Lord El-Melloi II’s Greatest Trick is its Production Value || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 13-episode summer 2019 anime series “Lord El-Melloi II’s Case Files: {Rail Zeppelin} Grace Note,” animated by TROYCA, directed by Makoto Katou, and based on the light novel by Makoto Sanda.

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A Clock Tower Mage

These past ten years have been fairly good to Waver Velvet, considering his major defeat in the Fourth Holy Grail War and the loss of his dear friend and servant, Rider. Faced with the immense guilt of having lived while his former mentor, Kayneth El Melloi, died in the war, Waver takes it upon himself to teach in El Melloi’s place at the esteemed Clock Tower, the center of education for mages. However, to teach as a “Lord” comes with a caveat: obey the orders of Reines, the younger sister of the deceased Kayneth, until she is old enough to rule the House of El Melloi.

Now a pawn to Reines’ whims, Waver, along with his mysterious apprentice Gray, must take on a series of cases assigned by the young blond she-devil and the Mages Association. While Reines certainly has her fair share of secrets, what perplexes our Lord El Melloi II even more is the bizarre magic behind each twisted case he encounters, and how the Clock Tower is always somehow tied to all of it.

The first half of this short series is comprised of anime-original cases, usually concluding by the end of each episode to begin something new the next. They serve as introduction to our characters and give us a glimpse into the world they live in, and while some find them ultimately pointless and poorly written, I thought they were entertaining enough. Sure, the characters could’ve been given more backstory to help define their actions in the present, but at the same time, you’re encouraged to piece together what you have seen of these characters in previous entries to surmise their full character. It’s kind of a crummy tactic though, especially if you haven’t seen Fate/Zero or Fate/Apocrypha (which the series oddly borrows a lot from character-wise).

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Following these episodic cases is the main case, the Rail Zeppelin story adapted straight from the novels. On this elusive train, rare magical items are auctioned off to prominent buyers. During the one trip Lord El Melloi II happens to be invited on, a passenger is murdered, and it’s up to Waver and the other mages, some friendlier than others, to find the killer.

Why This Isn’t A Good Mystery Series

Although a direct spin-off sequel to the classic Fate/Zero, The Case Files of Lord El Melloi II is a supernatural fantasy series that differs from other entries in Type Moon’s Fate franchise in that its main focus revolves around the element of mystery. While the show’s got enough magical fights intertwined with its mysteries to keep it visually entertaining, it admittedly doesn’t try very hard at being a “good” mystery series.

Truly good mystery series leave the art of deduction ultimately up to the viewer; the viewer should be given enough clues to solve the given case, any last-minute twists or secondary shock aside. By inviting the viewer to participate, all clues should be on the table, as well as any prior knowledge necessary to crack the case. Seeing as how mystery is derived from facts and fantasy shows are grounded in magic, it’s no wonder the two genres aren’t often seen together.

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So, El Melloi II violates one of mystery’s greatest hallmarks: stealing the power of deduction from the viewer. No matter how much you ruminate over each case, you can’t solve it. But if we can’t, who can? Well, his name just so happens to be in the title. Leave it to good ol’ Waver—a character who lives and breathes in this universe—to swoop in and teach us the trick behind the magic, all whilst leave us feeling dumb and frustrated about something we couldn’t solve from the start because the series didn’t give us enough information to do so ourselves. At least the Fate cameos are fun. Kind of.

For Fate Fans, By Fate Fans

Y’all are probably only watching this anime for one reason: Waver Velvet. And by watching, you’ll get lots of him, and it’s great. Waver channels his inner “old man” and hardly ever lets up. He yells at kids, likes doing his work in a specific cafe, and naps on his couch when he needs a break from life. But trust me, this is the same old Waver we knew and loved from the Holy Grail War. Even now, he’s chasing Rider’s shadow, and the series does a nice job at following his character arc.

Often we are shown flashbacks of young Waver in his academy days taking on risky stunts with his rich mate Melvin Weins, a frivolous dude who’s got one baaad case of hematemesis (blood vomiting). These flashbacks bridge the past and present, and if more Waver was all you were wanting from this show, you’ll more than get your fill of Fate‘s best boy.

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Reines El Melloi Archisorte steals the show whenever she’s on screen. Reminiscent of Negima‘s Evangeline A.K. McDowell or Gosick‘s Victorique de Blois, this blond-haired, green-eyed, shit-stirring loli puppets poor Waver around with her sharp tongue and crafty wit. She’s lots of fun to watch, and helps fill in more lore to this expansive franchise. Reines also uses magic often in her daily life, whether to set up a bounded field for private communications or use her mystic eyes to see something other mages cannot. The series does a nice job at portraying Reines’ abilities through such casual displays of her family’s power.

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Along with Waver and his watchful mistress are familiar faces from all across Fate. The hyperactive Flatt and honorable Svin, two of my favorite fine British lads briefly recognized from Apocrypha, loyally accompany their teacher and wield their knowledge to help solve the various cases. Or maybe they’re just trying to get closer to Gray, who is kind of this enigma the whole time that . . . well, I still don’t really know who she is (which is terrible writing on their part).

Also joining the class is the studious Caules Yggdmillennia, whom you might recall from Apocrypha as well. Same goes for Kairi, the shades-wearing bounty hunter who fought alongside Saber of Red in The Great Holy Grail War. And my favorite cameo of all, Miss Luviagelita Edelfelt, gets not just one but several episodes to prove her worth (and her wealth) without Rin there to provoke her. I swear, each time I see this woman, I fall for her overwhelming personality and haughtiness more and more. So yeah, for me, the character interactions are EASILY what make the terrible mysteries palatable. That said, it really is a show exclusively for existing Fate fans.

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TROYCA Delivers Style & Kajiura Returns to Fate

Let’s say you’re not having the characters OR the mystery elements, what else can salvage the experience for you? Well for one, the art and detailing for this series is incredible. El Melloi II really does try to take us back to Fate/Zero days with the same dark aesthetic. Drizzly weather covers London in clouds and fog, giving the setting a delicate sense of antiquity and age. Stained, wood-carved furniture, translucent glass tea cups, and intricate gold, emerald, and rose-patterned wallpaper. Decorative mansion rugs, tall arched doorways, shimmering chandeliers, and shiny stainless steel silverware. We’re in London alright.

We’re talking Ufotable levels of beauty here, and the fight scenes are just as cool to watch. Only the character designs feel less like Zero and more of Apocrypha‘s, but even this looser, more expressive style I appreciate. TROYCA really outdid themselves with this one. And would you believe me that we haven’t even gotten to the best part of the production?

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Yuki. Kajiura. Two words, one name, and without her music score, I probably wouldn’t have stuck around. Kajiura brings to El Melloi II the signature charm that all great detectives and spies in fiction have. As iconic as Mission Impossible and Agent 007, now our very own Lord El Melloi II has his own snappy and jazzy theme song, composed by the one and only. The rest of the OST is full of Kajiura’s sweeping strings, powerful chimes, glorious choir vocals, and enchanting melodies that’ll both lull the heart and signal the call to battle.

She even composed an instrumental OP, “starting the case: Rail Zeppelin,” that just screams EPIC when paired with stylish visuals. And while I thought we were done for without Kalafina (RIP), ASCA comes along to sing the ED theme “Hibari” written by Kajiura herself. Guys, you have NO idea how much I’ve been listening to this beautiful song and reflecting on its gentle, wistful lyrics.

