Love Stage!! – A Coming-Out Worth Celebrating || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 10-episode Summer 2014 anime “Love Stage!!,” animated by J.C.Staff, directed by Kenichi Kasai, and based on the manga by Eiki Eiki.


A Shocking Reunion

Izumi Sena comes from noble blood. Not the stuff of knights and kings, but family fame. His mom’s a famous actress, his father’s a successful producer, and his loud, obnoxious older brother is currently Tokyo’s biggest rockstar. It would surprise anyone to hear that the youngest Sena wasn’t in showbiz. But Izumi didn’t ask for any of this. Instead, Izumi aims to become a manga artist, despite possessing no talent for the craft! In fact, the only way he’s been able to completely avoid the limelight is thanks to his reclusive otaku hobbies.

I suppose “completely” isn’t the right word, though. Technically, Izumi cross-dressed as a girl for a wedding commercial skit ten years ago, which still haunts him to this day. But, a decade after the shoot, the same wedding company wishes to put together a 10th anniversary ad—and staring the original child actors for the project, no less!

This reunites Izumi with Ryouma Ichijou, who’s gone on to become a popular actor. Little does Izumi know that Ryouma’s been looking forward to this day ever since he fell in love the first time they met! As he did then, however, Izumi’s feminine appearance and unisex name still have Ryouma believing that little boy was actually a girl. BUT, even after discovering the truth, Ryouma can’t seem to shake off his feelings. Thus kicks off a series of troubles for Izumi’s big coming out—and in more ways than one.

Love Stage!! is a short romance comedy series based off the original BL manga. Most of the fun in watching comes from the hilarious drama that ensues between Izumi and Ryouma. Whether you’re a fan of BL or not, these two idiots will make you squirm and squeal—and I mean that in a good way. They’re genuinely funny and good-natured, as well as have an amazing chemistry together (even if their initial meeting would technically be viewed as an assault).

Even then, Ryouma spends the entire series redeeming himself and righting this wrong by actively trying to support Izumi and his personal endeavors. Ryouma loves Izumi, no two ways about it. It now becomes a matter of whether Izumi is willing to return that affection or deny the country’s favorite rising star actor.

izumi and ryouma romance

Lovable Leads, Hilarious Heart

As I mentioned above, the leads of Love Stage!! are easily what make this series so enjoyable and accessible, too. Izumi is a lovable character. His earnest dreams of being a mangaka (when clearly he has no skill whatsoever) probably ring true to many fellow otaku. Izumi just wants to give back to the medium that has given him so much, and his pursuit is a noble one, if not a tad far-fetched. Still, he works tirelessly and dedicates his entire being to making the manga of his dreams, and I admire his unwavering perseverance.

In contrast to Izumi’s cute appearance and large round eyes, Ryouma’s leading features are his charm and captivating presence. The guy is straight SEXY, no doubt about it. But, as we get to know him beyond his actor persona, we see that he’s also just as hardworking and determined to achieve his dreams as Izumi. This includes, of course, getting together with the crush of his childhood.

There’s this ongoing gag in the series that Ryouma is bad at everything he does for the first time, but quickly improves with dedication and experience. Whether allowing people to meet his true self, making friends, or moving things to the bedroom (heh heh), you can only imagine the hilarious outcomes from Ryouma’s “first time” with anything!

The two also have their own family, friends, and industry rivals that spark plenty of entertaining dialogue. For instance, the Sena family manager, Rei Sagara, has a no-nonsense tolerance for anyone’s shit (except when he’s willing to let cute little Izumi slide past him). As a caretaker of sorts, Rei acts more as a doting mother than his own mom, which I suppose doesn’t say much since she’s so full of herself (in the most fabulous way possible). As he realizes his own feelings, Izumi slowly starts coming to Rei with all his questions about life, love, and sex with another man. Their relationship is adorable and handled with surprisingly good guidance.

Rei also helps manage the relationships between Izumi and his brash brother, Shougo, Ryouma’s own manager Shino, and even Ryouma himself sometimes! He’s seriously great, and as the series progresses, we find that many of the cast actually share relationships with one another behind closed doors. Such developments really up the character drama and intrigue!

izumi rei shougo

The Best-Looking (and Sounding) BL Anime

I admittedly haven’t seen much BL anime, but from what I understand, this has got to be one of the best currently out on the market. J.C.Staff really went ham on this one. Bright colors constantly dominate the screen, enhancing the light romantic feel for the series. The characters themselves look very attractive, what with their bold expressions, blushy cheeks, and rainbow-colored hair and eyes. It’s nice to see a simple BL anime adaptation look just as amazing as most other high quality rom-com titles.

A lot of people don’t talk about it, but the music is also shockingly good. Yes, the ED “CLICK YOUR HEART!!” by Kazutomi Yamamoto is an absolute bop, but I’m talking about the OST. Composer Ryousuke Nakanishi is probably most famous for his work on The Devil is a Part-Timer!, so you already know he’s got the balance between comedy and drama down pat. I often found the music to carry the emotions almost better than the dazzling visuals did—but then again, I would be remissed if I didn’t talk about the fantastic English dub performances.

This is probably THE best Sentai Filmworks Dub I’ve ever listened to, PERIOD. (Ok, maybe one of them. They’ve really knocked it outta the park recently!) Even with his squeaky voice, Greg Ayres does a fantastic Izumi, providing just the right tinge of embarrassment and self-pride for each of Izumi’s little stunts. Adam Gibbs’ Ryouma is the real winner here, though, cause MY GOD, this man made even me all hot and bothered. Gibbs sounds just as brash and big-headed when he should, but also shows off a softer, more innocent side to Ryouma that is just as captivating as his ambitious, energetic side. Izumi and Ryouma were perfectly cast!

But it doesn’t stop there. David Wald—who graciously lent his own experience as a gay man to bring this dub to life—not only directed Love Stage!!, but also voices Rei Sagara with a snappy, matter-of-fact voice that only he could bring. It’s also always a pleasure to hear John Swasey doing the dad thing as the illustrious Seiya Sena, and the very same to Monica Rial’s lovely (if not hilariously self-absorbed) Nagisa Sena. Lastly, Tia Ballard is sprinkled around as various voices, and she’s always a pleasure to hear in any capacity!

izumi ryouma young

A Coming Out to Celebrate

I honestly came into Love Stage!! thinking it’d be a lot more problematic than it was. Thankfully, I found the series to be one of the most fun watches I’ve enjoyed in quite some time. While it has a somewhat rough start, Love Stage!! only gets better as the plot progresses. Almost everyone in the cast means well to one another, and it’s heartwarming to see so many icons watching each others’ backs. My only wish was that we got a second season to complete the story, as these 10 episodes (plus the hysterical OVA) adapt half the completed manga story.

Whether you’re gay, straight, or somewhere in between, you’ll probably love this series if anime rom-coms in general are your thing. The visuals are extremely pretty, the music’s wonderful, and the English dub is cooked to gay perfection (should you choose to eat your anime this way). I know it was a fight to get this thing dubbed, but BOY did they it to ’em, and for that reason alone I find that Love Stage!! is a coming out worth celebrating.

izumi and ryouma close up


Somewhere in this world, there is a door that leads me to my dreams. I don’t know where that door is. I may not find it in my entire life. And even if I do find it, it may be locked to me . . . — Izumi Sena


Afterword

As a blossoming adult, a budding actor, and definitely a gay man, Izumi’s big coming out story is full of ups and downs. I really cannot recommend this series enough, especially now that I’ve finally seen it! So cute, and sooo good!! Because the story has yet to truly finish, I’ll welcome Love Stage!! as a “Cake” here at the cafe, a title too sweet to miss out on—and especially that dub though, wow, we’re really making history! I’m late to the party, but you should let me know your thoughts on the series down in the comments for sure! I think this would make a great intro title to anyone new to BL. My next Pride Month post will be over Ogeretsu Tanaka’s Escape Journey, so please look forward to that. ‘Till next time!

– Takuto

That Blue Sky Feeling: Preciously Queer & Wholeheartedly Delightful || Review

A brief review of the 3-volume manga series “That Blue Sky Feeling,” story by Okura, art by Coma Hashii,, and licensed in English by Viz Media. MINOR SPOILERS for Volume 1 will be present.


Have You Heard the Rumors?

