Highscool DXD season 4 episode 6 Review

I’ve had a hard time thinking of anything to write for the blog – the start of the anime season is usually a flurry of activity (at least by my standards) since the new shows give me a lot to talk about. But as we reach episode six, most of these shows have shown their hand. What made episode one good or bad is exactly what makes or break episodes seven and beyond. Even when the anime are good, I run out of things to say. And in my desperation, I find myself talking about Highschool DXD. This was, of course, a depressing experience. But not for the reasons one would expect.
Part of what made it hard to watch is that the directing is much better than a lot of the anime out there right now, including such hits as Tokyo Ghoul Re. This depresses me. Now don’t get me wrong, the visual presentation is not revolutionary or even exemplary, but at least it has purpose. For instance, there are several moments were characters are on uneven planes. The show establishes this by showing the characters down below using overhead shots. Conversely, the characters up above are shown using an upward looking angle. This is pretty standard stuff, but it helps orient us. Unlike Tokyo Ghoul and a great many other anime, I’m not confused as to where the characters even are.
This episode also demonstrated a good variety of shots, using a mix of close up and establishing shots. And to its credit, it didn’t do what so many anime do, where it randomly bombards us with a variety of shots, without any clear purpose. At least once each anime season there will be a show people insist is very well directed, and almost always it’s something with an overly busy visual presentation (the best example I can think of is Erased). But Highschool DXD uses shot variety to actually sell the scene. For instance, the villain is this very overpowered and obnoxious pretty boy (Aizen light basically). Mostly he’s shot from a distance, enforcing his untouchability and aloofness. But once he loses his shit, the shot moves in. He’s lost all awareness of his surroundings – the close up shot emphasizes the bat shit crazy look on his face – his vulnerability. Then, as he recollects his cool, the shot backs up again. I’m not saying this is amazing directing, but at least the shot composition is always serving a clear purpose.
But don’t forget – this is a show about the all powerful boob dragon. Basically soft-core porn. Why is this better done than half of what we’re getting right now? Why does Tokyo Ghoul get to take itself so seriously when Highschool DXD is objectively better presented. I remember going through a similar existential crisis when my friend got me to watch Monster Musume. For the next month, I’d be watching TV or some movie, and just be thinking “that show about animal fetishes was much better directed than this.” And that wasn’t only true for other trashy shows. Very self serious stories were similarly terrible. And I’m not saying Harem anime should know there place and have worse directing. Rather, I believe everything can benefit from being well shot. Think of how many times the visual presentation in a show didn’t actually accomplish anything. When you’re watching a marvel movie, do any of these shots achieve anything? Or did they just plop a camera in front of something and let it role?
The world is full of talented directors chomping at the bit for some action, so why do we have so many shows and movies that look like shit? Highschool DXD should never be the gold standard. It should be the bar you have to pass to even remotely take yourself seriously. As for the plot of the show, it’s gone the way of many a Harem anime. Having lasted more than two seasons, it’s essentially become a bad action show. The problem is that harem anime revolve around a single male protagonist and a bunch of female love interests. The female characters can only evolve relative to the main character and their relationship to him. Once their relationship reaches homeostasis, they can’t really do anything. That’s why we’ve reached that point where more male characters have been introduced this season than female. At least they can exercise a limited amount of agency. They can move the plot along.
In short, High School DXD is hardly an amazing show. But somehow more care is being put into softcore porn than incredibly self important shows like Tokyo Ghoul and its ilk. What a weird world we live in.


