Alita: Battle Angel — A Warrior’s Tale | Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 2019 American cyberpunk action film “Alita: Battle Angel,” produced by 20th Century Fox, written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, directed by Robert Rodriguez, and based on the 1990s manga “Battle Angel Alita” (or “Gunmn” in Japan) by Yukito Kishiro. 

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After the Fall: An Origin Story

Still recovering from a catastrophic war referred to as “The Fall,” humanity remains determined to eke out a living on a devastated Earth in the year 2563. While scavenging the junkyard metropolis of Iron City, Dr. Dyson Ido, a renowned cyborg scientist, stumbles across a disembodied female cyborg—human brain still fully intact. Taking the remains back to his lab, Ido rebuilds the cyborg and gives her a name: “Alita.”

Although she has no recollections of her past, she is able to create new memories thanks to the doc’s healing hands. She eventually meets Hugo, a teenage boy who dreams of one day moving up to the wealthy city in the sky, Zalem. He introduces her to the competitive, cutthroat sport of Motorball, an every-man-for-himself race where cyborgs fight to the death for a chance at ascending to Zalem if victorious.

But sinister connections tie even the friendliest faces to the shadows, and as Alita quickly comes to realize that there’s no force more powerful than the game, the titular cyborg sets out to learn about her past to save the ones she loves most in the present.

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Alita: Battle Angel may be my first introduction to this much beloved franchise, but man, what solid footing director Robert Rodriguez and writer James Cameron provide for this classic origin story. Going in blind, I can already tell you that the franchise is worth the investment. This live action film, albeit a bit fast-paced, serves as a fantastic place to start if picking up four volumes of the manga just isn’t an option for whatever reason.

Admittedly, there’s some cheesy villain dialogue that sours the seriousness at times, and while I wish these lines weren’t delivered with such blatant “evilness,” the script actually feels more anime because of it. Critics may have blasted the script and the plot for their lack of ingenuity, but I—and most audiences, apparently—seemed to enjoy it regardless. Alita‘s wild betrayals and reveals may come as a shock to some; others may have seen the twists from a mile away. But if you still enjoy the story, that’s all that matters. To quote Dr. Ido:


“But that’s just a shell. It’s neither bad nor good. That part’s up to you.”


Surprisingly, the film contains includes a decent amount humor to remind you that Alita is—as much cyberization and machine-slaughter as the plot contains—a very human story. Although the environment is both visually and aesthetically astounding to take in, it’s the characters of Alita that make this powerful story of purpose and destiny resonate with newcomers and longtime fans alike.

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Alita, An All-or-Nothing Gal

From design to personality, I fell in love with Alita the moment I first saw her in the promotional trailers months back. I knew she’d be your typical brave girl fighting against the system character, but I wasn’t expecting her to be the feisty rascal kind—a delightful surprise. Brazen and bold, the girl is drawn to danger like a moth to a lamp. It’s always all or nothing with her, and Alita’s rebellious free-spirited nature makes her a refreshing heroine to cheer for—even if her recklessness tosses her down the rabbit hole more than a few times.

Did I mention that Rosa Salazar is freakin’ OUTSTANDING as the titular role? Cause she’s absolutely phenomenal, able to communicate to the audience that she struggles with fighting this world’s injustice, but is always eager to learn something new. Salazar’s gradual transformation from fluffy, chocolate-loving teenager to hardcore warrior is impressive to behold. Every second Salazar is on screen feels genuine. Through this loss of innocence, she doesn’t let the emotions hold back (even during the tender moments). If she induces a tear in your eye as you watch, I’m not sorry. She’s that awesome.

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The rest of the cast deserves a round of applause too, especially Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of Dr. Ido for making him this benevolent yet fascinating foster figure. What a dad. (And bless his aide, Gerhad, whose mere presence provides enough support for Alita.) The same glowing things could be said about Keean Johnson’s semi-dreamy Hugo, the junk dealer.

As for the villains, Mahershala Ali’s acting is perfect for the intimidating “king” of Iron City, Vector, but his character’s status(es) needed stronger clarification, as I didn’t even realize what his roles were until halfway into the film. Same for Jennifer Connelly’s Dr. Chiren, a somewhat frustrating character given her circumstantial duality.

And NO, the large CG-altered eyes don’t detract from the narrative one bit. After five minutes, they just became part of her charm, and I didn’t even realize it afterwards.

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Motorball & The World Below

Between the numerous sci-fi action sequences and the stunningly brutal sport of Motorball, Alita is a visual feast. Whether fighting in back-alley slums, the dark sewers below, or on the exhilarating race track surrounded by stadium lights and roaring cheers, there’s never a dull moment in this film. And Motorball though, WOW, one of the franchise’s biggest spectacles is brought to life through stellar visual effects and cyborg goodness to make any sci-fi junkie drool just watching.

Alita also does something really neat with visual lighting. The film begins in the rustic, sunlit scrapyard, which transitions to an even brighter, cheerier atmosphere when Alita meets Hugo. But when rain begins to fall, the dark and dreary cityscape—lit only by holographic street signs and neon lights—emphasizes the literal night journey Alita embarks on. Once she uncovers the truth, light returns as she confronts Vector and his pawn Grewishka to finally deliver justice.

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From the intricate and gorgeous detailing of Alita’s cybernetic body to the remarkably thrilling fights, the attention to detail in crafting this postwar cyberpunk world is on a level of its own. If this isn’t a faithful adaptation of the manga, I cannot even begin to imagine what greatness Yukito Kishiro’s original story contains.

No great sci-fi movie is complete without an equally epic score, to which Tom Holkenborg overwhelmingly pulls through. Between the strong symphonic opening in “Discovery” and “Motorball” busting through the gates with its powerful rhythmic tribal drumming, the harmonic balance between strings and dubstep is just right. For the credits, Dua Lipa’s “Swan Song” also ties in well as a piece addressing social injustice and change. Thank god for Apple Music, because I’ll be listening to this soundtrack for weeks to come.

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But Will it be Enough?

With so many moments where you just want to pump your fists in the air and cheer, Alita does everything it needs to do to be a great movie. Gripping, emotional, heartfelt even, but will it be enough? Will this be the last we hear of Alita and company on U.S. theater screens, or will Rodriguez and Cameron’s efforts be enough to finally end the trend of live-action anime adaptations being one-off movies?

Either way, I support everything this film tried to accomplish and then some—heck, I went to the theaters twice, and totally would’ve gone a third if my schedule wasn’t so busy as is. Beyond the issues of faithful source reconstruction or the present lack of a thorough conclusion, all I wanted from Alita: Battle Angel was an entertaining film that holds on its own—and boy does Alita stand proud and tall.

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I do not stand by in the presence of evil. — Alita


Afterword

Oh man, such a GOOD MOVIE my friends!! Job well done to the cast and crew for sure, as this is already a good contender for my favorite non-anime film of the year. Whether in theaters or on your home screen in the near future, I hope you got (or eventually get) a chance to watch it, cause Alita‘s not one to miss. They did this one right, holy shit.

I don’t really ever review live action films, but for Alita’s charm, I’ll make an exception. 2019’s Alita: Battle Angel is certified “Cake” here at the cafe, and should we ever see a sequel, there’s a solid chance I’d bump this one up to a “Caffe Mocha,” without a doubt! Guys, let me know your thoughts about this kickass LA-anime-done-right down in the comments, be it your praises or your criticisms, and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

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Gargantia: A Mecha Which Lulls Like the Waves | Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 13-episode spring 2013 anime “Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet,” animated by Production I.G, directed by Kazuya Murata, and based on the original story by Gen Urobuchi. This will also include special OVA episodes 14 and 15, as well as the two “Far Beyond the Voyage” OVAs. 

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Awakening on Gargantia, the Island of Ships

Far into the future, most of mankind has fled Earth to expand into space, and the Galactic Alliance of Humanity is founded to guide exploration and ensure the prosperity of the human race. Humans soon discover a threat lurking in the dark seas of space, however; strange squid-like creatures called the Hideauze begin terrorizing human existence, resulting in a longstanding interstellar war to prevent humanity’s extinction.