High school transfer student Noshiro may seem like a cool and outgoing guy to his new classmates, but Noshiro’s big, bumbling heart is his best feature. Although he’s inexperienced in love, he finds himself drawn to Sanada, the school outcast, who is rumored to be gay. While most would get squeamish at the thought, the rumor only further fuels Noshiro’s interest and determination to get close to Sanada. Set in motion is a bittersweet tale of self-discovery, friendship, and first love.

Marketed under the shounen demographic, this school romance drew a lot of its appeal from the relatable character drama presented and Coma Hashii’s soft and cute character designs. With only three volumes, the story reads quickly, but methodically guides us through Noshiro and Sanada’s entire first year together as classmates. Showcased are the attempts made by Noshiro to become friends with Sanada, all of the ups and downs of this rocky relationship, the misunderstandings, and the persistent efforts to grow closer.

From the start, this seemingly simple story of exploring a rumor opens up to much larger contexts, including social pressures and the meaning of “being gay” itself. Using Noshiro’s naivete as a lens for self-questioning, Okura has carefully crafted a cast of characters that investigate the notions of sexuality, attraction, and “liking”—and largely without even being aware of it! This is the kind of title that doesn’t break boundaries so much as explore how these boundaries form, why they do, and how people are affected by them.

noshiro and sanada

Straight, Gay, and Curious

Dai Noshiro is the open-book kind of character. He’s silly, easily approachable, and loud, which (often to Sanada’s dismay) attracts a huge crowd wherever he goes. It’s refreshing to have a lead character in this type of story who isn’t some tall and skinny bishounen. If anything, being built and a little on the round side (or as Sanada calls him, a “country potato”) is celebrated in That Blue Sky Feeling as a body type that characters like Sanada and energetic underclassman Morinaga actually hold as a preference. This definitely met my approval!

Having a guy like Noshiro who knows virtually nothing about the LGBT community (or relationships for that matter) makes him the perfect voice for Okura’s discussion on what it means to be a closeted gay kid—or being gay in general. Noshiro is new to this kind of thing. He straight . . . or, at least, he thinks so—he hasn’t ever given relationships much thought. But we know he’s uneasy, curious even, and I can’t blame him. This really is a smart move on Okura’s part, as now Noshiro functions both as a likable MC and a subtle proxy for self-exploration. Nothing in That Blue Sky Feeling is forced. Like clouds, these musings come and go, occasionally bringing a little rain or blocking out the sun.

Then there’s Kou Sanada. As the quiet closeted kid, Sanada strays away from anything that would draw attention: sports, clubs, even leisurely activities like swimming. He’s standoffish, dismissive, and get’s irritated easily. Sounds like no one would like him, right? Well, that’s where I was wrong, too. Sanada is just misunderstood. He doesn’t fit in with the other boys because he often can’t relate to any of them without fearing they’d leave him for thinking he’s weird. I mean, how regularly do you see gay people hanging out alone with their straight friends of the same gender? I suppose it’s different for everybody, but I get why Sanada distances himself. (I JUST WANT MY SLEEPY BOY TO BE HAPPY.)

If any part of Sanada will be a mixed bag, it’s his past relationship . . . with a 26-year-old man named Hide. I don’t think Okura is trying to condone pedophilia, but Sanada and Hide really did go out, and Hide’s not afraid to poke fun at their past together. Now, hear me when I say that Hide is genuinely a good guy. He serves as a mentor of sorts to Noshiro when it comes to gay stuff, and he only aims to help, not harm. I was uneasy about Hide at first, but—thankfully—I ended up being wrong about him.

dai pushing chair

Subtlety is Blue Sky‘s Greatest Strength

Okura’s story is wonderful, truly, but the biggest draw to That Blue Sky Feeling would easily be Coma Hashii’s art. The series has this wondrously soft aura to it, which is in no surprise thanks to Hashii’s character designs. Fun fact: The Blue Sky I am able to enjoy now is actually a remake of Okura’s original web comic series. When a book publication was announced, Okura brought on Hashii to redraw the entire series with greater quality art and the gentle touch Blue Sky is now beloved for.

Sanada and his dear childhood friend and classmate, a girl named Ayumi Yamamoto, are drawn with a slimmer build and bigger eyes. (Sanada’s cat-like design really accentuates his sleepy aura.) Other characters like Noshiro and Hide are noticably more rotund but still very cute. Like the story itself, the character expressions are never overdone, and that subtlety works to Okura’s writing immensely. I mean, a character turning away from someone—only to reveal bright blush marks on their cheeks—can speak where words wouldn’t quite do those feelings justice.

kou blushing

Unexpectedly Falling in Love

What does it mean to be normal? What does it mean to be weird? Navigating through the complexities of making friends as a young homosexual in a heteronormative world, That Blue Sky Feeling handles first love and the notion of “inexperience” with surprising delicacy and innocence. Even when things get heated, the characters try to better themselves by digging deep within and honestly asking what it is they want, and how they can present their truest self to others.

Everyone in That Blue Sky Feeling has an unbelievably pure heart. Just as prominent as the exploration into friendship, liking, and being gay is the theme of unrequited feelings. For a series to have such a tangled web of complex feelings, Blue Sky‘s characters hold their heads high and continue to remain friends despite all odds. This kind of content is the exact opposite of “toxic,” and is the reason I fell in love with Noshiro, Sanada, Ayumi, and everyone else.

As the gap between Noshiro and Sanada slowly shrinks, we come to see how two very different high school boys can find themselves unexpectedly falling for one another. Noshiro quickly finds that, perhaps, labels aren’t suited for everything, especially people and relationships. Wishing only for the happiness of these kids, That Blue Sky Feeling is preciously queer and wholeheartedly delightful.

sanada whisper


What does it mean to like someone? Going out. Boyfriends. Girlfriends. I never thought about it, never worried about it. Until I met Kou Sanada — Dai Noshiro


Afterword

Guys, I love this manga with all my heart. ALL MY HEART. If you couldn’t already tell, that means That Blue Sky Feeling is another certified “Cafe Mocha” for me! I can see why people may find Hide and the age gap to be a turn-off, but that kind of stuff happens in real life, too, and we eventually have to move past it. I love Noshiro’s loudness, Ayumi’s sweetness, and grew quite fond of Sanada’s character. (He really is charming when you get to know him!) Viz’s releases of this series are also pretty in pastel colors, I’m so thankful to them for such pleasant publications!

But I’ve talked enough, what did you think of That Blue Sky Feeling? Let me know in the comments. To shake things up, my next Pride Month post will be over the anime Love Stage!!, so please look forward to it! Thanks for reading, and until next time!

– Takuto

Melting Lover: The Shadowy Side of Affection || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the standalone yaoi anthology manga “Melting Lover,” stories and art by Bukuro Yamada, and licensed in English by KUMA.


Four Short Supernatural Stories

“A bond of love is a beautiful thing, but what happens when outside pressures force it into forms both strange and strained?”

The first story of this anthology, “Melting Lover,” puts us in the apartment of a young man who encounters a shape-shifting blob that can take the form of his high school beloved. An energetic uke, Riku does whatever he can to perfectly imitate Keisuke’s lover for his pleasure. However, Riku’s personal love for Keisuke also leads him to acting on his own, which angers Keisuke. It’s a relationship that seems broken from the start, but actually ends with pleasant messages of moving on. (And, you know, a cute and steamy bonus chapter.)

Yamada’s second story, “Bottom of Heaven,” walks us through the life of Ezaki, a mafia hitman who swore off pleasure but can’t seem to leave behind the fun-loving angel, Sylvan, who follows him on his jobs. This story definitely had the most character depth, as well as one of the more interesting character dynamics. Although it’s kind of a sad story, the surprising twist at the ending imparts a wholesome feeling of redemption. It’s great, even if it makes you think a bit.

The most divisive story here would easily be the third, “The Circus After Midnight.” Divided into two chapters, we follow young Luce, a new circus recruit who trains to become a dancer for their ringmaster. Luce eagerly awaits his new life, including getting to know his circus roommate and resident beast-tamer Yan. Unbeknownst to Yan (who holds his own deadly secret), Luce has been serving the ringmaster in other ways against his will. Grim yet compelling, this loss of innocence tale shows how two men grow as they struggle to understand one another’s unfortunate circumstances. (NOTE that while it’s pretty ok, it does include themes of rape and abuse.)