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What Did You Expect?

If you’re no stranger to Fate like I am, you’d know that the franchise is notoriously bad at defining rules for the interworkings of its magic system. That’s probably cause there’s A LOT of different kinds of magic performed throughout all of Fate, which is likely a result of so many different minds getting a hold of the story, and thus different viewpoints in how magic should be spun.

In that respect, El Melloi II is no different than all that came before it—and with a poorly explained magic system comes practically no way to solve each of the cases presented in the series UNLESS you are somehow incredibly well-versed in the Nasuverse spellcraft or have read the novels, neither of which being likely.

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The Case Files of Lord El Melloi II is neither as clever nor as pleasant as it could’ve been, but what rare cross-universe character dialogues offers is gold for a Fate fan such as myself. You could also argue against this point, saying that the characters were poorly mixed into a story that doesn’t even need them, but at the end of the day it all comes down to expectation: How much were you expecting from El Melloi II?

Even knowing full well that it was a spin-off (and despite its direct ties to the great Fate/Zero), I still didn’t expect much from this one. I like to think that because I had such low hopes, I was honestly surprised with the quality of this series. It’s not the best mentality to go in with, but it worked for me. And hey, the series looks great sounds fantastic. Considering how awful some other Fate spin-offs have turned out, I’d call Lord El Melloi II a worthy watch for fans that have been craving even the most quaint of returns to Zero.

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Even if the Holy Grail War is over, life continues . . . to the point of absurdity. — Waver Velvet


Afterword

I ended up liking Lord El Melloi II a lot more than most, and hey, maybe it’s cause I was expecting something lame. Or maybe TROYCA and Kajiura saved it for me. Regardless, I award the series (with the benefit of the doubt) as a “Cake,” but will only recommend it to those Fate fans who have seen everything and want everything there is to see. For casual viewers, there’s otherwise not much here for you, especially if you don’t know what parts of the franchise all these different characters hail from. Any thoughts on The Case Files of Lord El Melloi II? I’d love to hear them in the comments. ‘Till the next review, this has been

– Takuto, your host

Typhoon Noruda: A Storm of Emotions || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 30-minute 2015 anime original film “Typhoon Noruda,” animated by Studio Colorido, and directed by Youjirou Arai.

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Thunder in the Distance

On the eve of his middle school culture festival, Azuma has a fight with his best friend Saijou after suddenly deciding to quit their baseball team. Azuma’s reasons are his own, but Saijou just can’t understand why his friend would depart from the sport they’ve been playing together since childhood. Any time for reconciliation is cut short by the shattering of a glass window in their classroom, and the fierce winds of a typhoon rocking their little island.

Right before the rain hits, Azuma notices a girl who, despite wearing their school uniform, doesn’t actually attend their school. Or at least, she shouldn’t. Shrouded in mystery, the girl quickly flees, and the storm rages on. What connects this enigmatic girl to the typhoon that is shaking up their island, and can Azuma and Saijou’s friendship be saved by this tempestuous storm of emotions?

As far as characters go, Azuma and Saijou aren’t the most memorable boys out there, but they tell their story well enough to convey their frustrations with miscommunication and self-esteem. They are charming in their own way, Saijou embodying the “prince” of the class, confident and always willing to lend a hand, and Azuma being a total introvert just wanting to mind his own business and figure out what kind of person he truly wants to be. Dynamic as they are different, they really do mirror the interplay between thunder and lightning, rain and wind—one following the other in this clash of ambitions.

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To save a young girl, two boys must first save themselves. Azuma uses the girl’s dire situation to prove to himself that he can help other people, and Saijou takes Azuma’s abrupt disappearance to reflect on their relationship. I can’t really say anything about the mystery girl without spoiling the entire plot, but I find her mere presence and willingness to lend an ear to a complete stranger to be proof that people are—as they have always been—worthy of redemption.

Soaked in Aesthetic

What immediately draws the viewer to Typhoon Noruda is the animation, no two ways about it.  From the sparkling rain to the leafy trees, busted wooden floorboards, and colorful school festival debris blowing in the wind, the attention to detail in crafting this turbulent environment truly paints the picture of a severe tropical thunderstorm.

The film looks incredible, with fluidly animated and expressive character designs, and the titular storm intensifying in the background. And the ash-colored clouds, how they move with such majesty, as if to shout, “Behold the storm!” Talk about a stunning sight. Down to the last drop, Studio Colorido produces a visual spectacle, and an ode to all us thunderstorm lovers. It’s as if a Makoto Shinkai setting and Mamoru Hosoda characters were married off and bang, Typhoon Noruda. Well, Comix Wave Films was listed in the credits, so it’s no wonder the Shinkai aesthetic feels so present here. 

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For sound, Typhoon Noruda is supported by your standard string orchestral soundtrack, 15 minutes worth of music that follows the characters through to the climax. The real gem here is the credits song, “Arashi no Ato de” or “After the Rain” by Galileo Galilei, which is so good it gets its own official VEVO video, how about that. Seriously though, reminiscent of youthful days and fleeting childhood, this ED theme was how I was introduced to the film—and it’s arguably better than the film itself!

Lastly, John Swasey directs a solid dub, Greg Cote conveying the honesty and extroverted nature Saijou’s rash character, and Adam Gibbs nailing the discomfort and insignificance of Azuma’s naivete. I found myself really relating to Azuma through Gibbs’ performance, as I certainly know what it feels like to be the social outlier in class.

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Rain or Shine, We’ll Make it Through

Just as it sounds, Typhoon Noruda is a school fantasy short film anchored around youth and friendship. Despite only 26 minutes to tell its story, the film does follow a decent progression of exposition, rising action, and climax, never sticking on one plot point for too long. By the end, the conflict between the two boys feels decently resolved, and you’re only left briefly pondering a bit of the fantasy aspect (which I won’t spoil for you). It’s not perfectly convincing by any means, but for a mere half hour, the experience of the storm itself makes the film worth watching.

Simply, Typhoon Noruda is an entertaining, endearing story about insecurities and self-expression. As a small indie project from Studio Colorido, the visual and audio quality of the piece far outshines any looming clouds one may have about the plot and characters. Save this one for a rainy day, and you just might find yourself whisked away by the storm, left only to the freeing pleasure of having watched two relatable teenagers face life head-on—and leave their misgivings with youth behind with no regrets.

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Remember, cherish what you have. — Noruda


Afterword

I remember chatting with Neha over at Biblionyan, saying how I’ve been wanting to watch this film for sooo long, and how I even owned the Blu-ray yet just left it sitting on my shelf! Well, part of me was saving it for a rainy day (literally) to soak in the entire ambiance of stormy afternoons, which I finally got. I talked more about that feeling in my most recent “Cafe Talk,” so be sure to check that out. Anyway, I’m really glad that I enjoyed the “Cake” worthy Typhoon Noruda. It’s not a novel piece by any means, but for 30 minutes of unfiltered thunder and rain, what’s to lose?

I’d love to hear whether or not you enjoyed this recently licensed title by Sentai Filmworks! If you’ve yet to see it, but have been wanting to as I was, I pray for a cloudy day on the forecast just for you! Until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

Amagi Brilliant Park: The Most Fun I’ve Ever Had With KyoAni || OWLS “Believe”

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 eighth monthly topic of 2019, “Believe,” I wanted to spend some time revisiting one of Kyoto Animation’s most fun yet often overlooked titles: the incredible, the amazing Amagi Brilliant Park!