Ensign Ledo of the Galactic Alliance, age 16, leaps into battle against the enemy as per his calling. Armed with Chamber, an autonomous robot intelligence system which resides inside his mech, the Hideauze shouldn’t have stood a chance against Ledo. Unfortunately, Ledo is separated from the Alliance and, in a horrific twist of fate, is flung into the far-off reaches of space, eventually to crash land on a planet submerged in water.

On these endless blue-green waters, Gargantia—a large fleet of scavenger ships comprising a sprawling metropolis in itself—salvages Chamber from the depths of the ocean thinking that the mech must hold something of value. Unknown to the crew, Ledo sneaks aboard the ship and captures a young messenger girl named Amy as hostage, but Ledo quickly comes to find that the people of Gargantia aren’t as dangerous as he initially surmised.

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Faced with uncertainty and separated from his comrades in the Alliance, Ledo struggles to seek newfound purpose on the blue planet. As some the loftier citizens of Gargantia eventually warm up to the space man, Ledo slowly realizes that there is more to a soldier’s life than missions and assignments. But just as he becomes acclimated to this foreign lifestyle, what lurks deep within these cerulean seas starts to bring to question the foundation of this oceanic world.

The coolest thing Gargantia has going for it is easily the titular ship fleet itself. In shows or games that are set near the water, I’ve always found village life to be quite appealing. Gargantia is no exception. If anything, had I watched this anime back in 2013 when it aired, I probably would have loved it a lot more than I currently do. Unfortunately, I am older now, and a collection of ships bound together by giant metal cranes and locks doesn’t excite me as much as it would have the old me. Still, a part of me feels like I was always meant for the seafaring life, to which Gargantia invites me to explore.

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Chilling at its Own Pace

The first six episodes are spent crafting this culture-heavy fleet and its peoples through a slice-of-life narrative. We are given a tour of the fleet through a few side stories. Although they help to explain what they do, how they operate, and how each person—no matter the age or occupation—plays a critical role in Gargantia’s survival, some of these stories are admittedly boring and predictable. For a sci-fi action adventure series, Gargantia chills at its own pace, merely riding the waves until the exciting finale. But I kind of like that about it.

Meanwhile, the second half delivers the climax of the story, along with several intriguing plot twists which help facilitate interest after a relaxing but lukewarm first half. None of the big reveals feel cheap; in fact, it’s just the kind of thing I’d expect from Urobuchi’s phenomenal writing, even if the thriller vibes are occasionally lulled by the slow-moving nature of the story. Urobuchi always delivers incredible stories about the darker sides of humanity, and while Gargantia is lighter than most, that’s not to say it won’t leave you gasping “No freakin’ way” a few times.

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The People of Gargantia 

I’m quite divided when it comes to the cast. As a protagonist, Ledo is great. His gradual development from cold galactic soldier to helping friend is nicely done, and Alan Lee captured the vocalic change from curt, rigid pronunciations to fluent, passionate statements believably well in the English dub. Our resident “hot guy’s” struggle would have been futile without Chamber, however; unlike what you’d expect from a pilot assist AI, Chamber isn’t afraid to sass Ledo around when he needs the encouragement, and Matthew Mercer was a perfect fit for this rather intelligent and resourceful “tin can.”

But I can’t give the same praise to the rest of the people of Gargantia. While Amy the messenger girl (voiced by the ever-cheery Cassandra Lee Morris) is the supposed main heroine, she merely functions as a tool to unlocking Ledo’s inner humane side. The well-endowed pilot Bellows lives and breathes the salvaging life, but her character just as well acts as a guide for the main cast.

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In the same regard, pirate queen Lukkage is a fun Team Rocket Jessie-like character to have around, but her little screentime isn’t enough to fully appreciate her extreme levels of bad-ass. (You’ll definitely want to watch the OVAs to see the Queen in action!) For other antagonistic presences, having the devilishly suave Karen Strassman as Striker is an absolute joy. But oh man, let’s not talk about Pinion, the human epitome of DICKHEAD. Seriously, the guy has no respect for anything!

It’d be a shame not to mention the fleet commander’s daughter, Ridget, as one of Gargantia‘s best and brightest. She works SO hard to live up to the immense role thrust upon her, and I just really enjoyed watching her backstory unfold throughout the series’ run. Strong-willed, passionate, and always looking out for the greater good of Gargantia, Ridget—above everyone else in the cast, arguably including Ledo—shines as the fleet’s most-developed character.

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On Endless Green Waters

From an art and animation standpoint, Production I.G beautifully encapsulates “island life” on Gargantia through its towering structure of rusty, paint-chipped housing and overwhelming marketplace vibes. It’s just such a charming set piece, really. And although it may be marketed as a mecha anime, Gargantia is pretty laid-back, allowing Chamber to strut his usefulness in performing ship tasks in the first half and finally showing off his explosive capabilities in the last couple episodes. Also, at the very least, we should acknowledge the Yunboro as the most practical-looking mech out there, even if not the prettiest. (Chamber looks fantastic though, love his rounded shape.) As a whole, the art is rich, vibrant, and colorful, and the animation is consistently top-notch, particularly so with those endless green seas.

Taro Iwashiro provides a great soundtrack befitting of the “adventure” label, as he’s able to effectively balance island life with Ledo’s soldier strife. Also noteworthy in the sound department is how ADR director Tony Oliver and the crew at Bang Zoom! established the differing language portrayals. Ledo and Amy are separated by hundreds of light years, after all, so it only makes sense that their languages would different. I’m not sure how it was done in the original Japanese, but made-up languages are always fun to listen to in English, and Gargantia is written such that this constant dialogue swapping isn’t distracting in the least.

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Seas of Possibility, Skies of Freedom

Contrary to the high intensity repertoire the mecha genre is known to cater, Gargantia takes the back seat and explores the isolation and ostracism of a mech pilot on foreign soil—or a fish out of water, if you will. It’s a story about finding purpose after a big change in one’s life, and how to adapt to unfamiliar circumstances. Most of all, however, Gargantia is about family and belonging, and what it means to be human in a world where the very definition of the word has been obscured by a dark past.

Between the gorgeous animation, creative concept, and interesting plot, Gargantia may be exactly what you’re looking for if you seek a short sci-fi journey. Oh, and don’t be turned off by the mechs—they look great, and the finale in particular stands out for its incorporation of the ideological feud. Although some of its characters may rub you the wrong way, Gargantia is blessed with strong direction and themes. So, answer the call for adventure—raise the sails and set out for those shimmering jade seas.

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One who abandons thought and decision-making deviates from the very definition of “human.” — Chamber


Afterword

It’s a shame that the possibility of more Gargantia got shelved thanks to the idea of a novel adaptation, especially considering that as an original piece, Gargantia is one of Production I.G’s best. While the last couple OVAs are a bit of a pain to track down, they’re a must if you want the complete Gargantia story as it stands. For the cafe, I struggled between whether to place it under the “Coffee” or “Cakes” menu, but after recalling all the effort that went into crafting the island atmosphere and its customs, I gave the series the benefit of the doubt. Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet offers a pleasantly sweet ride for any mild fan of the mecha genre, thus a “Cake” here at the cafe! And yes, Viz’s awesome LTD ED release of the show rests calmly on my shelf awaiting my next revisit to the blue planet. 🙂

What did you think of Gargantia? Did you enjoy it enough, or did you find it lacking in a few departments? It may not the best mecha anime out there, but it’s certainly not the worst. Let me know your thoughts about the quiet little title or this review down in the comments, and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

Fate/Extra: Last Encore – A Horrifically Beautiful Nightmare | Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 10-episode winter 2018 anime “Fate/Extra: Last Encore,” animated by Shaft, directed by Akiyuki Shinbou and Yukihiro Miyamoto, and based on Type-Moon game “Fate/Extra.”

