewers alike. As a starting point all those characteristics are not that bad a thing – you must start somewhere. The worse part is that neither Mira nor Kyouma manage to advance their relationship the least bit – Kyouma still sees the android as a “pile of junk” after all the 12 episodes and she doesn’t really mind that. Supporting characters are plenty – just too plenty. Some of them have rather futuristic and flamboyant hairstyles and clothing (really, all the colors in the world does not make a show stylish), some look like they have hopped in form a wrong anime, but many of them are just not needed. Yes, manga probably manages to flesh them out more or less, but the anime just goes forward in full speed especially in the second half and just barely scratches any of 6 or 7 or I don’t even remember how many new characters that appeared at that time, but most of them barely say two words and virtually just steal screen time for no reason. When someone gets more spotlight, that doesn’t mean that we will get a decent character – I was unsure till the very end if Prince Salva was meant to be a relatable guy, some discarded protagonist or an up-jumped afterthought. Still, the main disappointment was due to the villain. A good story absolutely must have a villain, right? With a huge villainous smile, right? A mad scientist? Now we are talking. Well, he appeared near the end out of nowhere and looked very out of place. Not a Deus ex Machina bad a Villain ex Machina.

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     A sci-fi premise should mean lots of futuristic city-scapes, cool gadgets and stuff, right? Not in this case. All the energy coil stuff is interesting, but the show just doesn’t show its (theoretically) strongest point – how society has changed with all this technology. The futuristic environment factor is hugely underplayed and, to be frank, out of all the art form the Dimension W I would probably remember just Kyouma’s character design. Well, Loser’s also, but just because he’s just another character that looks to be in a wrong anime. The Easter Island makes a slight impression, but mainly because it’s just a refreshing sight to see some huge rocks instead of, say, a ghost house in a middle of a sea of mist.

Excerpt from the anime

     Dimension W is not the first anime whose soundtrack is one of the better parts of it. Done by not a single person – Go Shiina and Yoshiaki Fujisawa worked together – it provides some very diverse tunes that, when not overshadowed by visual information, work well with the scenes they are attached to. Sometimes when the story went overboard music really was factor to make me give the anime just another chance. It’s a good OST, but maybe not the great one. Yes, there are some very enjoyable and cool tracks, but there are also some instantly forgettable ones. If not this one, at least check some other of Go Shina’s works. The man knows how to write music.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Osoi Kuru Mizukara no Teki' by Go Shiina

     After all, I can’t really say Dimension W is bad. Yes, it has plenty of missteps – over the top abilities of the Dimension W, confusing story, not very relatable characters that are underdeveloped at best, also some of them just don’t add anything to the plot. The list continues but some credit must be given to the quite an interesting start of the show and sometimes the soundtrack. Overall rough experimental feel also adds some delicious spice. Still, it looks like the director Kanta Kamei was suited better for Usagi Drop, and that says a lot.

 I believe, this anime

1

Could’ve been worse

     If you are interested in the story (well, you probably should be), I believe you’ll be better off going straight to the manga. I can’t vouch for it, but it shouldn’t suffer as much of absence of worldbuilding and overabundance of not that elegant, messy and disjointed storytelling as the anime. Well, at least as a promotion the anime works.

Suisei no Gargantia – a mix of everything that, well, quite works

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Alternative title Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet
Studio Production I.G
Genres Action, Drama, Sci-Fi, Slice of Life
Source Original
Episodes 13
Season Spring 2013
Director Kazuya Murata
Music Taro Iwashiro
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     Would you be hyped if Production I.G announced a new anime that has a giant robot? Not enough? What if the composition of the series and some scriptwriting would be done by Gen Urobuchi? I believe many, if not the majority of anime viewers would at least check it out. Yet, the spring season of 2013 also had Shingeki no Kyojin, Hataraku Maou-sama! and Oregairu to offer among others, so it’s not really a surprise to see that Suisei no Gargantia hasn’t created a large fanbase and isn’t the show to be talked about very frequently. So, is it worth checking out?