Kyoto Animation. We all have that one anime we enjoyed from Kyoto Animation. Whether it is pain or joy, Kyoto Animation has brought to life stories that can touch our emotions. For the month of August, we will be honoring Kyoto Animation and all it has done for art, storytelling, and popular culture by discussing some of our favorite Kyoto Animation series. We will discuss what we love about these series and what they taught us.

The fire that happened at the studio is indeed a tragedy. We pray for the lives that were lost in this tragedy and the families that are suffering at this time. Fires may be dangerous, but there are flames that burn within us that spark passion, hope, and belief in ourselves.

I think it’s so wonderful that bloggers, YouTubers, and fans in this community have been reacting to this tragedy by sharing what they love most about the studio and its people. Although my words will not likely reach them, I hope our collective sentiment does, even it’s just to say a heartfelt “Thank You.” Lyn, thanks for this prompt!

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A brief discussion of the 13-episode fall 2014 anime “Amagi Brilliant Park,” animated by Kyoto Animation, directed by the late Yasuhiro Takemoto, and based on the light novel series of the same name by Shoji Gatoh.

A Land of Magic and Fun

Seiya Kanie is one good-lookin’ high school dude, and boy does he know it. Of course, this smart yet extremely narcissistic guy would believe that the quiet and beautiful Isuzu Sento has invited him on a date at an amusement park (even if she threatened him at gunpoint to get him there). His expectations are shattered when the bus pulls up to a run-down facility, where Seiya discovers that the titular Amagi Brilliant Park is running itself into the ground.

An employee herself, Sento takes Seiya through various disappointing attractions. Eventually, she brings him to see the owner of the theme park, Princess Latifa Fleuranza, who reveals to Seiya that Amagi is no ordinary amusement park. That very sentiment wins him over when Latifa bestows upon Seiya magical powers of his own. To further prove her point, she tells him that many of the park’s employees hail from her kingdom of Maple Land, and that they are mysterious magical beings who are nourished by animis, or the energy created by people having fun.

Because of his impressive intellect and natural charisma, Sento recruited her classmate not for a date, but to become the park’s new manager. Why so desperate? As per the park’s land-use contract, Amagi has less than three months to meet a quota of 500,000 guests. If they fail, the park will be closed for good, and all of its employees will have to scrounge up jobs—and a living—elsewhere. Entrusted with the hopes and dreams of this far-off enchanted land, Seiya declares he’ll use his many skills to bring Amagi back on its feet within this three-month span, or else watch it crumble to the ground.

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Amagi Brilliant Park is a fun fantasy romp that balances comedy and drama surprisingly well. You come for the stupid gags and lewd humor, but stay for the heartfelt character moments and the blood, sweat, and tears that come with hard work. Although the end wraps up a bit quicker than I’d have liked, this is ultimately just an adaptation of a much larger story.

Meet the Cast of AmaBri!

Seiya Kanie’s time at AmaBri challenges his character in a sort of redemptive way. As he comes to know the quirks of the park and its staff, he realizes that his boundless narcissism won’t help him through all situations. Sometimes he needs to lend a hand; other times, an ear will do just fine. That doesn’t stop him from gazing at his own reflection to remind himself of his dashing good looks.

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Our broad-shouldered, dead-panned Isuzu Sento is our female lead and Seiya’s partner in crime. She means so, so well by her actions, but her history as one of the Princess’ soldiers from their Maple Land days has whipped her into a prim and proper manager’s secretary that just can’t take a joke. Many of the park staff have a love/hate relationship with Sento, as her soldier instincts lead her hand to her magic rifle to solve any problems with rascally customers or staff. As she watches Seiya and learns from his diplomatic skills, however, Sento’s feared reputation slowly dissipates, as does that expressionless face of hers.

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The majority of AmaBri’s other staff are magical misfits from Maple Land, from cute talking sharks, digger moles, and dragons, to an anthropomorphic wrench and . . . a globe? Yeah, they’re a buncha of weirdos for sure. But the true stars of the park are the biggest freaks—and in the most unconventional way. Who knew a perverted cat, a foul-mouthed sheep, and an overly aggressive, umm, Moffle (?) would be Seiya’s biggest headache.

Seriously, Tiramie the flower fairy, Macaron the music fairy, and AmaBri’s sweets fairy mascot Moffle are an absolute HANDFUL, but man are they THE trio of goons. Most of the series’ hilarious moments come from Macaron’s laziness (a true artist must “take time off” if they’re not feeling inspired), or Tiramie’s perverted gawking and awful facial expressions. Overall, such a fun, endearing cast, even if their main purpose is just to put a smile on your face (kinda like . . . a theme park’s staff). 😉

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KyoAni IS the Magic of AmaBri

Animation lies at the core of anime, and like any comedy series, delivery is everything. Timing hilarious visuals with outrageous sounds is the goal with these kinds of shows, and in regards to humor, Amagi Brilliant Park is one of the bests out there. For me, much of Tiramie and Macaron’s slapstick comedy landed so hard I was left laughing hours after the episode ended. Not only do their faces twist in wacky, grotesque expressions, but the dialogue itself is absolutely hysterical.

Seriously, the dub script is GOLD, and the delivery by the actors has gut-busting potential. Can Adam Gibbs just voice every KyoAni male protagonist from now on, because he just has that perfect blend of charisma, charm, and awkwardness down pat. He can be goofy, but also attractive, which fits very well with Seiya’s personality. Molly Searcy’s Sento is much stiffer than what even the writing makes her out to be, but it grew on me throughout the series. Other fave performances included the dynamic duo of Tiffany Grant and Allison Keith as Moffle and Macaron, respectively. Hearing two of Eva‘s most iconic characters as giant stuffed cussing mascots was just awesome beyond words.

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Despite how perfect I thought the anime’s comedy skits were executed, I actually found the drama moments to land even better. Moments of bitter pain or sudden realization are captured perfectly by not only the characters’ facial expressions, but the space they inhabit. When Sento and Seiya were deeply pondering how much one meant to the other, deep blue shadows are cast over a blinding orange sunset, filling the screen with contrasting colors and conflicting emotions.

And of course, the all scenery is just beautiful to take in. The bright-colored landscapes work well with the cheery, cartoonish character designs. Plus, Seiya and Sento, as well as the other “human” characters, look very pretty—the KyoAni standard. In fact, had any other studio adapted AmaBri‘s story, I can bet you money that it wouldn’t have turned out as nearly as magical and fun as it did here with KyoAni.

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On the audio side of things, Shinkichi Mitsumune’s soundtrack supports all the laughs and the feels with incredible emotion. And if there’s a song more positive and upbeat than AKINO and bless4’s OP “Extra Magic Hour,” I haven’t heard it yet!

The humor hits home, and the drama is very much respected by the late Yasuhiro Takemoto’s sensitive directing style. Sure the story and characters were written long before the show was created, but Kyoto Animation, YOU were the ones who put the real magic into this series, and it shows with every laugh I gave and every tear I shed while watching. You are the magic that saved AmaBri, and I honestly can’t celebrate my enjoyment with this series enough!

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Dreams Only Come True if You Believe

Amagi Brilliant Park is a story about a boy who prides himself above others, thinking that he is good at everything, and that same boy’s struggle to help those that don’t believe in themselves become proud of their own abilities. It’s a story about give and take, hard work, and at the end of the day, finding the fun in what you do for a living. Seiya may manipulate and play on the staff’s whims and emotions throughout the series, but a strong sense of trust always lies at the core of his plans.