Lastly, “Noisy Jungle” takes us to the far future with a kind android, Yumeo, and his human pet, Pochi. Despite being the shortest and most shallow (and most explicit), I probably enjoyed the premise of this one the most. Especially coming out of the dark circus setting, Yumeo and Pochi’s sci-fi world is clean and bright. I was reminded of No. 6, another shounen-ai series that I really love. The relationship here is also super cute, as Yumeo’s practical android self finds his programming malfunctioning whenever Pochi looks at him with his big round eyes. It’s explicit, it’s sci-fi, and I only wish it was longer!

melting lover

Dark Subjects with a Gentle Touch

Melting Lover is special to me because it serves as my first yaoi manga anthology read. Bukuro Yamada is able to explore these darker topics (obsession, anhedonia, abuse) in relation to love without feeling too heavy thanks to her soft, sketch-style art. While I found some panels to be a bit too loosely drawn to comprehend what they were, all of Yamada’s characters are drawn sweetly and with a gentle touch.

Also noteworthy is the publication itself. As their first official release, KUMA’s publication of Melting Lover features an aesthetically pleasing matte sleeve and quality printing on sturdy paper. It’s a thick, weighty little book, and the cover art was what drew me to buying it in the first place!

Some stories featured in Melting Lover were clearly stronger than others for me, and I can easily understand why someone may find the whole book to be a turn-off. It really comes down to a matter of subject and, of course, whether you like reading explicit BL. For as short a book as it was, however, I’d say it was a worthwhile read. Just know what you’re getting into with each short story, and you’ll probably end up enjoying Bukuro Yamada’s musings on love—as well as the shadowy side of affection. Oddly engrossing and reflective, Melting Lover includes four short BL stories, each dark and lovely in their own way.

melting lover color


I’m a hedonist. I choose what makes me feel best. And I want to be with you. — Sylvan


Afterword

I think this is one of the shortest reviews I’ve ever written, but oh well, shorter reads are good sometimes. KUMA’s first physical publication of Melting Lover is exceptionally wonderful, and Bukuro Yamada’s stories themselves are decent. I’ll welcome Melting Lover as a “Coffee” title here at the cafe and recommend it only if you’re looking for some darker supernatural BL (and don’t mind short story format, of course). There isn’t much talk about Melting Lover these days, so if you’re one of the few who’ve read it, definitely let me know your thoughts!

June is halfway done, can you believe it? My next Pride Month post will be over the highly anticipated That Sky Blue Feeling, so please look forward to that. ‘Till next time!

– Takuto

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid & Coping With Reality || OWLS “Mindfulness”

Chances are that if you were linked here from another blogger pal, then you might be new. To those first-timers, “Hi, I’m Takuto, welcome to my anime cafe!” For the OWLS blog tour’s sixth monthly topic of 2020, “Mindfulness,” I wanted to take a breather and share some of my loose thoughts on a title that I’m quite late to the game to, but am enjoying nonetheless: the much-beloved Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid. 

If we don’t take care of our minds and souls, we will always be in pain.

For the past few months, things have been pretty hectic. Everyone’s lives have changed to some degree, and we can’t help but feel anxious, nervous, and overwhelmed. This month we will be focusing on ourselves and keeping a strong peace of mind with our theme, “Mindfulness.” We will be analyzing characters that have crafted and practiced their own philosophy on life and have spread their beliefs to others. We will also be talking about habits, hobbies, and things that are keeping us sane, positive, and peace within our souls.

I find that mindfulness can apply to many other wonderful shows out there, so it was tough picking just one. Thanks Lyn for the prompt!

kobayashi tooru teeth


A brief discussion of the 13-episode Winter 2017 anime series “Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid,” animated by Kyoto Animation, directed by Yasuhiro Takemoto, and based on the manga of the same name by Coolkyousinnjya.

Bound by Love and Servitude

It’s another hangover kind of morning for stoic programmer Kobayashi, only on this particular day, she is greeted at the front door of her apartment by a giant green dragon with shiny scales and sharp, saliva-drenched teeth. The dragon suddenly changes to the form of a young busty woman in a maid outfit, and aside from her horns and the green tail behind her, she appears relatively normal. The energetic maid’s name is Tooru, and she’s come to work for Kobayashi for free.

A trip down memory lane has Kobayashi recalling that—in a drunken stupor the previous night—she had invited Tooru to stay at her place. Kobayashi was the first to show Tooru kindness since entering the human world, and Tooru plans to serve her savior with a genuine love to return that compassion. Although plenty hesitant, Kobayashi decides to welcome the energetic maidservant out of both guilt and a curiosity for Tooru’s superior dragon powers.

Tooru’s unconventional powers prove astonishingly useful in Kobayashi’s average Japanese life. What Kobayashi wasn’t expecting was, however, was for Tooru’s dragon powers to attract other mythical beings from the world of magic. A cute dragon, a fun dragon, a stern dragon, and surely more to come, Kobayashi’s little apartment slowly starts to feel more crammed—and yet, a little more like home, too.

tooru and kobayashi meet

Coping at Kobayashi’s Place

A bunch of magical creatures may have crashed her apartment, but Kobayashi doesn’t stop that from throwing off her day. She tries to end her long days in the office with a round of drinks, which usually entails her otaku co-worker Takiya joining her. Together they engage in playful arguments that serve to vent stress. Afterwards, she crashes, and leaves the repercussions of her binge drinking for tomorrow’s problems. Unlike most, drinking doesn’t leave Kobayashi overly grumpy and hangry, which is good for her new roommates and friends!

Speaking of, Tooru manages pretty well as a dragon maid. There’s always plenty to clean, and with guests coming and going from the apartment, Tooru’s diligent maid service comes in handy. Often, she is able to express her love for Kobayashi by finding unorthodox solutions to common problems. Whether rinsing the laundry with her stain-removing saliva or clearing rainy skies with a terrifying burst of fire power, Tooru only serves to please Kobayashi in any way she can. Tooru also looks past the gender norms of same-sex couples and loves her master with all her heart, to which Kobayashi returns with warm affection. (Happy Pride Month, y’all!)

Kanna is the third to join Kobayashi’s growing family, and arguably undergoes the most change as a result of being such a young dragon. She enjoys people-watching, fighting to the death with Tooru playing, and sleeping. Kanna also takes an interest in making new friends, to which Kobayashi and Tooru help her enroll in elementary school. Attending class with the other kids makes Kanna feel like she has a place to belong outside Tooru’s wingspan. The poor kid was (temporarily) kicked out of the magical world for pulling a harmless prank, after all, so any chance she can play again with others she takes. Coloring, crafting, and running around with her classmates is a way for Kanna to momentarily forget the pain of her banishment.

Lastly, there’s Tooru’s mentor friends from back home, Lucoa and Fafnir. The dragon goddess from legend itself who got drunk and caused a scandal, Quetzalcoatl “Lucoa” takes a liking to a young chuuni boy after he “summons her” from the other realm. Lucoa plays along, enjoying both his company and the fact that she’s only a short flight away from the girls Kobayashi’s apartment. Fafnir winds up rooming with Takiya after they bond over video games, and although he’s still cautious around humans, Takiya seems alright enough. Through the gaming community, Fafnir learns to relax a bit and accept that not all humans should be burnt to cinders (which trust me—it’s a big step for him)!

fafnir and takiya

A House Becomes a Home

As a slice-of-life comedy with a splash of fantasy, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is just as fun as it sounds. The characters get themselves wrapped up in all kinds of daily matters as they try to adjust to their new home on Earth, and the results are as heartwarming as they are hilarious. It’s great, and I get why everyone loves this series.

While I’ve only seen the first seven episodes, I can tell that this is one of those “healing” shows people would turn to during stressful times. To keep their own sanity in this new way of life, our characters gradually start to develop unique coping mechanisms fit just for themselves. For our dragon friends, this involves bonding with humans and learning about their world. As for Kobayashi, it’s about realizing for the first time that life is a lot more enjoyable when you can spend it with others. Certainly, building a family is far more complex than programming for Kobayashi, but it sure is an invaluable, incomparable gain.

tooru kobayashi sleep


The more I treasure what I have right now, the sadder I’ll be when I lose it. But, as sad as I may feel, I’m sure I won’t regret it. — Tooru


Afterword

Guys, I absolutely cannot wait to finish watching this series! I totally get why you all have been recommending it to one another like crazy ever since it aired three years ago. I’m enjoying Tooru’s antics so much, and Kobayashi is such an unenthusiastic queen, I love it. Who’s your favorite character from Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid? Let me know in the comments. I may end up doing a full series review later down the line, but just in case, I’ll go ahead and pass it with the recommendation to watch this one—especially if you’re seeking a more chill watch to ease these stressful days we’ve recently had.