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     Behind the two lead characters in the key visual of the series looms a giant robot so naturally many people  thought that Suisei no Gargantia would definitely be just another usual mecha show, maybe, knowing Urobuchi’s involvement, many characters will die horrible deaths. The first minutes of the show didn’t surprise anyone – massive space battle where no viewer can understand what’s going on wasn’t offering anything new. Well, at least the animation was decent – it’s Production I.G after all. Nonetheless, as our main character soldier Ledo woke up from artificial sleep after some trans-galactic travel (the battle didn’t go very well), all the mecha-ness disappeared. By the end of the first episode Ledo finds out that he and his robot Chamber have arrived to planet Earth – long lost to the civilization that Ledo is from.  The Earth is quite flooded – everyone lives in fleets made of many connected ships and boats. So ended the first episode that managed to unnerve many people – some loved the first part with the mecha battle and complained about nothing happening towards the end of the episode. Others conversely preferred that more peaceful and atmospheric part while murmuring about almost senseless beginning. It turned out that as the parts of first episode looked like day and night, the whole series also had some segments that screamed of either slice of life or action. Slice of life segments came first, as Ledo (and Chamber) tried to adapt to the living in the fleet named Gargantia, while trying to grasp the differences between his own very organized and strict civilization and this happy-go-lucky style of life that local people like the lead heroine messenger girl Amy led. At first it may seem quite pointless to throw away precious time that could be used for mecha fights and stuff, but in the end the peaceful time spent on Gargantia was crucial to Ledo’s decisions in the later episodes when all the action and drama began. It could be argued that even in terms of slice of life the show uses its time inefficiently – there is an episode (and a bit of another one) that is just filled with mild fanservise. It’s possible to think that it was meant to show Ledo’s development from a Rei Ayanami type of person to a more humane one, who is able to feel at least something when some girls start dancing in the attire that is quite revealing. Everything just boils down to personal preferences, but clearly the amount of fanservice was a bit bigger than the plot needed. That aside, a big praise must be given to the creators who thought that after Ledo arrived to the Earth he would need some time to learn the local language. Such details really add to the realism of the whole story. The later part of the series focuses mainly on action with some twists, but it’s nothing really Urobuchi-like as the amount of dead characters doesn’t reach your typical Urobuchi level. It isn’t unheard of to make a story that doesn’t belong to just one genre and changes throughout the season, yet it isn’t such an easy job to make everything run smoothly. I believe the transition from the first action sequence into the peaceful slice of life environment was done pretty well, but the opposite didn’t look that effortlessly to me. Still, both parts were quite enjoyable and, even if some things in the story aren’t that original or unguessable, everything was executed pretty well.

     As far as the characters go, the cast isn’t that big and diverse. The main focus of Suisei no Gargantia is to show Ledo’s development from soldier that knows only war and drill to a decent and humane person. Also, there is Chamber. Normally a robot wouldn’t be considered a proper character, but it just happens to grow and change throughout the series as well as his pilot does, even if it’s barely noticeable. There’s nothing really exceptional about all the supporting characters (who actually look pretty flat and aren’t that developed through the series, though it doesn’t really grab much attention as a negative trait and sometimes might even work as a contrast to Ledo’s changing) – we have some girls (suitable for fanservice, how else?), some wise old men, just everyday workers and one particular character who caused me many a headache for being an idiot. Well, I can believe that in the whole enormous fleet there should be some idiots around but when the idiot starts giving orders out of the blue that go against the basic common sense and everybody has absolutely no problem with that and just happily complies, I start to lose patience. Also, there’re some inconsistencies like changing the view whether killing could be justified, or simply conveniently forgetting that people that didn’t mean anything good at first place later shouldn’t be trusted.

Excerpt from the ED; animation by Yoshimichi Kameda
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     If there are some problems with the story and characters, there hardly could be any complaints about the visuals. The character designs look really refreshing after all the high-school stuff that just overflows the market. The colorful clothing that sometimes resembles some Native American trends, sometimes goes with the full Hawaiian look, looks well with the whole setting and vibrant backgrounds. If I have to condense all the artstyle into just one word, it would definitely be ‘colourful’. Sometimes bashing almost all the colors together looks like a true nightmare, other times it can turn into the absolutely amazing gem that Mononoke (not that Princess one) is. Suisei no Gargantia manages to use all the means and effectively make a pleasant almost heaven-like atmosphere. When it wants, it can transform and do a great job representing darker themes and more complex character emotions than just happiness. Still, at times I just began to ask how the same show can capture such a great shot one time and some episodes later look like there was no effort put in drawing faces. Nonetheless, more times than not animation was done really well as far as I can tell. The Mecha parts (yes, there are some, but clearly not enough to call the show full-mecha) done by CGI also didn’t look like abominations from hell, and that is something even in this day and age.

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     Another thing that is crucial to the success of the show is music, though sadly it is often overlooked. Even when the story of Suisei no Gargantia wasn’t going that well, the music kept me just glued to the screen (well, actually to the headphones). Taro Iwashiro, who hasn’t done that much anime work, managed to capture the right atmosphere perfectly, be it a battle theme or just a calm breeze of the wind. Not to mention that a symphonic orchestra used to its full potential is a rear sight in the fields of anime soundtracks. I believe that the music of Suisei no Gargantia can rightly be called the best part of the whole show, and would not be shamed after comparison with even the best live-action film scores or works by Yuki Kajiura or Youko Kanno.

Excerpt from the OST: 'Before Proceeding'
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Excerpt from the OST: 'I Like the Ocean Breeze'

     Gen Urobuchi’s name attached to the show may have done more wrong than right, as this isn’t your normal UroButcher series. Suisei no Gargantia tries to combine slice of life elements with some action later on and even if has some mecha elements, they are really not the center of the story. After all, it was quite a fun ride, not to mention that it was wrapped pretty well, and even if the show isn’t flawless and pacing clearly isn’t the strongest part, Suisei no Gargantia was entertaining enough, and in the end that’s all that matters.

     I believe, this anime is

 2Decent

     There are shows that are certainly better. Also, the themes and the whole changing of the style thing might not be for everybody, but I think it’s worth checking out, at least for the soundtrack and beautiful scenery.