Seiya’s magic doesn’t stem from his newfound power—it comes directly from his belief in the resilience and strength of all the people of Maple Land. Seiya makes an investment in these people, pouring all his time and energy into transforming the workers of AmaBri into employees worthy of their gifts.

Seiya draws out the inner passion for their work, and with a little faith, is rewarded with the park’s continual success. It is a belief driven by transformation and grounded by trust. Trust in Seiya’s process, and you, too, will enjoy one of—if not—Kyoto Animation’s most fun creation they’ve ever given us.

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If you wanna make people dream, you’ve gotta start by believing in that dream yourself! — Seiya Kanie


Afterword

At LAST, I’ve written the post about AmaBri that I’ve been wanting to ever since I saw it a couple years back. Again, I’d like to extend my thanks to the lovely Kyoto Animation for giving us the gift of fun all wrapped in a pretty little bow—I hope I was able to do the series justice! Amagi Brilliant Park is one of the studio’s most underrated series, and I hope some of you will decide to watch this hilarious and heartwarming “Cake” title! To those few who have actually seen this gem, you ought to let me know your thoughts!

This concludes my August 10th entry in the OWLS “Believe” blog tour. Mel (Mel in Anime Land) wrote about Free! and Tsurune, two of my favorite series by the studio, that you can enjoy right here! Now, look out for Scott (Mechanical Anime Reviews) also with a post on Tsurune (ahh, all the love!) tomorrow, August 11th! Thank you so much for reading, and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

Kono Oto Tomare! – Spring 2019’s Competent, Underrated, Musical Beauty| Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 13-episode spring 2019 anime “Kono Oto Tomare!” or “Sounds of Life,” animated by Platinum Vision, directed by Mizuno Ryouma, and based on Amyuu Sakura’s manga of the same name.

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An Unexpected New Member

Underclassman Takezou Kurata had a blast last year playing the koto, a traditional Japanese string instrument, with the rest of his club mates. But now that his seniors have since graduated, Takezou will have to seek out new members to join the koto club, or else risk disbandment. Prepared for the worst, Takezou gives in to his club’s fate, when out of the blue a new member barges through the club room door. This would be a great turn of events for Takezou, if only this new member, Chika Kudou, weren’t one of his school’s most notorious bullies!

Things get even more wild for this music nerd introvert when Satowa Houzuki, a well-renowned koto player in her own right, decides to join Takezou’s shabby club. What might a pro like Satowa be doing lurking around his little club? And what could a thug like Chika want with something as culturally feminine and delicate as the koto?

As Takezou simultaneously struggles to keep his club alive and maintain the balance between these two wild souls, he slowly starts to realize that the first step to gaining his own sense of self-confidence is by making friends with people from all walks of life.

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Trying to Fit Together

Kono Oto Tomare!: Sounds of Life is a school music drama series with the spirit of a shounen anime and a dash of budding romance. In many ways, it is also an underdog tale, as we root for Takezou’s dysfunctional club members’ various attempts to perform together. This especially becomes apparent when Chika’s three friends also join the club, determined to play with Chika despite not even knowing what a koto is.

In one corner we’ve got an easily frustrated Satowa trying her hardest to dumb down her wealth of knowledge and teach, and in the other we’ve got these three idiots. To top it all off, Chika’s fiery attitude makes him a pain in the rear to work with, and President Kurata doesn’t know what to do about him. It’s no wonder the club’s barely getting by!

At first, the series is about trying to mash these these conflicting personalities together to even play a single piece from beginning to end, while the last few episodes give us a preview into the world of formal competition and school rivalries. The narrative of Kono Oto Tomare! is tightly written, yet it is able to juggle all these character perspectives quite splendidly. From the talented to the talentless, we see that playing the koto isn’t even a matter of being gifted, but rather of hard work and dedication to the art. The same goes for performing as a group. You can’t just play together—you have to understand one another if you are to properly read the other’s cues, direction, and cadence.

And that’s something I thought the series did really well. We are given well-timed character backgrounds to explain these seemingly irrational behaviors, as well as motives for why they joined the club in the first place. Chika and his friends play because they owe someone else their sound; Satowa plays because she wants to make a name for herself. Even if some of these backstories come off as a bit too melodramatic (like, it feels as if y’all tear up about everything), the story is never lacking in heart.

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The Club’s Key Players

As a character, Takezou still has a long way to go, but certainly progresses quite a ways from his shy inward self to someone who is willing to give orders (as a good club president should). He often undermines his own musical abilities, despite having played for so long and with so many other great players. Humble, perhaps, but insecure? Definitely. The more he plays with Chika and Satowa, however, the more he is forced out of his comfort zone. And for him, that could be a good thing . . .

For Chika, this is a tale of redemption. To atone for the actions of his past, he takes up the koto with not much else than his determination and the koto his dad left behind for him. Arguably, Chika is the lead in this story, as so many of the interactions between characters are often between him and someone else. Despite his charming looks, his nasty reputation comes from his delinquent attitude and history as a rascal. This earned him few to call a true friend, but the ones he has now really are all he need.

Though she may not seem like it, Satowa is also a character wrapped in layers of insecurity and burdened by childhood scars. The prestige and honor that comes with being a member of the Houzuki school—in addition to being the family’s only daughter—led to a life of social pressures and unreasonably high expectations. Wanting nothing more than to leave that life behind and pursue music through her own virtue, Satowa takes this new life as a second chance carve a name for herself. Naturally, the chemistry between someone as talented as Satowa and a “thug” as lowly as Chika is entertaining. But perhaps their meeting is also the beginning of a loving, supportive relationship. Only time will tell.

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In addition to balancing these three leads, the series also features a great cast of supporting characters that are so well-defined on their own that they might as well be leads of this story, too. I’m talking about the scheming and manipulative Hiro Kurusu who practically does a 180 to become one of the series’ most heartwarming characters (and another lady to keep Satowa company). On the con side, there’s Takanami, the club’s really irritating, piece a shit advisor. He may be a necessary evil to draw out Takezou’s confidence, but I’m sure the plot could’ve done that by other means.

And we can’t forget about Chika’s three bumbling friends! They may be idiots, but they’re not just there for comic relief. Kouta, Saneyasu, and Michitaka are honest voices for those unfamiliar with the music world, actively admitting that their fingers hurt when they play too much, that an instrument can be hella expensive, and that standing behind the curtain to go on stage might as well be like walking to one’s own doom.

A show committed to togetherness, friendship, and unity, I really like how the story never forgets about these three goons. While the pros mask their insecurities with their talent, they can tell us exactly what the koto experience feels like. As a character driven piece, it wouldn’t be the same with even just one of these key players missing.

Funimation produces an all-around exceptional dub for this high quality series. English voice actor Alejandro Saab’s Takezou is played with a higher, shakier register, and doubles nicely against Chika’s barreling, rough-and-tough voice. Damon Mills steals the spotlight as Chika, as he not only has the thug voice down pat, but also makes your cheeks blush with his tender tsundere character. Amber Lee Connors follows with an amazingly strong performance as Satowa, and it’s always fun having Josh Grelle (Kouta) and Austin Tindle (Saneyasu) around to make us laugh.