Tokyo Ghoul Re Episode 6 Review

After several weeks of mediocrity and some very questionable direction, Tokyo Ghoul delivers a functional episode. A masterwork it is not. But this is the first episode of Re that truly succeeds as a piece of entertainment. But rather than talk about this episode, I want to briefly address last week’s. It felt like a focal point of the season – it was actionpacked, featured some slightly smoother animation, and even brought back the original opening that has become so iconic. But somehow it ranked as the seasons most boring episode yet. After talking about how well Hero Academia handled action with its last episode, I thought I’d discuss what bad action looks like.
The first fight of episode six features a ghoul named Nutcracker. As a general disclaimer, I acknowledge that these fights are pretty poorly animated and choreographed, but I’m not going to focus on that. A fight can be low budget and skill keep the audience engaged. What I want to emphasize is the stakes as well as the internal logic of the fights. In the case of Nutcracker, she can detach parts of her body and turn them into traps, which is actually a pretty cool power. But here’s the issue – we find this out when Shiraju jumps up in the air for an attack and triggers a trap in the ceiling. Now, how often do you see a character jump up for an attack? Being the obsessive nerd that I am, I checked through episodes of Tokyo ghoul, and let me tell you; it’s happens sometimes, but never to the point where characters are practically touching the ceiling. So clearly Shiraju only jumped so high so he could trigger this trap and some exposition about Nutcracker’s powers.
And the explanation Shirazu gets makes no sense. He is told that Nutcracker can set traps, and that he should stay away from the walls and ceiling. But if that is her power, then why wouldn’t she set traps in the floor? Isn’t that where people tend to be walk? It would be like putting land mines in trees instead of the ground, in case someone decides to go for a climb in the middle of combat. Is there a reason there aren’t any floor traps? Is there some convincing reason why Nutcracker couldn’t also lay traps there? And while we’re on the issue of traps, how many ceiling traps are there? Shirazu managed to reach the peak of his jump right where a trap is. Either he’s really unlucky, or we should assume there are a lot of traps in the ceiling. We saw someone else get hit with a ceiling trap last episode, so this seems like a logical assumption.
But if that’s the case, why not put traps everywhere? Or is there a limit to how many traps Nut Cracker can place? If that’s the case, then why put so many of your traps on the ceiling, where the enemy are unlikely to be? I guess it’s a good thing that in this specific fight, all of the characters suddenly decide to hang out on the ceiling. And I’d like to also point out that there are other fights going on right now, also in enclosed spaces, and no one is hanging out near the ceiling. I guess that’s because they have no plot conveniences to trigger.
The second half of the episode is dominated by Hasei’s fight with Owl, which has just as many logical errors. The first problem is that it’s one of those fights where projectiles are being shot everywhere, but stepping slightly to the left or right counts as dodging. And fine, I’m willing to accept that doing somersaults somehow lets you dodge projectile weapons. But there’s a moment where Hasie jumps right into a hail of spikes, and none of them hit him. His opponent is literally firing directly at him, and Hasie is jumping right into the incoming fire, yet none of them land. Or there’s a moment where Hasie is seemingly defeated, yet his opponent just stands over him while he completes his internal monologue.
Meanwhile, there’s never any indication that an attack is dealing damage. Characters are knocked back, but they don’t become more sluggish as the fight goes on. They don’t seem any more tired. They look like shit, but that’s the extent of it. Also, what’s our indication that a character is more powerful than another? We only get the sense a character is strong because we are told so, but nothing in the way their attacks and movement are presented reinforces that fact. And the damage never feels real because the peril is never genuine. There are many moments throughout where characters are clearly defeated, but the enemy simply stands there and says nothing for over a minute. Then they finally intervene, just for more good guys to show up and block their attack. This setup happens twice in this in episode alone.
And I understand – these are problems inherent in many action anime. But at least in those others, the powers stand out and the damage feels real. In My Hero, Deku breaking an arm feels like a real injury. And everyone fights in their own distinct way. But in Tokyo Ghoul, all attacks boil down to punching and swinging your tail around. Even mass produced anime had more distinctive attacks and sounder logic than this. Think of Bleach – hardly a perfect show, but it’s fights were far more unique than this. For instance, there was one fight where a character could control objects by looking at them. He took over the limbs of his opponent, so his opponent severed the tendons in his own arms and legs. At this point, that characters can’t use those body parts. The fight has a real sense of forward momentum. Injuries matter. Also, the fight feels special. This is a unique ability that requires a unique approach (such as self mutilation). Tokyo Ghoul has yet to offer a single fight as imaginative and distinct as this. And while I hope to focus on the positive next week, I wanted to take the time to go over the fights in this episode, since this is an element of the show has been bothering me constantly. Hopefully next week I’ll get to focus on some of the things this season has done right, just to shake things up.
Until next time.

Quick Darling in the Fraanx Episode 17 breakdown/critique

Darling in the Fraanx is one of those shows where the broad strokes are quite gratifying, but the detail work is shoddy at best. Take the concept behind this episode – our heroes are stranded in a small, artificial garden, in the midst of a barren world. While their situation is bleaker than it’s ever been before, they’re all at their happiest – there are no giant blue monsters to battle, no shady government policing their feelings. They’re doomed, but for the time being, happy. They can be themselves. It’s a setup similar to Lord of the Flies, but with a much more optimistic message.
But once you start listening to the dialogue (or in my case, reading the subtitles) the premise breaks apart. We can see it happening in the scene between Hiro and Mitsuru, where the two have a reconciliation. We start with Hiro saying “you’ve changed” followed by “up until now, you’ve been distancing yourself from us.” The problem is that people don’t speak this way. Even in a moment of candor and reconciliation, we’re rarely so straightforward. The sign of a great script is that a character says one thing, but has ten different meanings. In other words, subtext. But then Hiro says “Now you’ve taken an interest in someone. You want to know Kokoro better.” Hiro says that Mitsuru wants to know Kokoro better, implying it must be true. But rather than have Hiro say this, why not have Mitsuru ask something about Kokoro? Why not have him randomly mention Kokoro in an unrelated conversation?
Almost every line of dialogue in this episode is expository, telling us what the characters think or feel, but never representing it. We never see Mitsuru show much interest he has in Kokoro – he never asks her what she thinks, or what she likes. And later Kokoro mentions how she wants something other than fighting – that she wants to “leave her mark.” But we only know that this is important to her because she says so. Why not actually show her trying to leave a mark? Yes, she has the garden, but we never hear her explain the types plants that there are, or show any real care for her flowers. What if someone were to knock a plant over and she suddenly freaked out? What if she starts planting flowers in more and more places, almost obsessively? Wouldn’t these be better ways of conveying her existential crisis, rather than blurting out exactly what she’s feeling?
Or later on in the episode, Mitsuru tells Kokoro “I want to make you happy.” But have we ever seen him try all that hard to do so? So nce the show has no subtext – since there’s rarely ever deeper meaning in what the characters say – we’re forced to take their words as gospel. But their words contradict their actions. We’re told Mitsuru has changed, but we have not actually seen him change all that radically. He’s become less of an asshole, but that’s hardly great character development. We’re also told Mitsuru loves Kokoro, but we don’t really see anything that could be considered a compelling romance. Or what about the beginning of the episode, where Zero Two gives a monologue about how “everything is temporary.” Couldn’t they show us the leaves on the trees changing color, or a flower in Kokoro’s garden wilting? Is there not a more immediate and creative way to convey this principle?
In short, Darling in the Fraanx has been relying far too heavily on the notion that we’ll believe what it tells us. If a character needs to be in love, they’ll say that they’re in love. If a character needs development, another character will say “Hey, you’ve changed.” If a character fears their own mortality and wants to leave something behind to mark their existence – well, they’ll say exactly that. Dialogue and exposition have become crutches that Darling in the Fraanx relies on far too heavily, subtracting from an otherwise enjoyable series.