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The Dungeon Horror Genre Meets Fate

Hakuno Kishinami is a high school student—no, was a high school student? Doesn’t matter, because in a flash and flurry of visions pertaining to both the past and the future, Hakuno awakens in a strange virtual world styled much like a video game. He remembers neither his former life, nor how he got here, but before he even has time to comprehend his wacky situation, Hakuno is forced into a fight unlike one the world has ever seen: the Holy Grail War. Only this time around, supposedly over a hundred masters are competing for the coveted wish-granting chalice! Thankfully, a servant adorned in a maelstrom of crimson rose petals and shimmering gold manifests and comes to Hakuno’s aid. Her name is Saber, and together the two set out to conquer the seven enigmatic “floors” of this Grail War’s stage, as well as answer the burning question in Hakuno’s mind: “Who am I?”

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I borrowed that last quote from the official synopsis because, within both the characters and the story itself, there’s a vague sense of emptiness surrounding the situation. As an alternate route for Fate/stay night set in an entirely different universe, countless questions about the world and its origins arise. Unfortunately, very few are answered, and as each episode progresses, it becomes harder and harder to care about Hakuno, the entities he encounters, or this chapter of Fate in general. This new Grail War also presents itself weakly, rarely calling back to the fact that Hakuno should be fighting other servants and masters along the way when, oddly enough, each floor seems abandoned, which brings me to my next point.

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I like to call Last Encore a weird Dungeons & Dragons take on the Fate universe for its similar adventure style setup. On each floor that Hakuno, Saber, and eventually Rin climb to (or rather soar up to via magical elevator), the trio confronts 1) the floor’s master, 2) the floor master’s servant, and 3) a helpful ally (or tricky foe) who resides/is trapped on that floor. Each floor’s denizens offer a new lesson in character, survival, or how to live, and deciding who the party should ally themselves with or stay away from serves as decent entertainment.

Not-So-Familiar Faces

Last Encore‘s master and servant pairs reveal very little about themselves, which is a crying shame considering that you can typically count on Fate characters as ALWAYS being some of the most interesting crew you’ll ever run into. Heck, much of this historical fantasy cast—Robin Hood, Francis Drake, and a certain red Saber—receive better backstory and development in Fate/Grand Order, and that’s a FREAKIN’ MOBILE GAME.

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With so many characters encountered in such a short 10-episode time, it can be hard to remember who is who and what they do when you know that at the end of the episode, Hakuno and Saber will prevail and ascend to the next floor. As such, the other masters and servants NEED to be interesting, and sadly, the opposite happens since there’s not enough time for me to invest care. Philosophical as they may be, the interactions between characters in Last Encore are hollow, save for maybe one charismatic lass . . .

No Guts, No Glory!

Never does our red-clad hero proclaim this famous idiom, but boy does it typify her personality. To keep this review spoiler-free, we’ll just ride by the servant moniker. That said, prepare the “Umu!” counter, cause here’s our Maestro’s beloved servant! Unlike the others in this series, Saber is characterized quite well. Even reoccurring favorites like Rin and the not-so-much-favorite Shinji fail to truly grasp the viewer’s attention like Saber does. Charming, wise, experienced, and loves to show off her vast wealth and skill accumulated from former days of glory, Saber practically steals the show any time she gets the chance. She’s unapologetically boastful and confident, and her ridiculous remarks make her fun to watch. Shaft may promote her allure through annoying underskirt shots (or straight-up nudity), but we know the real reason she captures our hearts is because of her valor and chivalry in battle, as well as her playful charisma on the side.

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I will admit, Saber really doesn’t change much over the course of their journey, but that’s not why she’s there. She’s Hakuno’s guide, his partner, and through her ideological dialogue, she mentally keeps Hakuno thinking in the right mindset—and from succumbing to his darkest thoughts.

Fate in the Hands of Another Studio

Though the [very few and short] fight scenes look splendid, Shaft captures the individual essence of each floor’s quirks and qualities even better through unique landscapes, backgrounds, and art styles (including a floor designed to recreate Madoka Magica‘s eerie cuteness). Though the environment helps craft Extra‘s story, proving on multiple occasions to be more interesting than its characters, the alarming number of rough transitions between fantasy and reality, past and future causes immense confusion and boredom. The plot is already such a jumbled up mess, and to place Shaft at the head of this project is both genius and a horrifically beautiful nightmare. Arguably, with all the random floating objects and unnatural physics, it’s “too much Shaft” at times. At least that lighting is gorgeous.

 

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SIDE NOTE: I appreciate the endeavor to animate more of this massive franchise, but between an OK Apocrypha and now an even worse Extra, I can’t help but think Fate should be left not only to quality animators like the masters over at Ufotable, but also to its core writers. Shinbou excels at bringing the strange to life, but this sci-fi/fantasy adventure RPG style isn’t his strongest suit. 

Lastly, Satoru Kosaki’s score left a brilliant ambiance where the dialogue often tangled itself up (probably helps that he’s no stranger to studio Shaft’s style, having done much of the Monogatari OST). Also, the OP “Bright Burning Shout” by Takanori Nishikawa has an uplifting shounen fight song vibe to it, while the ED “Tsuki to Hanataba” by Sayuri allowed the bittersweet moments in the series to shine.

For the Fans Who Wanted One Last Encore

Trailing the viewer along through the bizarre sounds like something Fate/Extra: Last Encore would be excellent at, but Hakuno’s narrative is simply boring. And while a degree of mystery helps keep the mind engaged and asking questions, come episode ten you’ll be disappointed by this series’s lack of a proper ending. As one would imagine, Hakuno and Saber eventually reach the top floor, but to what end? The story abruptly stops upon the elevator reaching floor seven, and though a 20-minute finale OVA awaits us this summer (oh my god), no one will care by then.

Ultimately, it’s all a real shame, as I was finally hoping to branch out of the same old Fate and see what all the hubbub of Extra was about without having to sit through the PSP game. Several elements like changing the character design, recruiting a different studio, and twisting the story to fit as an anime series, seemed right, but just fell apart by the end. Watch the beginning of this shoddy cyclical Fate adaptation and I’m afraid you’ve already seen the end. Perhaps this is my “roundabout” way of saying that you shouldn’t advertise yourself as the encore when those unfamiliar with the original haven’t even properly enjoyed the main show.

I should do what I am capable of. That is all anyone can do. — Saber

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Afterword

It’s hard to write a review about a show that I really wanted to enjoy, especially something from Fate. Nevertheless, I must be honest with myself here. There were moments of true beauty, in which the shot composition, character animation, dialogue, music, and emotion all synced together spectacularly. But those moments only made up a small part of this already very short adventure. Such is why I award Fate/Extra: Last Encore the “Breads” rating, and recommendation to pass on it unless you have played the game and are wanting to enjoy a “similar” story in anime format—to which I say, enjoy, Praetor!

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I’d love it if you could sway my mind on this title, so let me know what you thought about it or this review down in the comments! Thanks for reading, and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

Haikyuu!! — Growing Together Through Challenge & Failure | OWLS “Squad”

Chances are that if you were linked here from another blogger pal, you might be new to this place. To those first-timers, “Hi, I’m Takuto, and welcome to my anime cafe!” As part of the OWLS blog tour’s third monthly topic for 2018, “Squad,” I decided to incorporate what would have been my standard review of Haikyuu!! season one into this look at friendship and how, exactly, teamwork makes the dream work.

Although some people may like to be alone at times, we all have that one special friend or a squad of friends who we kick it and have some good laughs and fun with. However, there are friendships that don’t last a lifetime, and usually, they end due to a falling out or a misunderstanding. For this month’s topic, we will be exploring some of the best friendships in anime and pop culture, as well as the friendships that ended suddenly. We will talk about what a true friendship means to us, what we learned about ourselves and others through broken friendships, and our definitions of a “good friend.”