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Visuals to Match the Sounds

A good series about music needs good music to back it up, and Kei Haneoka’s soundtrack blends the traditional beauty of the koto with piano rifts and modern pop sounds. The OST especially works well with some of the series’ more intense moments, but is also pleasantly there to lift everyone to their feet when the comedic scenes hit. All of the koto playing itself sounds professional, almost too good for mere high school students (and beginners at that), but it’s never enough to stick out as “impossible.”

I’m just glad that we got to hear so many solos and uncut playthroughs of, what I’d imagine to be, classical pieces for this ancient instrument. Piercing melodies, spiraling duets, precise rhythms, raw tones—it’s all there, and as a string player myself, I found it all to be incredible.

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As if this series couldn’t get any better, I’m thrilled to report that Kono Oto Tomare! is lovingly supported by bright, watercolor art and gorgeously fluid animation to match the timeless sounds of the koto. Character designs are reminiscent of this soft, glowing shoujo style: sparkling eyes, blushing cheeks, sunburst filters, the works. The koto itself is laden with pretty wood patterns and textures, complete with shiny metal pegs and gleaming strings. Really, I was floored by it all. What a gem of a show!

Special shoutout to Shouta Aoi’s cheery and uplifting OP theme, “Tone,” which features artistic imagery, vibrant pink and blue hues, and of course, well-timed visuals to Aoi’s wholesome voice.

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Practice Like You Perform

In case you couldn’t tell, I really resonated with this series. At long last, we have a music anime with animation that can actually keep up with the technicality required to play string instruments. While I could have gone for even more full, uncensored music scenes, I’m totally happy with the few all-out performances we got. Every time they strike the final chord, you just want to wave your fist triumphantly in the air like, “YEAH, they did it!!”

If I were to describe this series with one word, it’d be competent. Truly, we are blessed to get a string music anime that not only looks this great, but sounds good, too, and has a story that can more than carry itself. With a second season set to air this fall, Kono Oto Tomare! has proven itself worthy of the koto and its timeless beauty. This only goes to show that, when you practice like you perform, you’ll get the results you expect. In the case of this great music anime that perfectly balances comedy and drama, season two is the encore that Takezou, Chika, Satowa, and the others in this persevering koto club deserve!

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The stage is a reward for all the hard work you’ve put in. That’s why you have to enjoy it as much as you can.  — Takezou Kurata


Afterword

As it stands, Kono Oto Tomare!: Sounds of Life is a “Cake” title set for the “Cafe Mocha” gold so long as the sequel is able to pick up everything this amazing first season has done so far and run with it. Given the fact that Platinum Vision has only produced a couple anime in the past and that this is Mizuno Ryouma’s directorial debut, I’m not only impressed but surprised at the quality of this work. To music fans, drama fans, or even lovers of comedy, I honestly can’t recommend this show enough!

Who else followed Kono Oto Tomare! this past spring 2019 season? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the series or this review down in the comments, as well as whether you are interested in starting it if you haven’t yet done so. Until the next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

 

Kino’s Journey: Navigating This Beautiful World | OWLS “Technology”

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 seventh monthly topic of 2019, “Technology,” I decided to go with a slightly less-than-obvious choice, the incredibly profound yet humble Kino’s Journey (2017). Odd pick, right? Just wait, I think I can make it work!

For this month’s topic, we will be discussing how technology impacts our relationships with others and how it improves our lives (such as in communication, education, etc.) by exploring the technology used in various anime and pop culture worlds.

A simple prompt, but an exciting one nonetheless. Thank you Lyn and Aria!

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A brief discussion of the 12-episode fall 2017 anime “Kino’s Journey -the Beautiful World- the Animated Series,” animated by Lerche, directed by Tomohisa Taguchi, and based on the light novel series of the same name by Keiichi Sigsawa.

From Country to Country

Three days, two nights. No more, no less. That is the only rule Kino made for herself before she set out on her talking motorcycle, Hermes. Whenever the 15-year-old feels bogged down by heavy thoughts or unpleasant memories, she travels. For Kino, few things in life can compare to the joy that comes with exploring the wild yet wonderful world around her, as well as understanding the diverse ways in which people live.

But don’t let Kino’s cute, slightly androgynous appearance and courteous demeanor fool you: Kino isn’t afraid to kill if it means protecting herself or Hermes. A diplomat, sure, but a pushover—hardly. If she needs to kill, she won’t hesitate. Otherwise, Kino ekes out a peaceful life of traversing foreign lands with her best friend and loyal partner.

Sprawling cityscapes and vast countrysides, mountain villages and tiny valley towns, grassy prairies and open seas—Kino and Hermes are here for all of it. As these partners in crime encounter new people and learn the rules of their *often quirky* civilizations, they grow to find out more about their own values and virtues. But as Kino immerses herself more deeply in discovering the world around her, she also finds herself facing dangers that linger within the beauty of the great unknown.

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The World is Eccentric

Countries that roam atop the plains using caterpillar tracks, others that float in great ships on the open seas. Countries that reside within enormous walls, and others that are located deep within the earth. Countries of unimaginable size, others so small they might as well be cults. No two countries look nor feel alike, making each stop one full of intrigue and curiosity.

From cryptic laws to hysterical citizens, the written or mutually understood way of life for a country is almost always shrouded in mystery. Either for its dark history or doomed future, these eccentric countries operate with irrational decisions, or a mindset that is far too rational to make any practical sense. Some countries are understandable (if not a bit extreme), while many are frustrating and deeply flawed. Kino’s Journey is a fun watch, don’t get me wrong. But to say it isn’t hella weird at times would be far from the truth.

If things sound too good to be true, it’s because they are. And if the country feels too dystopian, there’s ought to be a silver lining in it somewhere that Kino can find. She wields only her her guns and her wits as she travels, yet on her shoulders is a level head and an open mind that is truly one of a kind. If we were following anyone besides Kino, the journey—and all of its crazy tales—would be drastically different. I suppose that’s why it’s Kino’s Journey, not anyone else’s.

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Every country, just like every man, causes some degree of bother to others merely by existing, yet we all must carry on. — Public Servant from the Bothersome Country


Friendship Comes in Many Forms

Through her splendid little motorrad, Kino explores the beautiful world around here, all its happiness and wickedness alike. Hermes and Kino keep each other company like no one else could for the other. They are not the standard traveler, but exceptions to the rule. Rather than seek fame and fortune, Kino and Hermes yearn for psychological satisfaction. They talk not of grandeur, but of philosophy around the campfire. Seeking what cannot be seen, Kino takes delight in everything the journey has to offer, sorrows and hardships included, and Hermes is a huge part of her willingness to keep exploring. Exactly half of it, in fact.

A loyal, sentient motorcycle, Hermes, allows Kino to deeply connect with the many lands and peoples along her journey without a destination. And this very motorrad is the technology which I’m spotlighting in this post.

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One thing I love about the world of Kino’s Journey is the acceptance of technology used by travelers. Even though it’d be the first point to bring up by you or myself, no one seems to have questions or qualms about the talking motorcycle. Weird, right? Regardless of whether they hail from proud medieval villages or urban metropolises, the people of any given land posses neither curiosity nor despise for Hermes. He just exists along with his traveler, and thus saves Kino from having to continuously explain Hermes’ unusual sentience, which would get quite old within just a couple episodes.

The more I got to thinking, I started to realize that the internet is my Hermes that connects me to all of you. I have seen so many sights, heard so many sounds, and felt so many stories just through the power of the internet. And in the process, I found friends, too, much as Kino did in Hermes. To a traveler, the motorrad is literally a vehicle for communication and connection, and also an unlikely friend.