My Hero Academia Season 3 episode 5 review

hero 2I’ve always been confused by the explosive popularity of My Hero – it always felt like a fairly standard action Shounen with one note characters and devoting or plots. Beat for beat, the first season feels eerily reminiscent of old school Naruto. The second season was a definite improvement, but by then my patience was in short supply and I didn’t make it past the halfway point. I went back and watched some of the major plot moments in anticipation for season 3, but I was still not feeling it. Thankfully, season 3 offers us a genuinely great action set piece, similar in style to Hunter X Hunter (the best Shonen anime, in my humble opinion), and has me genuinely reinvested in the series.

I enjoyed breaking down the shot composition for Tokyo Ghoul, so I wanted to to do something similar for My Hero, to show what good directing looks like. I won’t go quite as obsessively in depth, but the presentation is what sells this episode. Every battle has its own unique rhythm that mirrors the fighter’s combat style. For instance, one fight pits Bakugo and Todoroki against a  villain with long, metallic teeth that he props himself up on. Since the villain is high above our heroes, he’s introduced using a panning shot that slowly goes upwards. Then, when we see Bakugo talking, we get a upward panning shot of his face, going from his mouth up to a vein on his upper left temple. These shots both serve different purposes – the one gives us a sense of how high up the villain is, and the other puts emphasis on Bakugo’s comically expressive vein (which flinches everytime he gets pissed). By recycling the type of shot, it gives the scene a great sense of continuity.

Once the fight gets underway, the shot moves rapidly through the environment, as the villain swings around on the treetops with his elongated teeth. Then we get a shot of Bakugo standing up after an attack. His movement is highly exaggerated, and the shot’s movement perfectly mirrors his own. We are seeing the same type of shot recycled. There’s no reason we can’t have a still shot of Bakugo standing up. But by using the same shot over again, the scene feels cohesive – the battle has its own distinct flavor.

But the flavor of each individual fight only truly stands out when you experience them side by side. In the Bakugo fight, the shot move across the environment rapidly, zooming in and out and panning fast over scenery. But the fight directly after this one takes place in a toxic fog. Our characters are trapped in the poisonous haze, unable to move. As a result, the shots are all stationary. Also, the shots last much longer than the last scene – some are longer than ten seconds (an eternity for an action sequence). This way of presenting the scene emphasizes the helplessness of the characters. As the fight starts, the shots pan slightly to one side or the other. But once our heroes are being thoroughly trounced, the shots stop moving all together. And once the heroes gain the upper hand again, the shots get briefer and briefer, and exhibit progressively more dynamic movement.

Watching episode five of My Hero was a cathartic experience, especially after the dumpster fire that is Tokyo Ghoul: Re. Anime is an inherently visual media, so it’s frustrating when the visuals do not serve any purpose. But it’s not just the presentation that makes these fights work. What really sells the action is that the characters are capable of thought – when faced with an overwhelming adversary, they’ll retreat. When presented with an enemy ability, they’ll try to figure out how it works. In this regard, the episode has echoes of Hunter X Hunter, which meshed the zany superpowers of a shonen with the rational thinking of a more “serious” show.

If I have an issue with this episode, it’s that that the moments of clarity and strategic thinking make the nonsensical moments stick out like a sore thumb. For example, one of our heroes manages to disperse the toxic fog by using her giant hands as a fan, blowing it away. But why didn’t she try this several minutes ago, when her friend was curled up on the ground, being shot at? Also, right before she uses her fan move, she rushes at the villain and knocks him to the side with her giant hands. But she really only nudges him slightly. Why would you get close to the villain and give him the chance to shoot you, when your plan all along is to blow him away with your fan hands? Also, the villain establishes that he can see the heroes through his fog. If that’s the case, then why even wait for the heroes to get to you? Why not shoot them from a distance, since you can see everything and they can only see a few feet in front of them?