To uphold this OWLS favorite, I will be carrying the Haikyuu!! torch for this month’s tour! Though I’m not as passionate about this franchise as some of us are, I do hope I can contribute something of my own to the countless amazing posts out there. Thanks Lyn (and Lita) for the prompt!

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A brief spoiler-free discussion on the 25-episode spring 2014 anime “Haikyuu!!,” localized as “Haikyu!!,” produced by Production I.G, directed by Susumu Mitsunaka, and based on Haruichi Furudate’s popular shounen manga of the same name.

Rivals off the Court, Teammates on It

Shouyou Hinata began volleyball small and to this day remains one of the shortest players anyone has ever come across. Inspiration hit the loud lil’ guy when watching a volleyball ace nicknamed the “Little Giant” take the court by storm, and soon after, Hinata formed his own volleyball club in middle school. Brutal defeat in his team’s very first tournament by Tobio “King of the Court” Kageyama crushed motivations to continue the fight, though. In that moment, Hinata vowed to surpass Kageyama, but upon joining Karasuno High School’s volleyball team, Hinata found himself facing his “sworn rival” as a new fellow teammate.

Despite his unusually high stamina and powerful jumps, Hinata’s short stature gives him a bit of a hard time when it comes to finding the right role to play. Surprisingly, Kageyama, the “genius setter” himself, also struggles with teamwork issues, and only by learning to work together will Karasuno stand a chance against the fierce competition. Excellently balancing the emotional weight of sports drama with lighthearted comedy, Haikyuu!! supports two determined athletes and their endeavor to settle a heated rivalry in order to reignite their team’s once-legendary status.

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Karasuno: The Crow Flies Again

Haikyuu!!‘s first season leads us through a handful of major games set up like little arcs just like any shounen series would. On the surface, it feels like one of those “This is how I became the strongest in the world” series, and in part, that’s not the wrong impression. Beyond Hinata’s constant screaming and boundless excitement lie more interesting subplots, however, such as finding the motivation to play, understanding that loss is prevalent in the path to success, and the ever-constant conflict between upper and lowerclassmen. The series, much like the volleyball players, never sits on one of these themes for too long. Once a character’s lesson has been taught, the momentum bounces across the court to quickly become another teammate’s chance ball!

As previously mentioned, this underdog story appreciates a variety of themes crucial to the personal growth of not only oneself, but an entire team. With every demoralizing insult and crushing defeat, the need for vengeance—to prove that Karasuno will fly again—snowballs into unstoppable enthusiasm for the 12 boys (and their rugged coach, squirrelly faculty advisor, and goddess of a manager). I mean, just imagine it: Back in the day, you were THE top dogs, the ones that everyone aspired to be! And now that you’re finally able to give back to that team that gave you so much to begin with, you find yourself continuing to face loss after devastating loss. 

“To overcome difficulties, you need effort, endurance, and sacrifices.” — Ittetsu Takeda, faculty advisor

As such, it is redemption that pulls the clumsy Karasuno along, but they will fail to earn the respect (and awe) of other teams unless they dig deep within themselves and learn exactly what makes each other tick. Achieving perfected, harmonious unity comes only through knowing your friends better than you know yourself. Unless some of its more reserved members start opening up to each other, I’m afraid Karasuno will only make it so far in the seasons to come.

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Haikyuu!!‘s Unique, Competitive, Spirited Characters

I’ll start with the elephant in the room since I basically had no problems with the rest of this top-tier cast. Hinata and Kageyama are arguably the most irritating, annoying characters in the entire show—which is incredibly unfortunate given their status as male leads. These are supposed to be the two that we root for, that we want to succeed, but on more occasions than not, I was sympathizing with the other side. In their defense, even the rival teams offer compelling stories all on their own—in fact, this well-rounded attention to all of the characters is the bread and butter of Haikyuu!!—but it can be hard to cheer on the main two when Hinata is plain obnoxious and Kageyama is downright rude. By this first season’s end, I started to feel somewhat proud for how far they had come (recalling their earlier bickering and resistance to work together), and I do see myself warming up to them more in the next season.

If you’re asking me who the title of “best boy” belongs to, can I just say all of them? I mean, really:

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Daichi’s strong and steady demeanor makes him a model team captain; Sugawara’s calm, compassionate nature was LITERALLY ME back when I did sports in high school; Asahi’s aged appearance doesn’t stop him from being the biggest sweetheart (and Nervous Nellie) in the entire show. The third years will always be my favorite characters, no matter the series, but I can’t just stop here with Haikyuu!! . . .

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Nishinoya’s overwhelming charisma not only makes him a player to be feared, but also one to be loved; Tanaka’s combo of goofy + grit never fails to lighten the mood; Ennoshita has this ability to silently relate to his friends given practically any situation; Kinoshita and Narita are always there to tame Noya and Tanaka. WHEW, looking forward to find out more about these funny second years. Of course, we can’t forget about the first years . . .

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Kageyama, despite his oppressive exterior, strives to better himself by bringing out the best in his fellow teammates; Hinata’s inner strength to bounce back from defeat will always light a fire in my heart; Tsukishima AKA “best boy” candidate offers remarks that are so freakin’ snarky I just can’t, then proceeds to back up his smugness with the most wicked of feints during a match; lastly, Yamaguchi just wants to play the game everyone loves, and works long after dark hoping to one day be of use to his team.

But #squadgoals doesn’t stop there! Looking at the other teams, Nekoma’s Kenma (voiced by Yuki Kaji, my guy) seems like your average silent character, but his catlike reflexes and calculating eyes make him the heart his high school team; and yes, even the handsome and charismatic Oikawa, a master of playing to his Aoba Josai teammates’ strengths, must be hilariously restrained by his friends from egotistically going all-out”Great King” on them!

The Forces that Unite Us

Similar to the OWLS “Team” theme from last year, we all long for connection, to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves. Not often are we granted the opportunity to bond with others so closely and celebrate the things we love. So, we have to take chances, risks even, if we wish to grow together. Haikyuu!! hits on four essential elements that build strong, long-lasting friendships (all coincidentally beginning with the letter “C”), and for every time a team member attempts one of these building blocks, beautiful, timeless moments are created.

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Consideration—to experience thought and care for another

The weight of the game all rested on second-year Tanaka’s shoulders, yet again, and again, and again, Tanaka dropped the ball. There was a small moment like this during the tournament in which Hinata, a first-year, considered saying something nice or uplifting to baldy as he has always done for him. It’s not pity, it’s empathy. Hinata knows that feeling of repeated failure. When the underclassmen start supporting the upperclassmen (or at least thinking in that mindset), you can tell that the underclassman is starting to grow not only as a team player, but as a person, too.

The older we grow, there’s a tendency for superiors to think that they exclusively must be the ones to guide the young. But in a team, that is not the case. Though there is a chain of command spearheaded by the captain, teammates are EQUALS. In school, work, or any other setting concerning a group that functions together with one goal in mind, people, higher or lower, need to support each other—to consider feelings of failure and success alike and support those who need it in the heat of the moment.

Compliments—to express praise or admiration for one’s actions

Taking it the next step forward, teammates should give credit where credit is due. One’s age, ethnicity, gender, or status does not matter—nobody is above a nice compliment. This responsibility should not be limited to the captain or upperclassmen alone, either. Sugawara gives them out all the time based on how teammates are feeling that day, and that motivation pushes everyone, especially Hinata, to do their best.

Communication—to connect with others and exchange information

A true king asks for the help of his subjects—that is what sets Oikawa, “The Great King” (and even Sugawara) apart from Kageyama, the “Dictator.” Communication is key in both sports and life in general. Kageyama cannot and should not rely on Hinata’s god-like quick ability all the time; as setter, he needs to learn how to pass to teammates like Tsukishima more, and maintain an open communication line that doesn’t look so grumpy. Gradually he improves, and I’m looking forward to see just how much better he’ll get.