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How Technology Connects Us

Technology only works if you try to work with it, as we see in Hermes’ relationship with Kino and all the unique, technologically developed civilizations they encounter. Much like people, some countries are outwardly hostile, while others welcome travelers with outstretched arms instead. Regardless of their attitude towards outsiders, each country uses almost radically different forms of technology. From medieval pitchforks and knives, to guns and ammo of the Wild West, and even robots from the far future, technology has found itself embedded in humanity’s existence.

Some people are protected by technology. Others are haunted by it. Some use it to connect with people and society, while others use it to live peaceful, solitary lives. Kino comes across many stories of horror and hope alike, but technology is almost always somehow involved. Above all, what Kino learns from these tales is that people leave technology behind—or worse, are left behind by it.

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The metaphor I’m trying to make is a simple one: Hermes connects Kino to the world just as the internet connects me to all of you colorful people. Even if I come across sadness or heartache through my internet explorations, there’s always positivity and kindness to be found as well. I’ve been able to learn about so many real-world countries, real-world customs and cultures that would’ve been impossible otherwise (or at least not as easily accessible).

Blogging, social networking, and even just browsing the internet in general has transformed me into a person who knows of what the world outside is like, and as a direct result, I’ve learned how to broaden my horizons and accept and appreciate diversity of all things in life. Hermes takes Kino to unimaginable lands and their people, and the internet brings me to all of you.

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A pact is an agreement to help each other out a bit. As long as I handle the balance, keep him fueled, and plot our destination, he’ll give me all the speed I could ask for. And with that, travel gets a lot easier, also more fun. — Kino


A Traveler’s Tale

Kino’s Journey (2017), like its 2003 “predecessor,” employs the time-honored motif of the road trip as a vehicle for self-discovery and universal truth. Deeply meditative, thought-provoking, imaginative, and sometimes disturbing, Kino’s journey is told in an episodic style with an emphasis on atmosphere rather than action or plot, though still present.

Each country has its own customs, some of them strange, some interesting. And just as how every place has a story, every story most certainly has a place. All who travel leave their mark behind, and I’m talking about more than just the tire treads of Hermes’ wheels in the mud.

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Unlike the loud excitement of a road-trip adventure, Kino’s Journey delights in the philosophical banter between two very old, quiet souls. In this wacky and weird world, technology allows Kino and her best friend to expand their knowledge of the world, but also learn a thing or two about one another and themselves along their journey. Their meandering through various lands bring with them their own challenges of how to connect with a place’s people.

A series of vignettes, a collection of stories. Some “tales from the wise” are nice, others less so. But all of them are fascinating in their own way. Human decency, empathy, respect—these are all qualities people from different lands define in different ways. And that is fine.

Often, the problems Kino encounters with Hermes are not with law or culture, but with people. Where there are people, there will always be problems—that much is inevitable. But when we can accept one another’s differences and see the order in the world, the world itself becomes much easier to live in. A bothersome world, sure, but a beautiful one nevertheless.

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I’m not sure if this world is beautiful, but it sure is big. — Hermes


Afterword

I could’ve easily have picked Evangelion given both how central technology is at the story’s core and that I’m almost finished with my rewatch of the series on Netflix. But I didn’t, as that would’ve been too easy, not to mention obvious. I like picking more unique titles for these OWLS tour posts, and I hope I was able to do Kino’s Journey justice. By the way, the series is a “Cake” title here at the cafe!

There’s so much depth to this title, both the old one and the new one, and I hope that, if you’re ever needing a quiet escape journey, you’ll take Hermes for a spin with either the 2003 or 2017 adaptation. The latest remake is beautiful on the outside and adapts previously untouched chapters from the novel, while the early 2000s version uses storytelling methods and imagery that transcend the outdated visuals. My opinion? Watch them both! More Kino is a good thing, after all!

Speaking of beautiful, I didn’t even mention how just draw-droppingly gorgeous Lerche’s visuals are. Along with A Lull in the Sea and the works of Makoto Shinkai, I truly believe that Kino’s Journey (2017) features some of the most colorful, alluring, and enchanting landscapes anime has ever seen! Plus, Kino’s new character design is just fantastic, a charming look fit perfectly for our titular traveler!

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This concludes my July 7th entry in the OWLS “Technology” blog tour. Jack (Animated Observations) went right before me with a post on Psycho-Pass, a textbook pick for this tour and one of my favorite anime that you can read right here. Now, look out for Lyn (Just Something About LynLyn) with a post on one of my favorite films ever, the world famous your name.tomorrow, July 14th! Thank you so much for reading, and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

Sarazanmai & the Price of Connection | OWLS “Vulnerable”

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 2019, “Vulnerable,” I wanted to give some character spotlight to this spring season’s craziest title: Ikuhara’s Sarazanmai. 

In the month of June, we will be discussing what it means to be vulnerable. To some individuals, being vulnerable could be seen as a sign of weakness, but in fact, vulnerability is actually a sign of strength. We will explore what it means to be vulnerable and how certain characters in pop culture glamorize vulnerability. When do we show our vulnerability? How do we express vulnerability? Why should we show vulnerability? These are questions that we will be discussing in our posts featuring characters that show vulnerability and/or sensitivity and what we can learn from them or even our own personal stories.

I was pretty stoked when this month’s theme was announced. “How unusual, yet cool,” I remember thinking. Sarazanmai definitely fits the bill well, and what do you know—it’s even got some queer representation in it, perfect for pride month! Thanks Lyn for the prompt!

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A brief discussion of the original, 11-episode spring 2019 anime “Sarazanmai,” animated by MAPPA and Lapin Track, directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara and Nobuyuki Takeuchi, and written by Ikuhara and Teruko Utsumi. SPOILERS for episodes 1-3 will be present. 

We’re All Connected

What does it mean to connect? Middle school boy and Asakusa local Kazuki Yasaka is trying to figure that out for himself. After accidentally breaking a statue of a kappa, Kazuki and his friends Enta Jinnai and Toi Kuji find themselves transforming into the very creature of Japanese folklore at the behest of Keppi, prince of the Kappa Kingdom. To become human again, they must fight against the kappa-zombies, even stranger beings birthed from human desires and created by Keppi’s enemies: the Otter Empire.

If that weren’t already enough, to kill the kappa-zombies, the trio must perform the “Sarazanmai,” a sound produced only when the three are united. But making such connections are much easier said than done. What’s even worse is that each time they emit the sound, one of their secrets are revealed to the others! (Vulnerable in every sense of the word, am I right??)

For their efforts, Keppi cuts them a deal: Collect the rampant desires of the kappa-zombies and he’ll bestow upon them the “Dishes of Hope,” plates Keppi can create from humanity’s darkness that can make their wishes come true. When Kazuki, Enta, and Toi find that it takes five plates to make even just one wish come true, however, the friendship of these three boys is challenged. With every new fight springs forth another one of their innermost secrets, whether they like it or not! It’s only a matter of time before one of the boys breaks—but will the connections to their loved ones shatter with the fall?

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Sarazanmai is equal parts sarcastic and dramatic in its storytelling. During half of it, you are allowed to laugh at the silliness of it all. Probably for more than half, actually. To obtain the desires of the kappa-zombies, Kazuki and friends must enter the, ehem, *anus* of the demons and steal their shirikodama, a mythical orb said to contain the desires of one’s soul. Sound kinda dumb? Well, don’t blame the writers (or do for going through with it), because that’s actually how the legend of the Kappa goes, believe it or not!