I know this is all very nitpicky, but the episode goes out of its way to show that the characters are thinking strategically. Then a minute later the characters are making completely stupid decisions. The characters are clearly only as smart or as stupid as the plot needs, and this inconsistency reveals the weakness of the writing. I’ve always felt the characters in My Hero are relatively flat and poorly defined, and this episode (as amazing as it is) further confirms this fact. But as an exploding action set piece with a fantastic visual flair and attention to detail, this episode is truly exemplary. Hats off to you My Hero.

Tokyo Ghoul, Episode 5 Breakdown/Review

I’ve had a hard time mustering the enthusiasm to write about recent anime releases, with my attention divided between work and a variety of other writing projects. But while I am not enjoying the anime offering of Spring 2018, frustration sometimes leads to fascination. And the serious of backing directorial decisions in Tokyo Ghoul has once again given my the inspiration to write about anime. But this time around I’ll be trying a slightly different format: rather than talk about the episode as a whole, I’ll be discussing particular segments in very specific detail, to address what I find so frustrating about its presentation.
To evaluate any approach, it’s important to identify the goal of the show and of the specific scene. Tokyo Ghoul is a horror anime, and this particular scene is quintessential slasher material – an attractive young woman wanders down a dimly lit hallway, chased by a sociopath. But is this scene scary, like, at all? The first shot is of the hallway itself – the problem is that we see the whole hallway all at once. It may seem like a perfectly inofensive shot, but why give us such a wide angle? Any possible sense of claustrophobia is gone. The other problem is that we can see a good ten feet in front of and behind Mutsuki. Good horror has blind spots – it lets the imagination run wild. Ever watch a horror movie and notice that you can’t see what’s behind the character? Or ever notice when a character is not in the center of the shot, but either to the far left or right, making it hard to see what’s to their side? This creates a sense of peril and tension. The less we see, the more we can imagine danger. The more disoriented we become. But this opening shot shows us everything – an empty hall without any threats or interesting details at all. It may seem like a harmless choice, but i found it pretty frustrating.
But that’s nothing compared to the second shot, which feels particularly terrible. We see the other side side the wall, which is splattered in blood. Then a second later, Mutsuki walks through the door. This is where we need to talk about another rule of good horror – it makes you feel the danger alongside the characters. For instance, we’ve all probably seen a first person shot of a character opening a door to some place dangerous. This way we can feel the same tension as the character – we’re equally freaked out when a killer clown lunges out from behind the door. But imagine if we instead saw a shot of the clown waiting behind the door, ready to attack? That’d be weird, right? That’s essentially what this shot is. It takes us out of the character’s perspective and ruins any sense of tension.
Also, this is something of a nitpick, but the lighting in these various shots is radically inconsistent. First we see the blood stained wall, which is fairly bright and white. But the next shot shows that the room is much darker and has a greenish glow to it. Then the lights start flickering, making the room temporarily very bright. In the span of three seconds we have three different levels of brightness. I know this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but brightness is important in horror movies. Darkness inherently makes us feel a sense of danger, while brightness makes us feel safe. Properly manipulating light is part of good horror. Also, as for the shot itself, we see a floor covered in corpses. But it’s not a very shocking image. We just spent a couple seconds looking at a blood spattered wall, so we’re not surprised by a little carnage.
Now, imagine if the episode committed to the idea of this hallway being dark, rather than randomly making the brightness change every time they cut to a new perspective? What if it were practically pitch black, and we only heard Mutsuki’s panicked breathing, or the creaking of the door as she opens it. And then, suddenly, the lights flicker and we see a body. But only for a moment. That’s not the only way to present the scene, but it’d sure be a hell of a lot more effective than what we’re given here.
The next shot shows us Mutsuki’s pursuer, walking down a hallway. I had to watch the scene a few times to pick up on this fact, but he’s actually in the same hallway she was just in. However, it’s hard to tell because the lighting is completely different … again. The next shot is of him looking down the hall full of corpses. We then get a shot of Mutsuki looking to her left to check that the coast is clear, before running to her right.
This is where we get into another serious problem with this scene – it’s very spatially confused. I had to watch this scene a few times to understand the layout of the building, but I think I’ve finally figured it out. Basically, Mutsuki is hiding in a hallway connected to a longer hallway. Her pursuer walks by and does not notice her. Mutsuki decides the coast is clear and runs into the longer hallway, where her pursuer is. But here’s the thing – he’s literally just standing there. He’s standing only ten feet away, if even. Yet Mutsuki is somehow surprised when he sees her running from him. Why did she not wait for him to be further away? Or better yet, why not continue down the hallway she’s already in?
I know this may be a neurotically detailed critique, but the devil’s in the details. The show is silly to begin with, but once you start paying attention it makes literally no sense. For instance, Mutsuki is standing roughly two feet in front of a door (on her left) and a hallway (on her right). Then her pursuer knocks her back. He’s now ten feet away (roughly), implying that’s how far back Mutsuki way pushed. But in the next shot, using the landmarks of the door and the hallway, we can clearly see she hasn’t moved at all. If anything, she’s moved forwards.
This may be an odd way to review an episode, considering I only talked about an isolated minute of it, but I enjoyed writing this way and I can’t help but feel it needs to be said. This show is sloppy on a level that we as a community should not tolerate. I know plenty have already acknowledged the show’s flaws, but I feel as if we’ve yet to accept how truly bad it gets. The details matter – the way a show is constructed matters. But the minds behind Tokyo Ghoul clearly don’t care. Or in the words of Rick Sanchez, this is just sloppy craftsmanship.


Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody Review

Death marchDeath March is the amalgamation of every mainstream anime trope, mixed together and deep fried in some serviceable animation. And while that metaphor may not make any sense, neither does Death March, a show so familiar and yet so bizarre that it occupies the deepest, darkest trench of the uncanny valley. Watching the opening, you would expect this to be a typical Sword Art Online knockoff. But the first fifteen minutes are a sobering commentary on the working conditions of computer programmers; the show pulls back the curtain on the video game industry, showing us wage slaves and mundane work talk.

And I know what you’re thinking; maybe this is a commentary on the dark underbelly of fantasy gaming. But you would be wrong, because one episode later we’re treated to a male empowerment fantasy inside a video game, just like any other anime. It’s the equivalent of starting a dog show with a documentary on puppy mills, or a porno with a slide show of STDs.

But by the second episode we appear to be back on track, as our protagonist runs into a cute blond girl and gains superpowers. Business as usual, right? But rather than acquire a harem through the usual means – waiting for a bunch of buxom women to randomly fall in his lap – he buys them. That’s right, all of his potential interests are slave girls … that he buys.

I expected him to buy the freedom of the first three slave girls he meets; the two clearly underaged ones would find a happy home with one of the characters he met along the way, and the older slave would choose to follow him of her own volition. But no, he simply buys all three from the slave trader. He even saves the trader from certain doom. So a few members of his harem are slaves, but only one is old enough to actually qualify. I guess that’s alright. But then he instantly buys two more slave girls! And a few episodes later he acquires yet another girl who calls him master; the same episode where the cute blond is written out of the show. The harem is now exclusively slaves.

So what should we make of this? Is this meant as some sort of deconstruction, or a criticism of how harem anime objectify women? The problem is, the show never shows anything wrong with any of this. The slave girls actively want a master, and our hero implies it would be wrong not to buy them. If anything, slavery is the noble choice. So maybe slavery is being used as a plausible excuse for having a harem. It wouldn’t make sense for a bunch of women to randomly fall for our hero (not that this has stopped anime before), but what if those women are all slaves? Then they would have no choice.

This approach has been handled well in shows like Daily Life With Monster Girls, where the girls are all half-animal and become attached rather quickly. A girl falling in love with you for no reason makes zero sense, but what if she were half-dog? And the girls aren’t idiots because they’re poorly written male-centric fantasies, but because they’re literal bird (and snake and fish) brains.

So maybe slavery is doing the same work in Death March; it give a plausible explanation for having so many cute girls in one place. But Death March throws us yet another curve ball, in the form of our hero’s self imposed abstinence. This is not unusual in harem anime; usually the hero is too shy to make a move. And anime like Monster Girls offer plot related reasons that prevent sex from happening. But at one point, our hero randomly visits a brothel. This pointless scene makes it much harder to understand why he never makes any moves on the main love interest, or why he never reciprocates any flirtation.

The best way to describe this show is as a confusing cluster of contradictions. The craftsmanship transcends sloppy; it’s incomprehensible. For instance, our most recent arc features a Undead King (not be mistaken for a Lych) abducting an elf girl and making our hero traverse a dungeon of low level monsters. When the Undead King first shows up, his intention is clearly to steal this elf girl. But why does he want her? We never actually find out, because he switches his plan halfway through; it turns out he just wanted to die all along, and he needs a hero strong enough to deliver the finishing blow. But how does kidnapping the elf girl help him achieve this? He had no way of knowing she would be with a strong hero when he abducted her, and he was chasing her long before she met up with our protagonist.

This three episode arc has more flaws than I have time to cover, but it truly baffles me. This is not to say that plot holes don’t exist elsewhere in anime. But this show is truly in a league of its own. It is also one of my favorite anime this season. The subject matter is highly questionable and the pacing is shoddy at best, but damn if it’s not morbidly fascinating. Death March is one of the first anime in months to deliver any surprises. The plot meanders and breaks apart, losing itself across multiple genres and approaches.  It goes from a commentary on the video game industry, to an anime about medieval fiances, to the tale of a slave harem. But I am actually enjoying myself. I fear boredom and mediocrity far more than mistakes. Anime as a whole seems to be compressing around its center, like a collapsing star, producing more and more reliably mediocre stories.  A mediocre show is dangerous – there is nothing technically wrong with it, but nothing artistically right. It is pure execution. But Death March finds novelty through its faults, if not through its subject matter; the show about being transported to a fantasy world actually felt refreshing, a sentence I never thought I would have to write. 