Challenge—to engage in competition for the betterment of oneself

Above all, nothing pushes teammates like a little friendly fire. Ultimately, friends want to surpass the challenges that other friends set for them, and this different form of support manifests in rivalries that continue to improve, shape, and make teammates stronger. Hinata swears to be the one to take Kageyama down, giving him some purpose to his play. Nishinoya wants Asahi to give his all and never feel sorry, even if fighting a losing battle. Sugawara understands his limited role thanks to Kageyama’s genius, but he always tries to observe from afar and apply reliable tricks to shake up Kageyama’s stiff repetition. Even Tsukishima and Oikawa verbally confront Kageyama to draw out the fire within themselves!

The Birth of a Real Squad

Haikyuu!! delivers exhilarating volleyball action and inspirational sportsmanship through positive vibes, overcoming failure, and teamwork. I purposefully stuck to this first season alone to highlight the beginnings of a real squad, not the end result. Why? Because it makes each of these team-building exercises all the more powerful. Take that feast scene from the end of episode 24 for instance: it is sometimes the moments of shared silence between team members that impact viewers more than dialogue ever could. The absence of dialogue here ironically speaks volumes about Karasuno’s relationships, emotions, and mutual feelings toward their latest match. Definitely my favorite hard-hitting scene from the entire season.

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At the same time, sometimes fiercely shouting our feelings out loud can be enough to convey those shared emotions with others, as show in the way Noya motivates the guys, or Kageyama and Hinata’s release of anger by blindly yelling in episode 25. These simple, even silly, moments are what bond squad members, their goals, aspirations, and frustrations alike. Karasuno still has a long way to go, but every step these crazy guys take together allows their friendships to evolve with them.

“Someone who can’t see the opponent standing right in front of him, can’t defeat the opponent that lies beyond!” — Hajime Iwaizumi, Aoba Josai vice captain

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Afterword

I’m surprised I didn’t enjoy this series more, as it’s literally everything that I should love about a good sports series all in one package. Looking at it honestly, it probably was Hinata and Kageyama’s characters that deterred my enjoyment a bit. I’ll still definitely recommend, though! To all those interested in an emotional sports comedy with a well-rounded albeit sometimes “too loud” cast, this one should be a must. Oh! And as with these OWLS posts, I didn’t even get to talk about the music and animation! I have completed the Yuuki Hayashi sports trilogy, in which this GOD composed the music for DIVE!!, Welcome to the Ballroom, and Haikyuu!!. He’s also done My Hero Academia, Death Parade, and Robotics;Notes, so yeah, total fave. I was sad when the first ED “Tenchi Gaeshi” by NICO Touches the Walls was replaced, as it was the best song IMO. Lastly, THIS is Production I.G’s powerhouse sports series, as the animation should not be missed! (Where was this quality when Ballroom was airing??)

I’m gleefully awarding Haikyuu!! season one with the “Cake” rating, a show that’s too sweet for its own good! NOW, fans of this beloved series, HIT ME UP WITH YOUR THOUGHTS ON THIS FIRST SEASON OR THIS REVIEW IN THE COMMENTS (no spoilers, please)!! I’m very happy to have finally started this show, and though my “marathon” is running a bit slow, I am STOKED to watch more seasons!

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This concludes my March 22nd entry in the OWLS “Squad” blog tour. Shokamoka (Shokamoka’s Blog of Wonders) went right before me and stole my pick wrote about the currently airing A Place Further Than the Universe, which you can read right here (SO EXCITED FOR THIS)! Now, look out tomorrow for the one who got me hooked on this Haikyuu!! madness, Naja B. (Nice Job Breaking It, Hero), with No. 6one of my FAVORITE ANIME from when I first started (ahh, the memories) this Friday, March 23rd! Thanks for reading, and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

Devilman Crybaby – Ugly Tears, Bleeding Hearts, & The Pain of Modern Tragedy | Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 10-episode winter 2018 anime “Devilman: Crybaby,” produced by studio Science SARU (and Netflix), directed by Masaaki Yuasa, written by Ichiro Okouchi, and based on the manga by Go Nagai. 

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A Wild Night Out

Akira Fudo is a crybaby. He’s always been, and he always will be. Akira’s high school career takes a trip to the wild side when his best friend from many years ago, Ryou Asuka, suddenly reenters Akira’s life. This surprise reunion excites Akira, but unfortunately, Ryou isn’t back so the two can play on the playground again. Instead, he informs Akira that hiding amongst the shadows of their picture-perfect reality are monstrous demons, and that soon the demons will revive to reclaim the world from the humans. To combat their brute, supernatural strength, Ryou has a plan: to fuse a human with a demon.

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Those who conquer their “literal” innermost demons can master the power over them. And thus, after violently loosing his innocence at an infamous nightclub rave suspiciously titled the “Sabbath,” Akira becomes Devilman, a being with the power of a demon and the heart of a human. Finally seeing the darkness that humans have hid for so long, Akira feels blessed to now be able to save others, but more so cursed because he will likely never be understood ever again. But he has Ryou, and for Akira, that’s enough to make the pain worth suffering. Or so he hopes.

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A Tragedy Fit for Our Time

By mere story alone, Crybaby is a masterpiece. Having heard the crazy amounts of praise that have been circulating already for a couple weeks now, this should be no surprise. It starts at zero, at everyday life for a young boy and his relay mates, and quickly escalates into a bloody, traumatic, world-ending experience for both the characters and the viewers. As a standalone piece of fiction, it’s a modern tragedy made fit for the decade—complete with its OWN FREAKIN’ CHORUS in the form of some swaggy J-rappers—a series that is and should be celebrated for the, might I say, “daredevil” tale it sets out to tell. So many countless symbolic, societal, and sexual metaphors make the story incredibly compelling, and the religious undertones work wonders in creating this gritty, larger-than-life epic.

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And the best part of all is that the series isn’t just “depressing” to be called tragic—rather, it lives up to the classical standards of Greek tragedy by existing to A) prove the faults in our own lives, B) present a heroic attempt at handling them, and C) leave us with a cathartic end to cleanse the insanity that just befell the cast. It’s a masterful formula from the humble beginning through to its apocalyptic end, and as the media outlet Polygon states, the finale is “beautiful, devastating perfection.”

The only [minor] problem with a story of this magnitude is that Crybaby has very little time to tell it: only ten episodes, to be exact. While the pacing for the first several episodes feels spot-on, there is a significant push, particularly in the last two episodes, that does seem rather hectic. To be fair, however, the gruesome content and big reveals in episodes nine and ten ARE time sensitive; dragging these plot twists and dramatic developments out beyond an episode’s time would ruin their effects. Besides, perhaps that rushed sense of mayhem is what contributes to the explosive, catastrophic nature of the Devilman franchise.

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Akira and Ryou: Cuter When They’re Young

As far as characters are concerned, I won’t go into much detail simply because half of the thrill stems from witnessing just who some of these characters really are, and exactly what they will eventually become as the plot edges further and further on borderline insanity. Akira Fudo’s deal with the devil surprises all those around him, sure, but his grotesque change conjures up more mental conflict than physical ailment. He’s honestly a gift to mankind who doesn’t belong in this cruel, cruel world, and as he teeters on the edge of his own humanity—of a dying hope vs. an unflagging despair—he realizes that, at the darkest roots of their heart, people can be even more vile, disgusting, and sinful than any demon to roam the planet. Compared to his cute, scrawny self at the series’s beginning, the superior antihero Devilman that Akira becomes is stronger in nearly every way—all except for that tender, still-broken human heart of his.

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Ryou’s fluffy, blonde-bowled, bishounen design may seem inviting, but don’t let that charismatic baby face fool you: underneath that puffy white coat is a deadly machine gun and cunning wit, both which are fully loaded at all times. From that first smooth car ride Ryou and Akira share together, you already get the feeling that Ryou is scheming something (as if the glaring camcorder he films on 24/7 wasn’t evidence enough). Still, he is doomed to a fate just as tragic as Akira’s—if not more so. Ryou is one baaaaaad boi, but I loved his development way too much to hate him.