This concludes my June 13th entry in the OWLS “Mindfulness” blog tour. My good friend Hikari (Hikari Otaku Station) went right before me with a post covering some of the shows she’s been watching that have helped with her mental health, which you can read right here! Now, look out for Aria (The AniManga Spellbook) with a post coming Tuesday, June 16th! Thank you so much for reading, and until next time!

– Takuto

Claudine: Sexuality, Tragedy, & Growing Up Transgender || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the standalone manga title “Claudine,” story and art by Riyoko Ikeda, and licensed in English by Seven Seas Entertainment.


19th Century French Romance

Since he was eight, Claudine was convinced he was born into the wrong gender. He grows up beautifully, more so than any of the men and women in Vernon, yet struggles through life with a series of depressing relationships. Only a handful of people reach out to Claudine and see him for who he is, but no one truly understands his heart. Claudine simply wishes to find true love, yet his efforts continue to end in tragedy as he is unable to be accepted as a man by society and his peers.

As a piece of historical fiction, Claudine offers a timeless story full of heartbreak. Riyoko Ikeda of The Rose of Versailles fame paints a picture of France that is rich in culture, but also a bit too melodramatic at times. Characters overreact to the smallest things with vivid expressions that can dominate several panels, which can make the read feel overwrought with agitation.

Without spoiling anything, some characters even dare dedicate their entire lives to destroying the hearts of others—an unfortunate trend which feels straight out of a wild telenovela or K-drama. Or, you know, The Rose of Versailles. This kind of thing might work well with a long-running series. But as a single volume work, the repetition of shocking reveals can feel overwhelming and excessive.

All that said, however, very few manga can make a drama feel as compelling as Riyoko Ikeda does, and to that I applaud Claudine. As a standalone piece, this is the kind of artistic mastery that most short story mangaka may struggle with. Here, the romance feels real, but so does the grief and misery that comes with rejection. Claudine explores sex and gender identity in a way that is poignant, respectful, and anything but forgettable.

young claudine

“But Claudine, You’re a Girl”

Not sure of what to do with her own child, Claudine’s mother takes him to a psychiatrist who reappears at a few major junctions in Claudine’s life. This was customary for the time, as being gay or trans was considered an illness, and thus treated as something that would eventually “go away” just as it came. We know now that this is far from fact. However, this is the best Claudine’s mother could do, and I believe she meant well by it.

Claudine’s father Auguste, on the other hand, was a mostly good man. A “large-hearted, manly dilettante with a variety of interests,” Claudine’s father was the only one willing to raise the child as he saw himself. Claudine expressed interested in equestrianism, hunting, sports, literature, and world history, to which his father only helped to provide the best resources to raise Claudine just as well as his other three accomplished sons. Loving Claudine wholly, Auguste says it himself: “That she doe not have a man’s body is honestly a mistake on God’s part.”

We follow Claudine through childhood flings, teenage romance, and relationships in adulthood. The women he encounters transform his life, although whether these interactions are for the better or not is definitely up for question. There’s one particular childhood lover, Rosemarie, who annoyingly clings to Claudine and causes him nothing but trouble. As he navigates through life, Claudine finds that it isn’t wrong of him to be a transgender person so much as that being trans is just highly ill-advised when no one can accept you for it. His emotions are understandable, and his actions are largely respectable.

Friends, strangers, and even his own family turn Claudine away from them on account of their own ignorance. A deeply seeded disgust for gay and transgender people plagues the populace of 19th century France, and—as it has continues to do today—only serves to ruin Claudine’s life. Despite his graceful air, his love of knowledge, and his deep compassion for helping others in need, Claudine is dejected again, and again, and again by women who have mixed love and kindness with lust and sin.

we are both girls

Why We Have To Do Better

This is a breathtaking manga. Although it was published way back in 1978, so much of this shoujo-ai drama can speak for the view of transgender individuals held by most conservative-minded people today. The story is highly relevant, and I’m so thankful Seven Seas was able to publish it when they did. Their restoration of this vintage shoujo manga is gorgeous, and the large trim format is greatly appreciated.

More than feeling upset, frustrated, or annoyed at the terrible ways Claudine was betrayed, I can only really sum up my thoughts on the ending with this: Claudine’s story is a sad one. It’s tragic, it hurts, and yet it’s an unfortunate end many transgender people find themselves meeting. Guys, it’s tragedies like this that remind me we still have a long way to go. For people like Claudine, for people who are confused or still in the closet, for people who are out and proud of it—We have to do better. So. Much. Better. And that begins with accepting these identities—NOT just acknowledging them.

From cover to cover, Riyoko Ikeda explores gender and sexuality, identity, culture, and self-acceptance in a coming-of-age tale so sorrowful and heartfelt that I can only want to express how important Claudine’s story is. It is works like this that can easily impact people, and even leave behind impressions that can hopefully change lives for the better. Certainly, I won’t be forgetting Claudine anytime soon.

claudine art page


They lived together, deceiving the world, behind the backs of their friends. But like a flower waiting for rain, their caged love finally surged out, shining. I believe this was a true love, surpassing all preconceived notions, entirely moving.Claudine’s doctor


Afterword

What a great read this was. Riyoko Ikeda’s art style is not only iconic, but truly emblematic of early 70s and 80s shoujo manga. Sure, it’s a bit over-the-top at times, but what would a Riyoko Ikeda manga be without her signature dramatic twists and sparkling style? For telling an admirable albeit tragic tale about a respectable transgender man and his struggles with finding love and self-acceptance, I welcome Claudine as a “Cafe Mocha” title, a rating reserved only for the bests out there. Did I mention that the dad is actually a GOOD guy in this one? Normally it’s the other way around, so this was quite a pleasant surprise!

Anyone else read Claudine? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this old but classic shoujo read. I’m so glad I got to include a manga with a transgender focus this month with something like Claudine. My next Pride Month post will be over something much more modern, Bukuro Yamada’s Melting Lover, so please look forward to that! ‘Till next time!

– Takuto

Seven Days: Will You Still Love Me When Monday Comes? || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 2-volume manga series “Seven Days – Monday to Sunday,” story by Venio Tachibana, art by Rihito Takarai, and re-licensed in English by SuBLime Manga.


What Started as a Joke . . .

One week. That is all the time any lucky girl who dates Seryou Touji will spend with him. You can’t hate the guy, though. After all, he supposedly makes you feel like the most special person in the world during that time. Rumor has it that at the start of the following week, he’ll date the first person to ask him out that Monday morning, no tricks—and no strings attached either.

Curious about the mysterious first-year playboy himself, equally attractive third-year Shino Yuzuru decides to jokingly ask Seryou out one morning. True to the rumors, however, Seryou takes Shino’s offer seriously, and thus begins Shino’s fleeting seven days with him.

Although license rescued and released by SuBLime Manga, a company typically known for grabbing some of the harder yaoi works on the BL market, Seven Days much more belongs in the shounen ai or even school romance genre. Nothing about the story is explicit, making it the perfect gateway BL for newcomers ready to wet their feet.

Within just 13 chapters (or one omnibus volume), the entire story wraps up well enough to not warrant a continuation. Shino and Seryou’s week of dating and hanging out is also well-paced. Each day is divided into chapters, which means we literally are getting the full play-by-play for this awkward dating situation that started out as a joke but turned into much more.

morning surrounded

Not Gay, But Gay Enough

What made the story somewhat difficult to get into was the fact that, technically, neither of our boys here are gay. That is, Shino and Seryou don’t actively seek males as a dating preference to females; if anything, they’re both well-known ladies’ men, and they know it, too.

So, how can two “straight” dudes fall for each other? For one, they’re both undeniably the hottest men in their school. Second, they share a pastime together—archery—which often leads to the start of many conversations (and playful teasing). Third, and this might just be me reading into it, but Seryou might actually have been gay from the start. The first-year can’t seem to fall in love with any of the many girls he dates. Yet, when approached by Shino that Monday morning, he doesn’t refute him. It could be that he was curious all along, and took the offer when it came to him.