And that’s just the beginning of the absurdity. Wait till we introduce the fortune-telling idol girl, the boy who cross-dresses as said idol, the other boy who shot a yakuza when he was just a wee tot, and the gay cops!! Oh Ikuhara, you’ve really created art with this one!

Joking aside, Sarazanmai is a neat little coming-of-age fantasy story for three poor youths who can’t seem to understand their place in the world. They don’t feel connected to anyone, lost adrift the tumultuous sea of love, and that’s what makes the moments when they realize the true meaning of their bonds so tender. Unconventional in execution, perhaps, but still immensely entertaining to follow.

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So, What is the Sarazanmai?

Is it a song? A dance? Something you can eat? Keppi says that: “Sarazanmai” refers to a connection of mind and soul. You share all your deepest secrets as well.”

So it’s abstract, but still simple to grasp. Humans are connected through their shirikodamas. When they lose them—as when Kappa Kazuki steals it to perform the Sarazanmai with Enta and Toi—they become incapable of connecting with anyone else, and they get kicked out of the circle that makes up the world (also quoted by Keppi). Yeesh, talk about a soul-siphoning ceremony!

By uniting in the Sarazanmai, Keppi can obtain these captured desires. Much like a double-edged sword, however, some of the users’ own desires inadvertently “leak” in the process. We’re talking about these boys’ private diary-grade secrets, which is what I want to talk about next. Trust them on this one: it ain’t easy being green.

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I Want to Connect, But . . . 

Reaching out to others is hard. It can be especially scary if you already think little of yourself. For whatever reason, trust me, we’ve all been there, and so have Kazuki, Enta, and Toi. Because Kazuki’s backstory carries more significance with the latter half, Toi’s with the show’s ending, I’ll be focusing on the Enta, our glasses wearing member of the “Golden Duo” meant to last all time!

Kazuki and Enta have been best friends ever since they met. After watching the other boys kick the soccer ball during practice for several weeks, a young Kazuki finally extends a hand to Enta to join the team. He was invited inside the circle, and granted permission to interact with an all-star like Kazuki. It sounds like a cold way of viewing their initial exchange, but this is how Enta, with all his self-doubts and insecurities, felt towards soccer and this new life.

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But feelings of more than just friendship blossomed for Enta. A closeted gay kid, Enta fell in love with his straight best friend. He felt blessed for having such a friend in his life, but cursed for feeling things that otherwise conflict with both the object of his affection and the status quo.

So like any shy gay boy, Enta hid these unacceptable feelings. He hid it all, months, years—

Until he performed the Sarazanmai. 

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Despite how hard he sheltered his secrets, all finally came bursting at the seams. Enta was left 100% unguarded, vulnerable. The boys saw how Enta inhaled Kazuki’s scent on his jersey in the locker room—how Enta’s expression glowed with lust when he placed his lips on Kazuki’s recorder—how Enta even KISSED Kazuki’s lips while he lie asleep. It was too much, way too embarrassing!! Kazuki was shocked, but blew it off under the assumption that his teammates dared Enta to kiss him. For Enta, however, his feelings were rejected, and not just trivialized, but entirely unacknowledged.

To be looked away by his love crushed him. Enta wanted to connect, but it wasn’t meant to be. Enta wanted to connect, to lie about what he did, but the Sarazanmai only reveals the truth. Enta wanted to connect, but to take more than what he could have. He wanted to connect, but Kazuki was so far away. And at the very end, when Enta stole the dishes for the chance to satisfy his own selfish wish, he couldn’t be forgiven. Lover became stranger, and Enta lost sight of himself.

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Love Yourself, & Cherish the Bonds You Form

I think if Sarazanmai has a bigger message under its themes of connection and expression, it’s this. When his whole life came crashing down on him, Enta first had to learn to be happy with himself if he was to not give up on his wish. Sure, he betrayed his friends, but he never gave up on Kazuki, even if Kazuki hated him for his actions.

We have to learn to be happy with ourselves if we are to form genuine connections with others. That said, we can still dislike parts of ourselves. I don’t think Enta ever wanted to have the feelings that he did for Kazuki, nor did he like feeling like a bystander all the time. But he eventually embraced those parts of himself, and found that all of these aspects—the good and the bad, the black and the white, the lustful and the loving—made up who he was as a person.

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Underneath its wacky, circus-like presentation, Sarazanmai is story about victimization, victimizing, and inadvertently hurting the people you love most to protect yourself. It shows us the price of maintaining connections with others, the deadly costs and the sinful pleasures alike. Each of the boys got to the point where they couldn’t even tell their closest friends about what was going on in their life, and that’s deeply eye-opening. Some connections cause you pain, yet you have to hold on to them.

Full of hidden meanings and rife with cultural symbolism, Sarazanmai delves into messy territory with philosophy on what it means to form genuine connections with others. How much should I give in a relationship? What should I be receiving in return? Is a connection supposed to be completely reciprocal, or . . . is it ok for one party to wind up with more? 

What does it mean to love someone, as opposed to desire something? How can my dreams help others, or why do my desires always hurt someone else? Merely living might be the hardest part, but true human connection and love make it all worthwhile. So long as we try to reach out to others and form connections, we’ll always be vulnerable to attack, physical or emotional.

But more importantly, just by trying, we’ll always have the chance to be happy—and not even a desire-snatching kappa can steal that opportunity away from you.

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Never forget that only those who connect their desires through the pain of loss can take the future in their hands. — Azuma Sara


Afterword

There’s A LOT going on in Sarazanmai, and a lot of good, might I add. This was easily one of the most fun watches I’ve had in a long time, and I hope the series stays on the radar for longer than this spring season. I would’ve loved more time with the characters, but I don’t feel like anything essential was left out. Maybe I’ll revisit it in a future post, but until then, Sarazanmai is honored here at the cafe as a “Cake” title, a show too sweet to miss out on. (Although if you’re not careful, this one might give you a cavity!)

So many people dropped this series, and that saddens me immensely considering that the ending is so rewarding. What did you think of Sarazanmai? Was it too weird for you, or right up your alley? Who was your best boy? I’d love to know in the comments! My love goes out to these precious kappa kids!

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This concludes my June 29th entry in the OWLS “Vulnerable” blog tour. Carla over at Pop Culture Literary gave us a very interesting post about Jen Wang’s comic The Prince and the Dressmaker that you can read right here! Now, look out for Fred (Au Natural) as he rounds out this exciting pride-filled month with his own take on vulnerability on Sunday, June 30th! Thank you so much for reading, and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

I Finally Watched the Old Fruits Basket | Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 26-episode summer 2001 anime “Fruits Basket,” animated by Studio Deen, directed by Akitarou Daichi, and based on the manga of the same name by Natsuki Takaya.

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The Girl with a Big Heart

Despite losing her mother in a car accident and being kicked out of her grandfather’s house due to renovation, 16-year-old Tohru Honda manages to love life like no one else you’ve ever known. Lying to her friends and family that she’s already found a new place to stay (so as to not burden them) Tohru sets up camp *literally* in the woods.

One fateful night after a long shift at work, Tohru returns to her tent only to find it crushed and flattened by a landslide. Desperately digging through the rubble for the last precious picture of her mother, Tohru faints in the mud. Luckily, the prince of her high school, Yuki Sohma, and his author cousin, Shigure Sohma, come to her aid and even invite Tohru to stay with them until her grandfather’s home renovations are finished.