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I Don’t Know How to Rate The Animation . . . 

I’m not kidding. Devilman: Crybaby has some of the downright UGLIEST animated sequences I’ve ever seen. From the hilarious attempt at depicting just how “speedy” devilmen can run to the blobby, disproportionate, and completely uncensored sex scenes, by visual standards, Crybaby is not a pretty-looking show.

But does an anime need to be “pretty” to have it’s own beauty? Absolutely not. Or, well, at least Crybaby says so.

You see, the series has this certain edge to it, a certain grit that is hard to explain. The animation outlines, for instance, are cleanly drawn and look quite fresh (faces in particular). But then you have the action scenes, which are just SO freakin’ bizarre to watch. Like, I couldn’t even tell you if some scenes were, in fact, “poorly animated” because the ENTIRE SERIES has that same exact look. The lack of detail in light-hearted moments (like Akira’s high school, or his quiet past) compared to the almost sickening actions of other demons and humans alike gave form to a style that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s as if the animation is “untamed,” or “knows no bounds”—yet it all flows well as its own style within the context of the story. Not to mention that the compact 10-episode run and smart directing allow for each and every shot to carry some sort of secondary meaning, however unnecessarily violent or sexual or BOTH the risqué presentation seems to people.

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I, for one, felt that all of the overly grotesque scenes brutally tread some sacred ground of entertainment that hasn’t been touched in decades with a bloody tank. It’s a unique visual style that I frankly haven’t seen anywhere else, and it was depicted brilliantly.

But I Know I Loved the OST!

As I am currently writing this, the Devilman: Crybaby soundtrack is humming in the background for inspiration. What about it is so special? Well, it has great balance; it’s epic (“D.V.M.N.” – Main theme), startling (“Miki The Witch”), playful (“Wishy Washy”), intense (“Anxiety”), entrancing (“Beautiful Silene”), heart-pounding (“Smells Blood”), uplifting (“Prayer”), cathartic (“Pathetique”), and so much more. Composer Kensuke Ushio (Ping Pong The Animation, Space Dandy, A Silent Voice) knows how to write excellent orchestral/synth pieces, I tell ya!

There’s a little tune that is repeated throughout the entire soundtrack that can be any of the emotions listed above, so long is the right instrumentals is paired with the mood. My personal favorite IS a reprise of this gorgeous melody line, and it just so happens to be the very last song played in the series, the End of Devilman: Crybaby, so-to-speak. It’s appropriately titled “Crybaby,” and if it doesn’t move your heart to the point of tears, forcing you to recall Akira, Ryou, Miki, and Miko’s shared heartache and tragedy, then I’m not sure what will.

Oh yeah, there’s also a remake of the original Devilman opening included with the soundtrack, which, if you SOMEHOW haven’t heard yet, is SUCH A BOP HOLY SHIT. I STILL listen to it religiously.

The Destructive Darkness Within Us All

By Devilman:Crybaby‘s end, there is arguably no sadness left for the characters, no more tears to cry. It should feel complicated, as the amount of despair is simply undefinable. But instead, all you can wonder is how things got to this point, and how what you witnessed was, in fact, the end brought upon by humanity. The ending is completely unfair, yet it balances the scales with terrifying perfection. You could feel sad, or depressed, or enraged at how BLIND people can be, but instead, all of it feels pointless, as if nihilism just inducted you to suddenly became one of its patron saints.

The ending of Devilman: Crybaby is indeed a very empty one. And that very catharsis, that feeling of emptiness and pointlessness, is what lies at the heart of a well-written tragedy. 

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As happy and sad memories alike resurface for these two boys, Akira and Ryou come to realize that, without one another, life before friendship was boring and often cruel. It was lonely, and it was meaningless. But through the ugly tears they cry, the bleeding hearts they endure, and the tragic fates that they cease fighting against, the two learn to finally accept love, for it is really love, not hate, which makes the world go round. And so to tear up the ENTIRE world just to tell this seemingly small message—Yes, such is what completes the horrifically tragic Devilman: Crybaby as a modern masterpiece.

You’re crying too, Ryou-chan. You’re crying too . . .  – Akira Fudo

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Afterwords

Devilman: Crybaby is raw, brutal, yet oddly honest about its understanding of cause and effect and the power of compassion. It doesn’t forget to throw in a few laughs, though. As the community has already remarked, this show is ABSOLUTELY NOT for the faint of heart. This series showcases the worst aspects of humanity—of vengeance, overindulgence, paranoia, and immorality—and for many, that can be hard to watch (plus, it’s like, mega gory and sexual). You’ll be asking yourself “WTF is this even real?” many times, and you’ll feel absolutely disgusted with humanity. But have faith that there is a reason for the madness. I walked into this action series not knowing a lick about the Devilman franchise (aside from the old dub clips, heh heh) and obviously enjoyed the HELL out of it.

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If such disturbing material doesn’t bother you, then I’m sure you’ll also enjoy this wild ride through the bloody and the occult, as there are a fair amount of life lessons to be learned. I’m giving Devilman: Crybaby the honorary “Caffe Mocha” title because of its unexpectedly high emotional impact (you gotta love the indirect End of Eva references, too)! There’s a particular scene in I think episode 8 or 9 that absolutely wrecked me, and the powerful ending . . . wow . . . I’m sure I won’t be forgetting about that for a long time. If you are thinking about watching this anime, or have already seen it, you HAVE to let me know what you thought about it! I’m dying to dig the series back up, even though much of the hype has died down, haha! Let me know if I did a decent job by hitting the like button (I appreciate it!), and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

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Ghost in the Shell (2017) Dives Deep Enough to Prove Itself a Fascinating, Engaging Ride | Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 2017 live action film “Ghost in the Shell,” produced by Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks, directed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”), based on the original manga by Masamune Shirow, as well as loose ideas from the entire franchise, especially the original 1995 film of the same name.


The First of Her Kind

In a future not too far from our own, people have grown to love technology. You can bet that anyone you run into on these cold streets will sport some sort of cybernetic enhancement modded to their body: prosthetic limbs, wired inner organs, or the trending metal-encased cyberbrain. These advanced augmentations were coded to grant humans more convenient lives: quicker, safer, and less cumbersome living.

After a horrifying terrorist attack, Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) transcends into the first of her kind: the stunning results of the first-ever brain transplant into a fully synthetic body. Now a cyborg soldier programmed to eliminate cyber crime, super hackers, and back-alley schemes, the Major is automatically drafted to hunt down the ultimate next-gen terrorist—one who is able to hack into people’s minds and puppet them.

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Suffering from a faintly growing illness of glitching memory fragments, however, the deeper the Major dives into this case, the more intense her glitches become. As the possibility emerges that her new greatest enemy might in fact belong to her blurry past, the Major arms herself for a treacherous night journey. Nothing will stand in the way of satisfying her human curiosity, as well as the inevitable reawakening of her soul to a life that was stolen from her.

A New Story

While I’ll admit that we’re looking at the film’s weakest part—the plot—first, it’s impossible to deny that this live action reigns as one of sci-fi’s more interesting films in recent times, and holds the gold for the best live action iteration of an anime produced thus far, granted that I’ve only seen segments from most of them. What we’re looking at here with GitS (2017) is a fairly well-structured story of self-discovery followed by revenge, a typical Hollywood formula that feels relatively topical compared to the franchise’s classic 1995 film, which explored the deep values of being human, artificial sentience, and of course, the vastness of the Net.

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This apparent shallowness works out because of what the film is aiming at, though; in 1995 we dove into present identity and the other weighted themes previously listed—the Major as she is existing, if you will—but in 2017, we’re instead considering how the Major would feel about her past (2nd GIG did this), and what her creation ultimately means for the future of humanity, about feeling disconnected because she lacks the background that everyone else has laid out for them. Dig too deep into the original content and you risk deviating from the main intent: a new story.