It’s a little frustrating to cheer two guys on when neither is really into the same sex (unless . . . ), but at the same time, it’s amazing what dating one another allows the boys to see about themselves. Despite his graceful nature and pretty face, Shino is a pretty laid-back, impolite guy, not to mention being seriously blunt about everything he notices. Dating Seryou makes Shino realize that his worst traits really can hurt people—but also that they are what make Shino himself.

Then there’s Seryou, also a pretty boy but drastically bad at reading people. Unlike Shino, Seryou wears his expressions on his face, and even though he thinks he’s being transparent, Seryou isn’t as good at knowing others as he might believe. In fact, he’s kind of shallow in his romantic encounters, which Shino quickly picks up on. Even though he can let girl after girl live their high school fantasy, at the end of the day, Seryou doesn’t even save their contact information on his phone. He sure was quick to memorize Shino’s number and email by heart, though . . .

seryou charming

The Look of Early 2000s BL

Although Ten Count was the first yaoi series I’ve ever read, I’m definitely no stranger to the BL genre. I’ve seen plenty of screenshots of early 2000s BL manga on the internet and have flipped through my own fair share of yaoi manga at used bookstores. It’s nice to finally have purchased my own copy of one of these works, and I feel even more pride in having it displayed on my shelves. Seven Days is a nice little title to have for sure.

Aside from the license rescue stirring news in the manga community, however, what initially pushed me to buy and read Seven Days was because it shared the artist of Ten Count, Rihito Takarai. Having recently been acquainted with her series work, I wanted to see how her older art held up. Boy, has she improved. But also, WOW, she’s been this good from the start!?

Takarai knows how to draw pretty boys. Both donning that signature uke and seme look with their tall, lanky, yet athletically built figure, Shino and Seryou walk like gods among men. Their chiseled features, large eyes, and pointy noses hold all the indications of desirable beauty, especially of BL characters in pre-2010 works. Perhaps you could call Seven Days an early 2000s time capsule that most would still love and enjoy today.

It was probably the hair styling, however, that first caught my eye and stays in my mind now. Shino’s medium-long chestnut hair creates an elegant, almost foreign bowl-cut look. Similarly, Seryou’s longer black hair would make anyone who had it look like a thug, but on him serves to make him look dashing and poised. The use of scenery (LOTS of fences), while modest, also sets the scene for this cute slice-of-life romance. Also, likable female characters are present in this manga—and they’re NOT evil, hooray!

seven days seryou and shino

The Perfect Gateway BL

I swear, this really is one of those stories where a whole week of “not knowing how the other feels” could’ve been resolved by Tuesday night had Shino and Seryou sat down for five freakin’ minutes and just talked it out like any normal couple would. It’s annoying how characters can feel like they’re just being strung along, only to find out by the end that their partner was “madly in love with them the whole time.” Especially in this story where the reader can be unconvinced of author Venio Tachibana’s intentions, it can come across as a strange case of queerbaiting. Trust me when I say it that Shino and Seryou are falling for each other, though—they just might not know it yet.

And that’s the huge draw of Seven Days: Shino and Seryou aren’t your typical BL pairing. Neither knows what they want, both in themselves and in relationships, and that makes finding love all the more difficult. While I bite back and wish Tachibana was more transparent about their love, I also find myself realizing that, yeah, I’m not sure I could so easily admit my own feelings if I were in their situation either.

Surprisingly full of more introspection than it’d have you believing, every single chapter of Seven Days was a gift. Force yourself through this playful senpai-kohai shtick and it’ll be the longest week of your life. However, with a little patience, you might unexpectedly find yourself relating to this drama that spans just seven short-lived, transient days.

shino seryou sleep


I wonder how many girls stood right here and closed their eyes just like this? And when they did, how did Seryou respond? — Shino Yuzuru


Afterword

I had to flip back at some of the chapters to write this review and, ahhhh, it’s such a cute story! I wish I could read more stories with Takarai’s art in it, but that’s all I’ve got for now. Seven Days was definitely stronger than Ten Count, but I think I still like it about the same, if not slightly more. With very little to complain about, Seven Days is a wonderful “Cafe Mocha” title here at the cafe! If you only get to read one shounen ai story, this is my go-to rec for the time being. Have you read Seven Days? I’d love to hear your thoughts down in the comments! My next Pride Month post will likely be a first impressions on Candy Color Paradox, so please look forward to that. ‘Till next time!

– Takuto

Ten Count: My First Yaoi Manga Series || Review

A brief review of the 6-volume manga series “Ten Count,” story and art by Rihito Takarai, and licensed in English by SuBLime Manga. MINOR SPOILERS WILL BE PRESENT.


Counseled into Love

Tadaomi Shirotani suffers from extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder wherever germs are concerned. While he manages to get his corporate secretary work done efficiently enough, his social life is practically nonexistent as a result of his condition. Upon saving Shirotani’s boss from a fatal car accident, behavior therapist Riku Kurose takes an interest in helping Shirotani overcome his germophobia. As Shirotani navigates through Kurose’s proposed ten-step program designed to cure his compulsion, the patient’s attraction to his therapist grows.

As far as romance dramas go, Ten Count starts off relatively tame, especially for a BL series. In fact, there’s nothing really explicit until the end of the second volume, of which there are only six. This relatively slower-burn intro allows us to really understand the position Shirotani is in, his feelings and his frustrations with his condition. Although Shirotani’s list of ten self-chosen tasks seems like an excuse to up the sexual tension step-by-step, I assure you that the series has more twists in store than finding out what Shirotani’s final tenth step is (even if they’re a bit more controversial).

One of my favorite aspects of the series is how, foundationally, Kurose’s psychological techniques (namely the titular “ten count”) are rooted in actual behavior therapy practices. (Trust me—I took a class for this!) Exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP) is a real therapy designed to treat anxiety disorders. By gradually introducing stimuli to the patient and slowly increasing the strength of the stimulus, an individual undergoing ERP therapy can hope to see at least some relief from their OCD symptoms. It doesn’t suddenly cure all—which Rihito Takarai respectfully acknowledges—but it can help relieve some of the stresses that come with anxiety or PTSD.

ten count list

The Patient-Therapist Relationship

From the start, Shirotani is a man bogged down by the pressures of society. His signature gloves may seem like a fashion choice, but they actually serve to shield his hands from potential germs. If he just wore the gloves, he’d see himself as looking foolish, though. Thus, he also dons a suit for both his job and personal life to seem less odd. I thought this was a sad detail, if not a pertinent one to telling us what kind of person Shirotani is: an extremely cautious and self-conscious individual. His condition interferes with his daily life, clearly, and he’s in dire need of help even if he refuses to admit it.

Kurose comes off as a little standoffish and weirdly intimate, and that’s also a result of a troubled past, no doubt. While he’s able to comfort Shirotani and make him feel good about himself, Kurose also has this aura of being impossible to read. For a corporate office guy with crippling OCD, this can pose major problems. Understandably, Shirotani fears the unpredictable, and even more so when it concerns human contact. What Kurose wants out of Shirotani might not be what he expects. At the same time, perhaps Kurose’s guidance and friendship are the exact things Shirotani wants out of this unconventional patient-therapist relationship.

shirotani kiss

To Fetishize Another’s Pain

Let me start this part by saying that Rihito Takari’s art is divine. Her characters are beautifully drawn, the panel construction serves to capture Shirotani’s feelings of isolation and anxiety, and the sex is hot, straight up. (I mean, Kurose’s jawline, C’MON.) Takarai also has an eye for aesthetic, her characters living clean, realistic lives, although on the lighter side. I cannot deny that reading this manga was enjoyable, if only for the art alone. It’s great. If explicit BL is your thing, Ten Count will serve you wonderfully.

Ok, now I can nitpick. SPOILERS for one of the later narrative twists, but WTF Kurose?? The dude likes—no, prefers—“people like” Shirotani because they have a germophobic condition . . . and he likes making them dirty . . . and corrupt like him?? I’m sorry, I just couldn’t with this reveal. It’s a shame, too, cause the series really started strong when it was just Shirotani meeting up with Kurose at their usual coffee shop to celebrate Shirotani’s progress.