But as life (and the shoujo genre) would have it, a roof over one’s head doesn’t come free, and so Tohru works as a housekeeper at the Sohma house in return for room and board. The Sohma’s aren’t an ordinary family, however: if a Sohma is hugged by someone of the opposite gender, POOF, they temporarily transform into one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac! (Plus, they return to being human without their clothes on.) Toss in Kyo Sohma, the fiery zodiac cat, and you’ve got quite the crazy household.

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While the Sohmas’ secret causes more sticky (and silly) situations than not, this strange phenomenon isn’t all giggles for Tohru and especially the members of her new family. Rather, the curse of the zodiac has caused all of the Sohmas to bear the tremendous weight of their dark family history. Some are more complacent about the situation than others, but none of them are happy with what the curse has brought them.

As Tohru meets more of the family’s members, she continues to see the light casting such great shadows across each of their hearts. But even with her unusually big heart and kind yet resilient nature, is there a limit to the heartache that Tohru can take?

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Welcome to the Sohma Household!

Oh Tohru, where to begin with you! She’s just about the sweetest young lady you’ll ever meet, so determined and steadfast, yet also gentle and supportive. Full of gratitude for her life and warmth to spare, I couldn’t think of a better protagonist for such a story as this. I love Tohru’s character, I really do, and I totally get why you all do, too! But as a dub fan myself, I couldn’t fully appreciate Tohru without giving praise to Laura Bailey for bringing this clumsy yet polite high school girl to life. UGH, I just love listening to old dubs and hearing Laura Bailey as anything, but this, without a doubt, is a hallmark role for a reason.

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Now for mah boys, where are my Prince Yuki fans? Kyo Sohma stans?? Prior to watching, all I knew about Fruba was that all of the male Shomas were supposedly boyfriend material. I get it now. Kyo and Yuki are ICONIC, like fire and ice, cat and mouse (rat), respectively; the Asuka and the Rei of the shoujo world. The smart one perfectly imperfect, the stupid one imperfectly perfect. Although both are unable to open their hearts to “normal” people, these two rivals in arms compete for the affection of Miss Honda without holding back, unbeknownst to their own feelings in the beginning.

And yeah, in case you were wondering, #TeamKyo ALL THE WAY. After voicing Kaworu in Eva 3.33, I never thought I could fanboy over Jerry Jewell this badly. Turns out, I can.

I couldn’t wrap up the Sohmas without mentioning some of my other favorites, however; if Kyo is #bestboy, then Shigure is best man cause DADDY AM I RIGHT. Jokes aside, I really do love the zodiac dog and all his whimsical teasing. John Burgmeier’s Shirgure is just as slippery as his personality should be. Same could be said about Chris Sabat’s overly frilly pompousness for Ayame Sohma, our resident snake, cause wow, just such dream casting.

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Sweetly, Softly, Serenade Me

Ah, here we are, Fruba‘s biggest deal-breaker: the animation. Studio Deen isn’t known for producing the most beautiful works by any means, and it pains me to report that as much as I love the characters, the show kinda looks like ass. To be honest, not many early 2000s anime fair as well as those that came before (and most certainly those we have now), but the inconsistently drawn faces and blocky body structures make Fruba 2001 a pretty bland watch, especially when compared to the 2019 remake (I mean, I would hope so, at least). The chibi art style for the many comedic moments in the series is iconically well-done, however, so I’ll at least give it points for being extra cute and even hilarious at times.

There’s also a problem with the anime-only ending, but I can’t and won’t add more on that simply because I do not know how faithful that ending is to the manga. While it may seem totally out of touch given the fluffier content of the earlier half, perhaps the original story does go that dark, that suddenly, to which I can only really say . . . yikes. Emotional, absolutely, but it still hits hard from waaaay outta left field.

Much of the actual OST for me is a blur, but I loved the reprises and acoustic versions of the OP and ED featured throughout the series’ run. The actual theme songs happened to exist during the days of dubbing the music, so the OP and ED are in English. And I love that too. Hearing Laura Bailey softly signing along to “Chiisana Inori” at the end of each episode was the gift you earned for having to watch the drab animation. But to hear the bittersweet “For Fruits Basket” immediately following as the OP was, well, emotionally draining to say the least. (It really just HITS ya.) Ahh, my heart, what a lovely pair the two make!

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Acceptance Begins with Understanding

From the synopsis alone, I can see why the series has become so iconic to the genre. The scenarios in Fruits Basket are as classic as they get—I can only imagine, if there’s an anime romance trope out there, Fruba‘s got it. Whether the quirkiest or steamiest of situations, however, the series handles the delivery more gently than most. It’s almost as if the series, despite how depressing it can be, is too kind for its own good. And you can bet Tohru is a huge part of why Fruba manages to be simultaneously innocent and full of depth and heart.

The story is richly woven with character dramas and inspiring little tales reminiscent of a child’s bedtime storybook, Tohru serving as both the narrator and the characters’ guiding light. Each of the Sohmas possess an individually distorted view of their dark pasts, and after years of rejection, isolation, oppression, and feeling like an outcast, who could blame them? These are wounds that even time cannot heal—scars that will never fade—and yet, Tohru tries to bandage them up anyway. Through her accepting essence, Tohru allows Kyo, Yuki, and so many others in the family to vent their frustrations, their past errors, and their regrets.

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After what feels like a long, exhausting therapy session, our zodiac friends slowly come to peace with themselves and, at last, feel proud for being who—not what—they are. As someone willing to understand them, Tohru offers to do what no outsider has ever done before and help shoulder their burden, however tremendous the weight, and I couldn’t even begin to fathom how relieving that must feel. “Finally, I can tell someone. FINALLY, I can be me!”

From me to you, don’t sleep on this story as long as I did. With the new season airing, tons of fans around the world are reconnecting with their favorite zodiac friends and passionate OTPs and ships. To miss out on such fun would be tragic. So, whether the old, stale, yet genuine 2001 version or this latest vibrant retelling, watch Fruits Basket. Then you, too, will see what all the ruckus is about in the Sohma household—and why it’s such a heartwarming, endearing little place to stay.

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You never know what will happen tomorrow! If it’s not tomorrow, then maybe the next day. Maybe after a year, or even ten years . . . But even so, as long as you’re alive, things keep happening. As long as you’re alive, wishes keep getting made. — Tohru Honda


Afterword

What more can I say, Fruits Basket is a classic after all. So classic, in fact, that I’m awarding this long-awaited series with the “Cake” title, a series so sweet it’d be a crime to skip out on. That said, I’d only make it a true must for shoujo fans. If romance and cutesy fun stuff ain’t your thing, skip it, or better yet try the 2019 version. At least that one looks pretty (not to say I won’t crush over 2001 Kyo for the next year). There’s so much heart in this series, guys—I GET WHY Y’ALL LOVE IT SO MUCH. And the dub, oh my god, they really milked this one for all its worth. So honestly, truly wonderful.

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Do you have any memories with Fruits Basket 2001? Ooh, what about a favorite zodiac member?? You’re gonna have to let me know in the comments for sure! I’ll forever treasure this past spring, spending my weekends watching this beloved show with my sister. In fact, the remake may be why I decided to watch it now, but my sister’s the one who shared this series with me in the first place! Thanks so much for reading another rambling gush-fest of mine, and until the next post, this has been

– Takuto, your host