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How This Live Action Holds on its Own

We take a undoubtedly cliche ride with the Major as she discovers how she came to be, and it all clicks together wonderfully and feels unique because of how huge the title is, what it means to others, and the sheer number of comparisons that can be drawn between this seemingly shallow film and its deep, thought-provoking origination. Everybody’s experience with it will be different, and that notion makes it not only thrilling to watch, but exciting to talk about.

So the film DOES in fact deliver a fresh outlook on an already well-refined series, standing out from its manga, anime, and even video game counterparts by re-imagining the Major’s previous identity, something that purposefully remained ambiguous throughout the franchise. It was a bold, completely unnecessary “prequel” adventure, but now that it’s over, I can’t help but welcome it openly with an applause. GitS is all about varying interpretations, proven true by Motoko’s complexity in 1995 and the franchise itself, which has had several makeovers. The idea of re-envisioning shouldn’t feel new, but everything from its tone, emotional pull, presentation, and core writing should. Speaking of new faces, how does ScarJo hold up as the Major?

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Casting the Characters

Several races and colors collide in the astonishing multicultural world that the franchise is known for. I had no qualms with the casting before I entered the theater, and that hasn’t changed. Johansson is a white female actress playing a traditionally Asian character, but that’s in fact where most of the misunderstandings arise—Motoko Kusanagi embodies no one race, no one color, no one gender, and she probably never will. This was stated by 1995‘s director Mamoru Oshii, and for people to be throwing up their pitchforks in revolt of the supposed “whitewashing” is actually kind of pitiful. The context of the show allows for virtually ANYONE to play the Major, and given Johansson’s overly qualified resume for sci-fi action films, I’d hope people would rescind their bombastic comments.

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TL;DR I thought Johansson was not only appropriate for the role, but her performance was great considering that Rupert was aiming for the more hot-headed, brash, young Major of the Arise series. I prefer this Major to the 1995 one because she arguably feels more relatable.

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But just like she is in her many iterations, the Major is nothing without her Section 9 team, consisting of Chin Han as the very-human Togusa [insert comment about race being appropriate here], Takeshi Kitano as rough and intelligent Chief Aramaki (who actually speaks Japanese since English is hard for him LOL), Pilou Asbæk as the big ol’ softie Batou, and a “surprise” favorite actress of mine: Juliette Binoche as the compassionate Dr. Ouelet. To quote Guy Lodge (Variety), “A warm, wistful Binoche, brings more pathos to the role than the script strictly demands.” She makes my heart weak.

There’s a real chemistry to be felt between Dr. Ouelet and the Major, as well as between Major and Batou, and that’s something that they nailed to a tee.

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“We cling to memories as if they define us, but they don’t. What we do is what defines us.” – Dr. Ouelet

The World of the Future

Where its story stumbles a bit, GitS (2017) leaves your jaw dropped with its incredibly “exciting and elaborately designed future settings,” plunging you into a visually entrancing world where cyberpunk is clearly the hottest thing. My GOD, this show is everything when it comes to its unique visual style! They use a clever lighting system that projects the color palette of the original 1995 onto the vast metropolis, giving off a vibe that’s so cold and distant, yet very interconnected with the world at the same time. CG solograms (solid holograms) layered over a typical Hong Kong-like setting give the atmosphere a very futuristic edge to it that I simply crave. You can tell that a lot of love and respect was put into the film.

 

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My favorite part of this film were the iconic shots of 1995 and Innocence that were recreated and woven into the story: the shelling sequence, building jump, deep dive, water fight, geisha attack, tank battle, and more. It’s all there, and yes, the scenes do not feel “thrown in” just for the allusions, but well-placed for the story’s flow. It’s a visual style to be praised, and its action sequences and use of practical effects (not just CG, but actual, physical props like the geisha masks, thermoptic suit, prosthetic and cybernetic enhancements, and other costumes) give us artsy people something really freakin’ cool to grasp onto. The hard work that went into replicating the world of Ghost in the Shell, largely from that of the film-loving folks of New Zealand’s Weta Workshop for prop creation and setting design, was very much appreciated.

 

The Greatest Injustice

Here it is, my biggest beef with the show and it’s NOT EVEN about the film itself. It’s about how it’s being dished out, or rather, that some of it is not. Paramount and Dreamworks refuse to offer Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe’s mind-blowing sci-fi soundtrack for sale. I understand that the movie’s box office reception was somewhat poor, but for crying out loud AT LEAST FINISH what you started. It’s a shame that a work of art, even if it’s controversial, cannot be appreciated in full just because it might not sell. These are million, probably billion, dollar corporations—it’s NOT too much to ask for by any means. There’s currently a petition going around for the soundtrack’s release (which I have signed), so hopefully we’ll see some change this way. If you value this show and artistic justice, please consider signing here!

If you stuck around for the credits, you’d have heard a remixed version of Kenji Kawai’s memorable main theme of the original film, a remix which I honestly prefer, as the drums in the second half give it a really epic feel! Again, love the throwback! All of the music adds to the gritty sci-fi tone.

Not the Last of Its Kind

It’s not very often that a sci-fi film will shift from a typical revenge mission to a cross-examination of cultures, intertwined human connections, and the irrefutable weight of family warmth. That in itself makes Ghost in the Shell (2017), despite its somewhat cliche story line, an incredibly unique experience. I’ve got nitpicks, but I’m more so thankful that I enjoyed the film beyond those glaring issues. It’s plenty entertaining, and if you look deep enough (or watch it three times like I did), you’ll surprisingly find deep, thought-provoking layers in the subtle actions of the actors.

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However much you enjoyed the show, there are bound to be more live action adaptions like it in the future—for me, that’s a hopeful thing, something nice to look forward to. This may not be relevant (not to spoil the ending here), but as a half-white, half-Asian lover of science fiction and the entire Ghost in the Shell franchise, I hustled into the theater prepared with an engaged mind, and left with an unexpectedly touched heart. It’s a show about doing what you feel is right—following your ghost—even if that challenges the world you live in and the people that once trusted you.

Because sometimes, like here, you make the right decision. 

“I mean, the character is living a really unique experience. She is a human brain inside an entirely machinate body. She is very brave to take a risk and give up everything she knows, everything that’s ever made her comfortable to discover the truth, to follow this calling. And at the end of the film really makes a huge sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. That, to me, was what was the major draw.” – Scarlett Johansson on the Major’s character

Final Assessment:

+ It’s A LOT better than I thought it would be for an anime live action; it only gets better the more I sit and think about it

+ Homages to the original material and the rest of the franchise are worked in fantastically

+ Visuals easily rival those of high-dollar action films; cool and damp futuristic atmosphere is established with excellent lighting; stylish designs and neat aesthetic all around; a very immersive world

+ Props, costumes, etc. layered beautifully with limited special effects for maximum potential; practical, physical props engineered perfectly

Ghost in the Shell is all about varying interpretations and new ideas, to which this is no exception; multicultural and multiracial world embraced

+ A fine movie if you ignore all the pointlessly controversial backlash nonsense, and this is coming from a hardcore fan of the original

– Story remains weakest part; revolves around somewhat predictable plot twists; boring antagonist; fails to explore Kuze’s Net and the world that could potentially await

– Major’s “strandy” hair can be a bit bothersome at times

– No official soundtrack release as of yet


Ghost in the Shell (2017) may not be an anime, but I’ll still welcome it here at the cafe as a “Cake,” a film that’s shy of master status but certainly worth watching for GitS or plain-old sci-fi fans in general! Despite it being an unfairly received film, I had the time of my life witnessing my Ghost in the Shell journey come to an end. It’d been a long time since I was that happy to see a film in theaters, and I’ll be coming out with a second post chronicling my loose thoughts on its reception, controversy, and the theater experience, so stay tuned for that!