Final Verdict: Despite a mountain of objective flaws and breaking almost every rule of story telling – or perhaps because of these things – Death march is surprisingly effective entertainment.



Black Panther Review


I try to keep my reviews focused on anime, since it’s literally in the title of the blog and what my meager handful of followers expect. But Marvel movies have a very anime like quality to them, being about lasers and heroes and flashy battles. Also, I had to write about this movie. But unlike the droves of satisfied critics and audiences, I am baffled and horrified – the more I think about this, the more I must vent my frustration. So here I am, for a very messy and spontaneous rant.

My first frustration has to do with the music. I listened to the Black Panther album released alongside the film, and was impressed by some of the choices. For the uninitiated, this is a great indoctrination into the world of rap. And yet, none of this music appeared in the movie itself. Marvel was sitting on a veritable goldmine of music, and used none of it. And to bring anime into the mix (since this is an anime blog) the recently released Devilman Crybaby had more rap in it than this movie. That’s right, there was more rap in a Japanese cartoon about demons than there was in Black Panther – the first Black superhero movie in Marvel’s film franchise. And to make matters worse, the Black Panther album had tracks off of Mad Villainy on it. For those not in the know, this album was a team up between Madlib and MF Doom, and is probably in contention for one of the greatest rap albums of all time. Who is MF Doom you ask? MF doom is a rapper who always wears a Doctor Doom mask, and who inserts clips from super hero shows into his music. And again, the album is called Mad Villainy. Can you imagine more perfect music for a villain instruction? But none of that was in the movie. And Kendrick Lamar’s DNA was on the Black Panther soundtrack, another banger that would be incredible in any fight scene, featuring one of the most insane beat drops in recent memory. But nope, none of that. We finally had a chance to expose rap to the world in a popular and accessible movie, and punted miserably. But seeing what the mainstream has to offer, maybe it’s for the best.

And when I say expose rap to the world, I don’t mean a generic beat about cars and women. There is some incredible rap out their – beautiful, lyrically complex, and infinitely listenable, locked behind the stereotype that most rap is vulgar noise and nothing else. And sadly, this movie wasted the opportunity to spread awareness of this incredible music.

My other serious issue is with the wasted potential of the villain. Erik Killmonger is very clearly a Malcom X type – an educated revolutionary that exposes the world’s hypocrisy. Revolution is inevitably messy, but the world we enjoy today was only made possible by a long series of revolutions. Revolution is a morally grey issue. But then Erik kills his comrades and proves he has no sense of connection to anyone. He is painted as a broken and possibly insane person, looking to burn the world down to ashes rather than save it. But his earlier points about isolationism, imperialism, and racism are all perfectly cogent – it feels like he was made crazy in an effort to sweep his contentious viewpoints under the rug. And what reason compelled Black Panther’s allies to fight against Erik? Why, he’s an outsider. The movie practically hands the moral high ground over to Black Panther, a prince raised in a technologically advanced wonderland, while simultaneously taking it from a from Erik, a man raised on the wrong side of town.

Ultimately, Black Panther still stands head and shoulders above most Marvel movies – the villain is compelling and complicated (except when he’s not), the action is tight, the world is beautiful, and the dialogue is just the right amount of witty. I was entertained throughout. But the movie also feels like a cultural sedative, meant to undermine some serious issues with the world and the people who inhabit it. Marvel Movies tend to work because they steer clear of moral complexity – they’re simply not equipped to handle it, and far too blunt an instrument for any real issues that genuinely affect us. They are escapism.

Final Verdict: Black Panther is a fine movie, critically elevated by the presence of minority characters – a fun time and an engaging narrative, but one that is bogged down by its exploration of themes beyond its scope.


Darling in the Franxx Episode 5 Review

franxxDarling in the Franxx probably submitted its strongest installment his week, coming off four long episodes of setup. One could say the payoff came last week, when 02 and 016 finally piloted the giant robot together. And indeed, it was a satisfying moment and a cathartic episode. But the giant robot is essentially a Chekhov’s gun with boobs, and it was fairly inevitable what would happen – some shady organization would get in the way of 016 and 02, but ultimately their love would prevail and they would pilot the giant robot/sex metaphor together.

But now all is uncertain. Given the somber tone of the show, coupled with Trigger’s unpredictable and crazy story telling, there’s a very real chance 016 could die. Our “main character” could be killed only 6 episodes in. This grim outcome is only made possible by 02, by far the best part of the show. She is an amalgamation of Asuka from Evangelion and Haruko from FLCL, both symbols of adulthood and sources of sexual awakening. They’re imposing and confident – sexual and in control – but beneath all of that, fundamentally broken. Dangerous even.