The fetishization of mysophobia in Ten Count made the last couple volumes a struggle to get past. I really disliked finding out that, rather than love out of personality or charm, Kurose’s biggest draw to Shirotani was because of his suffering. It only confirmed my suspicions about Kurose from the beginning that the guy was a little messed up. While I appreciate the backstories for both of these characters (and can understand the effects that childhood neglect or trauma can have on someone), I couldn’t really find myself appreciating Kurose after discovering his kink.

kurose

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

As a BL manga, Ten Count starts strong but falls into some of the unfortunate schemes of the genre that I’ve become aware of thanks to fellow bloggers and booktubers. It comes across as realistic and understanding of people with anxiety disorders, yet eventually succumbs to a somewhat insulting case of deception. I wanted Shirotani and Kurose to end up together out of a deep fondness and caring for one another, and it only feels halfway satisfying.

With any type of behavior therapy, it can often feel like you’re making leaps and strides one day, only to wake up the next feeling like you haven’t progressed past start—and that’s absolutely normal. For Shirotani, his lowest lows caused him to skip work, neglect his social life, and even turn down potential relationships. But on his best days, he stepped outside his comfort zone and took risks he normally wouldn’t have. Simply, he tried to live a better, more fulfilling life, and I can commend him for that.

Looking back, I find my liking for Ten Count to be the same way. The chapters where Kurose was genuinely trying to encourage Shirotani to go to the book store, buy a new suit, or actually drink the coffee at a coffee shop—those were great! When it just seemed like Kurose was trying to get his hands down Shirotani’s pants, however, I wasn’t quite rooting for either of them (which is kinda opposite of the intent the fanservice is supposed to do in this series).

As my first yaoi manga series, I don’t hate Ten Count, though. Rihitio Takarai’s plot has its problems, sure, but her art and character designs really are appealing. There’s a lot of self-torment going on throughout the series, but I do believe that in itself is a huge part of life. If the romantic story of a therapist and his patient sounds enticing, go ahead and give the first volume a shot. Just don’t be surprised when certain characters start revealing their true nature in the bedroom—unwonted fetishes and all.

ten count color


It’s because I finally realized that I love you and you reciprocated that love that I’m learning to love myself. — Tadaomi Shirotani


Afterword

I feel I could talk at length about Ten Count, but I’m honestly not sure whether I’d be saying primarily bad things or good things. Probably a mix of both, because despite its problematic concerns with trauma and sexual arousal, I did enjoy reading about Shirotani and Kurose’s relationship (and the many, many back-and-forth turns it takes). I know this series stirred a lot of buzz when it was first brought over in 2018, but what are your thoughts on Ten Count? For my first yaoi manga series, I feel like I picked a decent one, but you be the judge of that.

I’ll pass Ten Count as a “Cake” title here at the cafe if only for the fact that Shirotani’s story is fleshed out in a lovely six volumes and not just two or three. If you’ve got any BL recommendations, I’d also love to hear those. I’ve got more Pride Month content coming soon, so if BL is your thing, you’re in luck! Thanks for reading, and ’till next time!

– Takuto

Into the Abyss: Fire Force Manga Volumes 7-9

Loose thoughts on volumes 7-9 of Atsushi Ohkubo’s manga series “Fire Force,” initially published in 2016 by Kodansha Comics. Spoilers will be present.

CLICK HERE TO READ MY THOUGHTS ON VOLUMES 4-6


Enter the Forge

Coming off the shocking ending of volume six with the introduction of *assumed villain* Viktor Licht to Company 8, volume seven opens with new knowledge of Shinra’s world. As it turns out, much of the habitable land known to mankind was burned to a crisp at the dawn of the Solar Era. Countries that we are familiar with now no longer exist in this period as a result of spacial distortions. The planet is quite literally falling apart. Although the actual history is still unknown to us, Viktor isn’t afraid to confirm with the reader now that Amaterasu and the Tokyo Empire are definitely fishy in origin.

Taking on the other companies will prove difficult with their current team. Thus, Obi sends the innocent trio of Shinra, Arthur, and Sister Iris to try and talk a legendary blacksmith and mechanic over to their side: Vulcan, aptly named after the god of the forge. I appreciate the way Ohkubo quickly yet thoroughly introduced Vulcan and his “family” to us; unlike most other additions Ohkubo would make this late in the game, Vulcan isn’t an annoying guy.

Vulcan’s goal of bringing back animal life to the world—another detail I had yet to realize until now—is a noble one, and his frustrations with Haijima Industries is well understood thanks to his backstory. It was honestly moving to see that underwater projection, reminding us of how hot and dry the landscape often seems. I can totally see the anime dragging Vulcan’s history to the point of tedium, but the manga remains quick on its feet and moves past his angst.

Volume seven doesn’t stop there. The drama escalates when Shinra realizes that the White Hoods set a trap for Company 8 and Vulcan. It was an ABSOLUTE double-whammy to find that not only was the WHOLE Company 3 working for the Evangelist, but also that Lisa, a member of Vulcan’s “new family,” was also an Evangelist spy. Really, this caught me off guard. I had my sneaking suspicions that Company 3’s captain, Dr. Giovanni, was actually Vulcan’s grandfather, but this conspiracy was quickly snuffed out—and probably for the better.

Oh yeah, and Princess Hibana joins the fray with some SERIOUS heat. Glad Ohkubo is keeping her relevant both off and on the battlefield.

Shinra Meets Sho

THE CONFRONTATION WE’VE BEEN WAITING FOR. And honestly, it was just as short as I thought it’d be. So far, it would seem that the only edge Sho has over Shinra is his extreme speed, which is kinda lame cause I thought he’d have real nasty fire abilities. I suppose we have yet to see those, though, so for all I know Sho’s fire is just as potent as Shinra’s can be. Anyway, Sho has no wishes of joining our heroes, which was kinda already expected, just not as bitter.

To finish out the battle at Vulcan’s workshop, I found it perhaps most odd that Joker jumped in to fight off Sho from catching up to Shinra’s escape. Even more surprising was that Joker appears to be no match for Sho’s deadly speed. What is Joker’s aim? I thought he was with the Evangelist. Is he just a terrorist, or perhaps an anti-hero? I’m sure his story will come to light before too long.

As with Princess Hibana’s efforts in the previous volume, Ohkubo is really trying to keep all the characters he introduces on the table—which is fantastic. The majority of this eighth volume is spent on a mini training excursion in Asakusa. That’s right, Benimaru is back, BITCHES. I love this man, WOW, and I still don’t even know why. I just wish he’d join Company 8 more on their quests already cause y’all already know he can take Sho down.

Just as Shinra learns from Benimaru to focus his fire with traditional meditation techniques, Arthur also learns a thing or two about how to sense life on the battlefield. Arthur is such a ditz, but Ohkubo’s made this guy impossible to hate at this point. Benimaru’s wise teachings will already prove helpful as Obi takes the fight to the White Hoods in Fire Force‘s next big arc.

The Nether, a land of darkness that remains untouched by Sol’s holy light. In other words, the Tokyo subway ruins following the cataclysm many years ago. Man, Ohkubo’s world-building continues to astonish. Just when I think I have Fire Force‘s world all figured out, Ohkubo gently places new information to throw the reader off. He’s been slowly, carefully fleshing out this universe of fire and brimstone, and the results pay off when the reader can look at the lower gates to an ordinary subway and a chill runs up their spine. There’s definitely something wrong with this place . . .

Now that we’re here in the depths of the earth, it finally occurs to me that, yeah, there really aren’t that many scenes where our characters are exploring any subterranean location. Again, this obviously carries intent. The stress on Sol as a deity is really questioned throughout this volume and the end of the previous. Company 3’s Dr. Giovanni goes on a religious tirade praising the glory of the Evangelist and diminishing the light of Sol, but really, who is this Evangelist—and who or what is Sol? This self-inquisition adds so much to a world that, apparently, we still know very little about.

A Light in the Dark

At the end of volume eight we get our first fight: Maki vs. Flail. I CANNOT wait to see this shit animated, cause wow, Maki’s new gear is so freakin’ cool. Thanks to Vulcan’s handy-work, Maki’s able to utilize her little fire sputters in a much more advantageous way: they are the fuel for a set of giant floating armored hammers that can both attack AND defend with ease. The staggered armor plating on these pile-bunker-esque arms also matches Obi’s signature full-body shield, which is nice for consistency. In all, it’s just nice to see Maki shine on her own.