I’m happy and proud to call this one of my favorite sci-fi live action movies of all time! PLEASE, let me know your thoughts on the film! Also, had you been familiar with parts of the franchise prior to, or did you dive in blind? I may be a bit of an optimist, but I enjoy hearing all sides. If you enjoyed the review, let me know with a “like” or a comment! Until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

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United We Stand in Ghost S.A.C. 2nd GIG| Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 26-episode winter 2004 anime “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd GIG” and its recap 2006 film “Individual Eleven,” produced by Production I.G, directed by Kenji Kamiyama, based on the original manga by Masamune Shirow.

Cafe note: I reviewed the first season right here, so check that out prior to reading this. Many thanks, happy reading~!


Back to the Cybernetic City

With the Laughing Man’s agenda terminated by Motoko Kusanagi and the gang, Section 9 is no longer forced to operate in the shadows. Taking an interest in the way the brutal hunting force operates, Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Kayabuki re-establishes Section 9 as her final attempt to fend off the latest rounds of cyber-terrorism, and find a party whom she could trust her life with. This new deadly collective, “The Individual Eleven,” has led a string of seemingly unrelated terrorist plots and assassinations across the nation.

Just as the Major and Chief Aramaki begin investigating into these gruesome cases, however, the Japanese government faces a forced confrontation by the alarming build-up of foreign refugees who were ousted from their homes during the Third World War, and are now seeking asylum in Japan. Section 9 attempts to juggle both crises, but their constant bumping heads with Kazundo Gouda of Cabinet Intelligence Service leads the Major to suspect he may be even more tangled up in the mess than the “enemy” is, and that perhaps both The Individual Eleven and the refugee crisis are just two parts of one titanic movement.

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The Stand Alone Complex branch of the hit Ghost in the Shell franchise returns to the scene to reaffirm that everything, be it physically or digitally, is interconnected by the pushes and pulls of a techno-dystopian society.

Picking Up Where We Left Off

S.A.C. 2nd GIG wastes no time in welcoming us back to its inner universe. Unlike its predecessor, 2nd GIG features a clearer, more concisely written story. It achieves this by appropriately placing its “stand-alone” episodes within the timeline in less-congested areas of heavy plot action. Sticking to a story written in sequential order, 2nd GIG feels a lot easier to grasp, even if the characters themselves are more “complex” this second time around. I can see why fans acknowledge this series as the superior one not simply because the visuals are upgraded, but the linear way in which the story is told—even if the concept may not rival that of a wizard-class super hacker—seems more straightforward. Either that, or it just took me 26 episodes prior to get used to Kamiyama’s directing.

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Critical characters to not only the series but the franchise as a whole are introduced quickly and efficiently, these namely being Kayabuki, Gouda, and Kuze, the eventual leader of the refugee camp and a mastermind in guerrilla warfare, both on the battlefield and in the net. Watching Kayabuki crumble before but endure the weight of those dirty politicians and back-alley deals emphasizes one trait that defined the Major as such a relatable character for so many: the strength of women, and the power, beauty, and grace that comes with enduring unfavorable outcomes and situations. Ghost in the Shell, like much of entertainment, explores the notion that life is one big power struggle; it’s as unavoidable as the rising moon or the flowing tides.

New, Twisted Faces

Speaking of power, Gouda is clearly not meant to be a likable dude. His *literally* twisted face should be an indicator of his reliability. He’s a competent and sophisticated man, using people and manipulating scenarios like he does with data. Though he’s got several tricks up his sleeves to be used against all of the pawns in the game, including the Major, his sheer level of skill and sneering wit make me MELT with a swelling love for his character. And John Snyder, his English VA absolutely knocked the role outta the park! We honestly need more intelligent rivals like him in anime; he’s a dick, but that’s what makes him so fascinating. Gouda is always one step ahead of the game, and stacking the deck is the only way to secure a trump card in this dirty world.

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The Major’s foil finally manifests in the form of Hideo Kuze, an calm yet equally interesting antihero who holds a similar background. While I cannot mention too much without spoiling, I will say that he’s just as calculating as Motoko and Gouda, and perhaps more skillful and inspirational than both of them on a personal level. He’s quite interesting, so let his words sink in . . . everything he does is for the people . . .

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Aside from the Major’s few moments, those members of Section 9 that did not previously have an episode for their own backstory (Pazu, Saito) receive one now EXCEPT for poor, poor Borma, the fat guy. While the Tachikoma’s return with more amusing exclamations and ideas, Togusa takes takes the back seat for this ride. One of these days we’ll get the backstory details and spotlight that they ALL deserve, but that time is sadly not now.

Improved Presentation Transcend S.A.C.

The two-ish year gap between each series really does reiterate the fact that Production I.G is the king of science fiction anime. Most of the characters receive new outfits and gear, all of which show off their differing personalities. The Major’s transformation from light gray and white to a dark gray and black skintight suit add contrast to the series’ new tone, a perfect match for some of the unsettling truths regarding the Major’s past. Her leather trench coat and obsidian visors complete the look. Besides the returning overly impressive architecture, it’s all the tiny details in character design that make 2nd GIG a fashion show for our models, both the sleek and the grungy alike.

Kanno returns to add that techno-blues/cop show soundtrack from the first season. Many of the tracks were even reused, so it’s not an entirely “new” OST. The epic action music in particular was done better this time. Where she doesn’t stand out in background music Kanno definitely makes up for with the new opening “Rise,” once again sung by the lovely Origa. “Rise” is the epitome of cyber punk trance dubstep, a song that hypes itself up with its intense beat, ascending chord progressions, and deep lyrics. Exhilarating stuff!

Since the characters remain largely underdeveloped in terms of background info, many just watch the show for its intriguing story, to which I point you toward the 3-hour (eek) recap film titled Individual Eleven that hones its focus solely on the core case from beginning to end. It is a recap, however, so all of your favorite one-off episodes are not present, and a lot of cool detours were cut, such as a fatal mission flaw by the Major that made my heart skip a beat. I give the same caution that I dished out last time, though—Individual Eleven features an entirely different English voice cast. While the wonderful Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Crispin Freeman, and now John Snyder should never have been replaced as Motoko, Togusa, and Gouda, respectively, the new cast largely remains serviceable.

United We Stand – The Individual VS Society

Ghost in the Shell S.A.C. 2nd GIG continues as a more light-hearted cop-chase approach to the original 1995 film, and by this I mean that it is less about self-reflection and more geared towards the interactions people share with others. It’s also no laughing matter, either, presenting the sadness of war, and that in the near future warfare is still terrifying and tragic. 2nd GIG resumes its heavy, confusing political drama, but its new emphasis on securing a cyber body through the black market is neatly explored with greater depth, ironically “fleshing” out the world.

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The sequel to the beloved Stand Alone Complex is a successful piece of science fiction and sociological analysis. It’s a series rooted in the effects of technology on people, be it the goods, bads, or really bads. Sharpening its linear storytelling and enhancing its setting and character designs, one really shouldn’t stop at the first season—continue to uncover the fate of Section 9 as the original story intended!

“The refugees have given me countless names. I joined forces with them with the intent to save them. But maybe the real reason I united with them was to keep the loneliness at bay.” – Kuze

Final Assessment:

+ Story told sequentially with with focused, linear direction

+ New character designs are more appealing; Major’s new look

+ Production I.G upped their game again!

+ Both Gouda and Kuze are excellent characters

+ Explores the pillars of social order through a cool story; the war on terror continues

– Section 9 members STILL don’t get the backstory treatment they deserve

– Recap film English dub remains pestering

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GitS S.A.C. 2nd GIG also deserves its “Cake” title (4/5), a must-watch if you’ve already started the first! It does require a great amount of focus and minor understanding of corporate politics, though. Thankfully the action weighs well against the political banter. What did you think of the Individual Eleven story, and did the recap film aid in your understanding as it did mine? Let me know, and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

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Still lookin’ fresh, Batou and Major