It is no coincidence 02 has established herself as the “best girl” of the season – trigger has turned making cute girls into a science. 02 will wander around naked, only eat food drenched in suggestively sticky honey, and has an unhealthy obsession with our vague, stand-in protagonist. The anime community has predictably fallen for her. How could they not? But 02 breaks the mold in episode five, drastically reconfiguring the stakes of the show. Yes, it is not uncommon to have a “best girl” with an utter disregard for human life, even the urge to murder our hero. The anime world fell in love with Rem, despite her literally murdering the main character. But this is was just a phase. Eventually she fell for Subaru and became obedient and kindhearted.

But 02 remains entirely unchanged by her love for 016, and her disregard for human life is not brushed under the rug. This is the point of divergence between 02 and those like Rem. Subaru gets over being murdered by Rem rather easily, free of any PTSD or trust issues, and they develop a rather loving relationship. Anime love has a way of blotting out personalities. Murderous rage, existential despair, and even lesbianism have been overpowered by the power of love. But 02 defies this expectation, remaining just as selfish and cruel as ever. 

In her very first scene, 02 asks for an ocean. At the beginning of episode five, she asks for it to rain.  Both requests involve freshwater, and both have a certain enormity to them – oceans seem all but extinct in this post-apocalyptic world, and 016 clearly cannot control the weather. This simple moment speaks volumes. 02 is still as selfish as ever, and she is asking for a lot ; she literally wants 016 to give his life for her. Far from a doting housewife or love-struck maiden, 02 is a sexually curious child that cannot love properly. And there is no indication that she is learning how.

Anime has a way of glossing over dysfunction and romanticizing romance itself. Anime love is uncomplicated. It is pure, to the point where murderous half-demons can become functional and affectionate. This is what makes episode five of Darling in the Franxx so compelling. Trigger has engineered the perfect “wifu,” but they refuse to make her uncomplicated and caring. We are forced to fall for a very flawed character – one that cannot properly love us back…

But isn’t that love sometimes?

Final verdict: Darling in the Franxx embraces the laughing demon that loves honey – a monster that cannot love you back. And in doing so, offers its best episode yet.

Kekkai Sensen Season 2 Episode 1 Review

kekkaiI cannot overemphasize the importance of how Kekkai Sensen is presented to us – as a brother telling a story to his sister through a series of letters. This helps establish why the show feels less like the professional work of seasoned storytellers, and more like the scatterbrained and hyperbolic account of a kid who just saw a ton of cool shit. One reason this show is such a delight to watch is because it breaks nearly every rule of storytelling – it does not simply take the road less traveled, but jumps of the cliff that is conventional storytelling, with no parachute or plan to speak of, yelling and flailing all the while. So I suppose it’s fitting that a minute in, our hero is plummeting out of the sky.

But going back a bit, I would like to comment on the very first minute of this episode, which has more going on than many entire first episodes this season. First, we see plushies of two innocuous looking anime girls. It’s not particularly important to know, but these happen to be two of the main characters from one of the author’s other series, Trigun. Later in this episode, a creature I call “the cameo cat” shows up as well, best known for its random appearances in literally every episode of Trigun. We also have a series of shots of the city, complete with its otherworldly inhabitants, many recycled from the show’s very first episode. The key difference is that Leonardo now navigates the the city with ease – he is finally a proper inhabitant of Hell Salem’s Lot.

In addition to these fun easter eggs and callbacks, the first minute treats us to a UFU nonchalantly abuncting pedestrians, a giant monster attack, an explosive bank robbery, and all other kinds of chaos. And herein lies the reason Kekkai Sensen’s rule breaking and randomness doesn’t bother me. So much work and care went into its construction, that I know the randomness is not out of laziness, but rather, a part of the show’s ambitious vision. There’s something so pure and genuine about the way it tells a story, skipping over character development and exposition so it can showcase some truly crazy concepts. In a way, the show is just a series of cool ideas, loosely connected by the vaguest sense of a plot. There is no clear connection between fleshy maneaters, a rapping squid, and a disembodied politician, but somehow these elements coexist peacefully.  

But as organic (or random) as Kekkai Sensen’s storytelling seems, it’s a controlled chaos. You need to know what you’re doing to get away this kind of show. To see the care and skill at work, look no further than the action sequences. Despite the generally cluttered backgrounds, the fight scenes usually have dull, monochromatic scenery – often a grey mist or dust. And the attacks are big and bold and monochromatic as well – giant pink monsters, red crosses, color coded gangsters. This way the action really pops, and is easy to follow. And when there are tons of details, the show uses those details to good effect. A prime example is mapping out the city. Whenever Leonardo travels in this episode, there is a landmark, and the way he moves through the shot makes it clear where he came from. He’ll walk through a park and then under a bridge, and in the next shot, we can see a bit of the park behind him. His mad sprint through the city feels coherent, as if the animators intimately know the city’s layout.

Other details are less necessary, simply giving us something to look at. At one point Leonardo falls and crashes through a section of sign that says “down.” It’s a small touch and entirely unnecessary, but that’s part of the fun of the show – “necessary” is never criteria for inclusion.