My favorite confrontation, however, was the explosive sniper duel of Hinawa vs. Arrow. Hinawa may just be the coolest guy in the company. His backstory is solidly written. His purpose and ties to the other characters makes absolute sense. And his abilities as a Second Generation, WOW, so fitting for him and useful on the field. Both snipers were almost willing to destroy themselves just to hit their target, which lends to itself humorous commentary in Arthur vs. Mirage (also a pleasant rematch, it’s nice to see how much Arthur has grown). The stark use of black and white during these panels also accentuates the flash of their bullets and arrows—the clash between two sharp, diligent minds.

The weakest fight was by far Tamaki vs. Assault. As opposed to her flame ability taking out her opponent, that damned “lucky lecher lure” or whatever ended up being Assault’s downfall. Gosh, my eyes cannot roll hard enough. It’s bad enough that I don’t care for Tamaki at all, but to see her fighting like this really degrades her character. I sincerely thought this was going to be redemption for the cat girl. Oh well, at least Sister Iris came in with that lead pipe to Assault’s head.

Lastly, there’s Obi and Vulcan vs. Dr. Giovanni and Lisa. This fight really shows off Dr. Giovanni’s cunning ways, but also Obi’s raw human strength as a non-powered soldier. Vulcan and Lisa do little aside from playing Romeo and Juliet, so the main draw of this fight is definitely on the ideology clash between the company captains. I just can’t wait ’till Obi rips that obscene mask off Giovanni’s head.

As Shinra frees Viktor Licht from the White Hoods, it quickly becomes apparent that something isn’t right here. Shinra has sensed Sho’s presence in the Nether since the beginning, but a strange vision of ashen demonic skeletons has me scared for Shinra’s life. I have a hunch that the grand conflict awaiting us in volume ten will not only prove hard on Shinra because of Sho, but because his own powers may decide to reveal their true colors.


We are forever beseeching the rising sun. Grant thy light to the undefiled souls.Sister Iris


Afterword

Lots of stuff happened in these past three Fire Force volumes. I have no doubt that the story is only to get a lot darker with the reveal of certain truths about the world in the volumes to come. I went ahead and ordered the next nine volumes (I know, I should moderate myself better), but I’ll be taking a break from the series until they arrive. Until then, what are your thoughts on the series so far? I’d love to hear, but no spoilers please! ‘Till next time!

– Takuto

CLICK HERE TO READ MY THOUGHTS ON VOLUMES 10-12

Netflix’s Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045 is Enjoyable, But Not in the Way You’d Think || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 12-episode 2020 anime “Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045,” produced by Netflix, animated by Production I.G and Sola Digital Arts, directed by Shinji Aramaki and Kenji Kamiyama, and loosely based on the manga by Shirow Masamune.


A New Threat Emerges

The Synchronized Global Default changed everything about societies all over the globe. Now, in 2045, the economic disaster continues to impact the human race as the world enters a state of “Sustainable War” via AI technology just to keep money in the pockets of policy makers. But, as the Stand Alone Complex world continues to prove, people really do not possess any idea of the capabilities of these AI—as well as the potential threats to their own privacy and safety—while living in this rapidly accelerating cyberization age.

As a result of the economic fallout, Public Security Section 9 was kicked off government payroll and reduced to hired mercenary jobs out in the hot American southwest. Given the opportunities to engage their enhanced cyberbrains and combat skills, it’s not the worst outcome for full-body cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi and her partner-in-crime Batou. However, the emergence of extremely potent AIs with remarkable intelligence and physical might, dubbed “post humans,” just might be the global threat Section 9 Chief Aramaki needs to pull the old team back together again.

Off-the-grid sci-fi action and cyber crime dominate the scene as the classic Ghost in the Shell: SAC story returns with this latest installment. Don’t count your Tachikomas before they hatch, though, as this is far from the sequel longtime fans have been waiting for. Overrun with loud action stunts and a hardly tactical approach to most combat, 2045 may be the weakest entry thus far—and the switch to all 3D CG doesn’t give much to boast about. But, this is still a Ghost in the Shell story, mind you, and any GitS is worth watching if you love this universe like I do.

major in the tachikoma

The Old Gang Reunited

With a new Ghost in the Shell comes a new look for the Major. Although she doesn’t carry the same maternal air as the original SAC‘s Major, I do really like the pretty and iridescent quality that this Motoko bears. It’s as if the short bob and rebellious spirit of Arise‘s Major met the violet, cool-toned and commanding authority of SAC‘s. While Batou largely retains the same figure, including his signature prosthetic eyes, Togusa’s new look suits him quite well. I wasn’t particularly happy about hearing that his marriage fell apart in the time since SAC 2nd Gig (honestly the biggest crime here), but at least the shortened mullet makes him feel like a fresh man.

Perhaps my favorite single part of Netflix’s crack at GitS doesn’t even pertain to character designs, plot points, or the music—it’s the dub cast. Somehow, Bang Zoom was able to track down the all-star cast of the original SAC dub, including the incredible Mary Elizabeth McGlynn as BOTH the dub’s director and the Major herself. Add in Richard Epcar’s rough-around-the-edges Batou, Crispin Freeman’s rich yet naive Togusa, William Knight’s authoritative yet flighty old man Aramaki, and Melissa Fahn’s iconically squirrelish Tachikoma voice and, ahh, it’s a wonderful nostalgia trip. Mary Elizabeth’s Major really does embody the soul of this franchise. It was only after hearing the old Section 9 again that I was reminded just how much I’ve missed this world.

So, as you can tell, I wasn’t one to hate on the new character designs. The characters themselves aren’t necessarily here to be dynamic so much as to be badass cyber soldiers and carry out the plot (except maybe Togusa), and to each their own on that. But, if there’s one major gripe I have about the characters, it’s the facial expressions, which is a perfect segue to the show’s biggest controversy: the animation.

section 9

A Bold Switch of Style

As you may have heard fans gripe, directors Aramaki and Kamiyama decided to have all of 2045 animated in 3D CG. In addition to story focus and heightened emphasis on explosive action, this changed visual style makes 2045 feel even more removed from SAC‘s old roots. At what point do we stop calling it a sequel? I don’t even know where to begin on this one except for with the negatives.

For one, the lip flaps hardly match the voice acting—this is consistent across the English and Japanese dubs. Lots of dialogue may be spoken, but the mouth hardly moves. Now, 2045 can sometimes get away with this since A) half the characters are cyborgs, and B) much of the dialogue is communicated via connection to the Net, thus no need for spoken words. But even the most human characters suffer from a general lack of expressive facial emotions.

My second big gripe is that everything is CG. From vehicles and landscapes to special effects and the hair on a person’s head, it’s all been animated using digital technology. This means that, when something is textured, it’s generally done well and with consistency. On the other hand, when there’s no texture work, it’s entirely flat to the eyes. The production feels cheap as a result, sometimes gross, even if I know that it’s actually decent quality CG work being done here.

That said, I do, in fact, like the way this series looks (shocker, I know). Sure, I would’ve liked a more traditional approach with 3D CG modeling being used for a minority of the production rather than the only technique, but this isn’t all bad. Japan’s towering skyscrapers and clean, futuristic architecture have never looked better in SAC than they do here. The Tachikomas shine brilliantly, and the action sequences are also entertaining and very well choreographed (even if they’re ultimately no more than added popcorn material). Chances are most people will dislike the CG, though, especially if they came in with expectations of the franchise.

major and tachikoma 2045

At Least it Sounds Great

Between writers and actors, it would seem that everyone came back to work on this universe again—everyone except for SAC series music composer Yoko Kanno. Thankfully, Nobuko Toda and Kazuma Jinnouchi carry the mantle of SAC with strong compositions in 2045. Between the jazzy interludes, lo-fi downtime, and high-octane cyber beats, I almost could’ve sworn it was still Kanno behind the keyboard. Toda and Jinnouchi also worked together on composing the score for Netflix’s recent Ultraman series, which may explain why 2045 also feels a little retro-punk at times.

As with the dynamic visual special effects work, the audio effects also fill in the sounds of this technologically advanced world. Whether the soft hum of a self-driving car on the highway, the relentless fire of Gatling guns, the blinking and honking of city sounds, or the digitization of bodies floating around in the Net, the sound design maintains a high standard across the series.

togusa 2045

Waiting for the End

From the occasionally nauseous CG animation alone, it’s easy to think that this is a poorly directed series. 2045 is also not as philosophically explorative as its predecessors; rather, it seems to look smart by skimming the surface without postulating the further impacts and implications of people living by and through the Net. As opposed to genuine curiosities or worries about our future with technology, 2045 favors absurd thriller tones to engage its audience. I wish it were deeper and more full of wisdom like the previous seasons were, but 2045 is not that story. Maybe it’s not that great . . .

BUT, I don’t want to lose hope because I did enjoy my watch. Heck, binging 2045 on Netflix in a SINGLE SITTING was loads of fun—questionable CG and all—and I only wish I could’ve listened to more of the Major and her team exchanging witty banter back and forth. For me, clearly, the dub alone made 2045 worth watching.

As it stands, this is only half the story, so I can’t completely say whether or not 2045 is worth passing on. With the second cour green-lit but yet to be announced, I await the end of this new story with cautious optimism. When that day comes, I definitely plan on joining the Major once again. If Ghost in the Shell is your thing, you may want to consider putting 2045 on hold until the entire series is out. Otherwise, strap in—this ride is already proving to be a bumpy one.

major batou and togusa 2045


You think I like this? There are too many unknown variables. It doesn’t smell right. But, then again, we always enjoy coming along with you for the ride—it’s the only reason we’re all here. — Batou


Afterword

If that last quote from Batou doesn’t encapsulate my feelings on Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045, I’m not sure what does. Until the second half can solidify my opinions on this series, I’ll pass 2045 as a “Coffee” rating for now. It’s mediocre at most points, but when it’s good, you may just remember why you fell in love with this series to begin with. Have you watched Netflix’s Ghost in the Shell yet? If so, what are your thoughts? Given how optimistically I tend to view this franchise, I’m eager to hear about them. Otherwise, ’till next time!

– Takuto

ID:INVADED & Searching for the Answers || OWLS “Adapt”

Chances are that if you were linked here from another blogger pal, then you might be new. To those first-timers, “Hi, I’m Takuto, welcome to my anime cafe!” For the OWLS blog tour’s fifth monthly topic of 2020, “Adapt,” I wanted to showcase one of the cool psychological sci-fi series that aired this past winter season, ID:INVADED. Although this would’ve been THE perfect month for Shirobako (which I talked about in last month’s OWLS post), I find the premise of a detective constantly dealing with memory erasure to be equally fitting for this topic.

Right now, we all have lost something or gained something in return during this dark time. Our lives have been completely altered due to coronavirus. For this month, we will be talking about anime series and other pop culture media where we have characters having to adjust to changes in their environment. Whether it’s adjusting to a new school or heading towards an isekai fantasy world, we will be discussing characters that had to make changes within themselves in order to adapt to the circumstances they are in. This will also give us an opportunity to express our own personal lives as we try to adjust to a “new normal.”

This all sounds very relevant to our current lives, doesn’t it? Thanks Lyn for the prompt!

sakaido


A brief discussion of the 13-episode Winter 2020 anime “ID:INVADED,” animated by NAZ, directed by Ei Aoki, and based on the original story written by Ōtarō Maijō.

A New World Every Time

Specialized police squad Kura solves crime a little differently than your average public safety agency would. Just sitting in the Mizuhanome, a highly advanced system that allows users to enter the minds of others, can help find the culprit at an astonishing pace. It’s an efficient system, and by detecting “cognition particles” left behind at the crime scene by the perpetrator, Kura’s detectives can manifest a criminal’s unconscious mind and dive into this virtual world—the “id well”—and thus reveal the identity of the culprit.

There’s a catch to entering the mind of a killer, though: only killers themselves can comprehend the bizarre stream of thoughts belonging to one of their own. Enter former investigator Akihito Narihisago, once a respected member of the police, and now the “brilliant detective Sakaido” on the other side of the law. Although his gifted detective skills assist him and Kura immensely in the id well, the latest set of crimes bear an uncanny relationship to one another that the agency just can’t seem to shake.

A psychological sci-fi mystery series with a hard law-and-order edge to it, ID:INVADED intricately crafts its entire world from the ground up—in some cases, this is literally meant. We are immediately drawn to the quasi-virtual world of the id well, and how the strange physics of each killer’s mind create a unique set of obstacles for the great Sakaido to overcome. Whether soaring through broken architecture in a zero gravity space or attempting to uncover the logic behind a puzzling stream of numbers, the laws of physics that we know are hardly applicable to the unconventional landscapes of the id well.

id well

The Brilliant Detective

Each time he enters the id well, Narihisago immediately forgets everything he once knew about himself. It is only when he stumbles upon the body of Kaeru, a mysterious girl who is the only constant between id well dives, that Narihisago remembers: he is the “brilliant detective” Sakaido, and it is his mission to solve the workings of this world to find the culprit. Who is Kaeru, and why is she always deceased upon discovery? Sakaido and the Kura team have yet to figure that out. But what they do know is that she’s on their side, as the state of her corpse always possesses a clue to the how and whodunit.

As much as ID:INVADED banks on the whole crime thriller shtick, it really is a story about redemption. For Narihisago, it’s about accepting the loss of his wife and daughter and his own transgressions as their murderer’s killer. The budding young detective Hondoumachi also uses her field experiences to find where she truly belongs in this wild agency. For Tamotsu Fukuda, it’s the chance to help the good guys solve a crime, even if he’s a criminal himself. The mind of a murderer is dangerous, absolutely, but it sure is insightful for tracking down fellow killers.

Kura’s detectives have to be sharp thinkers, but even more so the brilliant detectives risking their own psyche for sitting in the Mizuhonome. Between logging into unfamiliar worlds and dealing with wacky circumstances, it quickly becomes apparent that adaptation plays a critical role in this is a sci-fi mystery series.

kaeru

Deconstruction and Reconstruction

More than any other component, the visual element of ID:INVADED has to be solid in order for this kind of story to work—and thankfully, studio NAZ knew exactly what they were doing. While there are more than a handful of character design inconsistencies (particularly misalignment in the face and eyes), the whole of this project truly does handle director Ei Aoki’s vision astonishingly well.

Especially as an original project, viewers have little to go off of other than the posters and episodes themselves, but the series really works as a wholly unique and compelling visual piece. Sakaido’s mission to unravel the inner mechanisms of each id well relies on confident and daring animation, to which NAZ delivers. The animation supports this theme of reconstructing a deconstructed world.

Abstract puzzles and challenges await the brilliant detective, and as he is quick to think on his feet, Sakaido has to possess an unmatched flexibility to be able to adapt to anything the id well—or his fellow detectives—throw at him. The story largely retains its ability to entertain by following Sakaido has he adapts, reconstructs, and discovers the truth hidden amidst the chaos.

id invaded first id well

Flexibility Paves the Way

We try to show only the best sides of ourselves, but in the process we relinquish the parts that really make us humans, well, human. Some individuals like Tamotsu carry a deep sadness with them, despite the foolish smiles on their face. Others can seem rough around the edges yet are actually quite pleasant to get to know, much like Hondoumachi’s senior and mentor Matsuoka. We truly do not know the extent to someone’s character unless we actively try to understand them—all while keeping an open mind. 

As Narihisago realizes before any of his co-workers, a detective cannot be successful without thinking outside the box and being aware of the seemingly unimaginable. Not every crime is as it seems; similarly, not every person shares with you everything there is to them. Facades and farce run abound in ID:INVADED. Some people can be forgiven, and some people simply can’t. But one thing’s for certain, and you can trust Narihisago on this one: No person is without their flaws. 

mizuhanome


Who would’ve thought that one needs to lose something in order to feel complete. — Tamotsu Fukuda


Afterword

While I only followed a few shows this past winter season, I thought that ID:INVADED was definitely among one of the better watches. For filling the urge for psychological mystery in my heart and giving my mind a bit to chew on, I happy welcome ID:INVADED as a “Cake” title here at the cafe. Should you, too, be looking for something a bit more experimental while adhering to the staples of the crime genre, I strongly recommend this one. If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the series or this post down in the comments.

This concludes my May 23rd entry in the OWLS “Adapt” blog tour. My good friend Aria (The Animanga Spellbook) went right before me with a post covering the societal struggles faced by the characters of Wandering Son that you shouldn’t miss! Now, look out for my buddy Scott (Mechanical Anime Reviews) as he shoots for the moon and beyond in his post on Banner of the Stars this Sunday, May 22nd! Thank you so much for reading, and until next time!

– Takuto