As a result, Kekkai Sensen feels less like a single, monolithic feet and more like a series of episodic clips the creators thought would be cool. There’s this one scene I particularly enjoy, where Leo prepares to play a video game, declaring “Drinks check. Game check. Bed that never gets made, check.” It’s a simple line, but him shouting “bed that never gets made” feels far too real, especially for someone who recently moved into an apartment of their own. It’s a totally unnecessary scene that could stand on its own, or be dropped from the show altogether, yet I’m glad they included it.  It feels like an exercise in cramming as many cool ideas in twenty minutes as humanly possible.

But because of these “needless” inclusions, Kekkai Sensen lacks details that seem important. This first episode offers little character development, certain plot points (like the American Ambassador being headless) are only briefly explained, and the pacing is all over the map. We’ll spend a good majority of the episode getting random gags and city scenery, only to conclude our “main plot” in roughly two minutes. But there’s something so refreshing about a show with such irreverence for the rules, that’s willing to risk some shoddy character development and pacing for the sake of flexing its creative muscles. Normally this kind of show would come across as self indulgent, but when every detail is handled so carefully, and with such a theatrical flourish, it’s hard to not have fun with it.  

Kekkai Sensen may have finally perfected it helter skelter approach with this second season, giving me more fun and laughs than any other anime this season. Beneath all of the visual cameos, clever ideas, and zany characters is a simple plot about getting from point A to point B. But leave it to a show like Kekkai Sensen to take a plot so simple and make it feel like something I won’t be able to find anywhere else. And before I wrap up here, I would like to briefly address the music, which is a strange amalgamation of swelling orchestral tracks, jazz, and rap. The soundtrack is often bizarre and unstated, but adds a lot to hectic tone of the show. And to summarize my thoughts in total, Kekkai Sensen is messy, crazy, but also tons of fun and, in all probability, the best premier of this season.

We Can Build it Better

stairsIn recent years, a particular kind of anime has risen to prominence. Deconstructions have become the norm, to the point that most anime have subversive elements. Should we be worried about this? Is the rise of deconstructions an actual problem, or are anime becoming more enlightened? Unfortunately, I lean towards the former. While some of my favorite movies, songs, and anime have deconstructive elements, deconstruction can be a trap. The best way to think of this is literally. Let’s say a typical anime is a chair. It may not be the best chair – perhaps it’s lopsided, or it creaks when I sit in it. Maybe it smells. The solution? For most deconstructions, the solution is tearing the chair apart, piece by piece, pointing out how poorly built it is along the way. But what most deconstructions fail to do is put the chair back together. And if I had to choose, I’d rather have a poorly built chair than a pile of chair parts.

The goal of a good deconstruction should be to “build it better.” Rather than deconstruct, a show’s ultimate goal should be reconstruction. Once you’ve identified the issue, fix it. A very good example of this would be One Punch Man. It addresses the issue of stakes in Shonen anime, and how mundane the battles can be when the hero is virtually invincible. And while the hero is indeed indestructible, the show is far from being dull. At the very least, the show makes an effort to be as interesting and exciting as possible. But there are many shows that try and be the very thing they criticize. There are shows that will point at something wrong with anime, only to do that very thing. It feels like a plumber coming to my house, telling me my sink isn’t working, then leaving. I want to shout “Wait, aren’t you going to fix it?”

But 2017 has seen far fewer deconstructions than previous years, implying we’ve learned our lesson. We survived the age of shoddy deconstructions. So why do I still feel like we haven’t seen the last of bad deconstructions? To go back to my previous metaphor, we’re finally getting chairs instead of a pile of random parts. But unfortunately, the chair is just as shoddy as before. It still creaks, it still smells, and it’s still lopsided.

The reason deconstructions became so popular in a first place was a frustration with the norm. But most of those deconstructions never did what they promised to – help build a better TV show – and thus we’re back to the norm. And for all our trouble, little has changed. We’ll become frustrated with the norm again, we’ll get more deconstructions, and most of them will be lazy and not do their job. And thus the cycle continues.  And this frustration is not exclusive to anime – film, TV, and literature all suffer from the same cycle.

The problem is, we have some truly great deconstructions. Monogatari, One Punch Man, and Madoka each identified key issues with their genre, and managed to correct them. They showed us a different way of doing things. But subsequent shows would either ignore these innovations or be derivative. We would see this especially so with Madoka, and the era of “sad girl” anime. Many anime would either pretend that Madoka didn’t exist, going full Moe, or they would try to be Madoka.

An anime should not be one kind or the other. Anime should deconstructive and skeptical, but also stick to the fundamentals that work. But the way things are set up, we rarely get that middle ground. We get shows that either take nothing seriously, or take everything too seriously. This is not to say anime is doomed. That’s never been my message, and this is hardly a new issue. But as anime moves forward, I can’t help but hope it can overcome its polar extremes. That we see shows that both deconstruct and reconstruct. Or to put a cap on my metaphor, I hope we finally get a better chair.