The Start of a Long Journey: Yona of the Dawn Manga Volumes 1-3 || First Impressions

First impressions and loose thoughts on volumes 1-3 of Mizuho Kusanagi’s manga series “Yona of the Dawn,” initially published in 2016 by VIZ Media. Spoilers will be present.


A Terrible, Terrible Birthday

I’m no stranger to the beautiful and cruel world of Yona of the Dawn. I followed the anime when it first aired many years ago. Loved it. Since then, I decided to pick up the first NINE volumes of the manga to hopefully quench my thirst for a sequel we’ll probably never get. Wellll, you know how I do these things—the manga sat on my shelf for a good couple years, untouched, and the dust started to collect.

Until now! My rekindled love for manga has motivated me to tackle my shelves before buying new titles, which naturally placed volume one of this long-awaited read in my hands. And guys, what can I say that hasn’t been said already? Yona is a wonderful shoujo fantasy series with a compelling cast of characters living in an interesting Asian-inspired world. BANG. What more could you want?

But in case you know nothing about Yona, the shoujo manga follows the titular Princess Yona, whose bright red hair makes her the crown jewel of the Kohka Kingdom. After her doting father, the king, is murdered in cold blood by her childhood friend and lover, Su-won, Yona flees for her life with her faithful guard Hak. Now, Yona sets out on a journey to reclaim her country with hak, which includes tracking down the four dragon warriors of ancient lore.

Out on the Run

Right off the bat, I think the most striking thing about Yona’s world is the choice to use Korean-inspired names instead of the typical Japanese names. In fact, the series draws more inspiration from Korean culture than it does Japanese, making it an intriguing blend of both cultures. The series carries with it a heavy traditional feel, but also contains a surprising amount of fun and comedic moments despite the tragic start.

Following their flee, Hak seeks out his home village of Fuuga to avoid further pursuit from Su-won’s soldiers. The village’s chief (and Hak’s foster grandfather), Mundeok, is an admirable figure who I’m sure could’ve taken in Yona and raised her very well—but that wouldn’t be much of a story then, would it?

No, instead, Yona puts her foot down and decides to leave the village herself, demanding Hak continue to stay at her side. (The audacity, I know!!) Shortly after, Yona and Hak confront their pursers, and we get the powerful scene where Yona slashes her own hair—which she is adored for—to free herself from Kang Tae-Jun’s captivity. If that’s not symbolic of a woman choosing strength and independence over frailty and vanity, I’m not sure what is. The passing of Yona’s cut lock to Su-won leads him to believing that Yona has truly perished, which deeply hits him, interestingly enough. Like, Su-won isn’t a good guy, but, is he truly bad . . . ?

She with the Crimson Hair

Volume 3 is where we finally start to get a glimpse of the overall plot Yona is about to take up. Now that we’ve become acquainted with Yona’s rare fiery side as well as Hak’s reliability and loyalty on and off the battlefield, we are introduced to Ik-su, a lackadaisical priest who fled the capital when the regime changed years ago, and Yun, a haughty young pretty boy whose talents in cooking, fashion, and herbal remedies will prove incredibly useful on their journey going forward.

Ik-su tells Yona (and the reader) a great deal about the world, the legend of the dragon warriors, and Yona’s role in all of it. He prophesizes the assembly of the four dragon warriors, and how their coming together will awaken the monarch and resurrect the red dragon of dawn. The spirit of the dragons is passed down through four individual bloodlines, each of which still bear fealty to their beloved crimson dragon even to this day.

After a sad parting, we leave behind Ik-su, and Yun joins us in traveling to the White Dragon Village. There, in the land of the wind, we meet the first dragon warrior, a beautiful young man named Gija who possesses the “arm of a dragon,” scales and all. Although Gija bumps heads with Hak, the pain in Gija’s arm makes him realize that joining Yona is his life’s calling—and the destiny that has been passed down his family for generations. Another bittersweet parting between Gija and his grandmother sets us on the long quest to finding the other dragon warriors.

A Fantastic Historical Fiction Drama

Mizuho Kusanagi’s art style is the stuff of legends. Almost flawlessly, she recreates an era in time that dates back to the Three Kingdoms period of Korea. Mind you, it’s all historical fiction, so none of the setting is real, but Kusanagi reimagines this period from architecture and fashion style to customs traditional of this period. It’s such, SUCH, a gorgeous manga.

All of Kusanagi’s characters are beautiful (as one might expect in a shoujo manga), but also brazen and fierce. There’s a fire in Yona’s eyes that is unmatched; in Hak’s, a gaze of strength and familiarity; and in Su-won, a dark, melancholic sadness. Each cover piece alone is a work of art, as the coloring is so pretty and vibrant, much like Yona’s captivating red hair.

So, will I be reading more Yona of the Dawn in the future? Well, duh—I already bought the first nine volumes, or did you already forget? Haha! Seriously though, if I didn’t already have them, I would’ve placed an order immediately following the second volume. Yona has a lot of promise, which comes as little surprise given how highly talked about this series is. I’m excited to embark on this long journey with Yona, and I do hope you’ll be tagging along for the ride.


If it were a person . . . if this were a battlefield . . . I’d need my arrow to fly true. Drawing your bow means taking a life—or letting someone take yours.Yona


Afterword

I could talk on end for how much I love Hak, how much I love Yun, and how endearing of a protagonist I find Yona to be growing into. But, I’ll save that for future manga write-ups. After all, this is only the first three volumes, and there are well over 20 volumes available in English! I do hope you’ll continue with my reading of Yona of the Dawn. What are your thoughts on this highly beloved series? Let me know down in the comments! ‘Till next time!

– Takuto

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

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

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

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

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

kobayashi tooru teeth


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

Bound by Love and Servitude

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

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

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

tooru and kobayashi meet

Coping at Kobayashi’s Place

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

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

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

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

fafnir and takiya

A House Becomes a Home

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

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

tooru kobayashi sleep


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


Afterword

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

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

– Takuto

Sword Art Online: Alicization is Fantastic (But you should still read the books) || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 24-episode fall 2018 anime “Sword Art Online: Alicization,” animated by A-1 Pictures, directed by Manabu Ono, and based on volumes 9-14 of the light novel series by Reki Kawahara.

Kirito in the forest


A New World of Legends & Lore

We know the soul to be a fairly abstract, complex concept—and yet, genius scientists at the private institute Rath have mapped out its innumerous intricacies down to the tiniest electrical signal. The Soul Translator is unlike any full-dive interface that came before it, as it connects users by interacting directly with their Fluctlight, the technological equivalent of the human soul. To perfect their system, they enlist the aid of SAO survivor Kazuto Kirigaya, whose experience in VR worlds is, well, unique to say the least. At Rath, Kazuto works part-time to test the system’s capabilities in the Underworld: the fantastical realm generated by the Soul Translator.

While his confidentiality contract forces any memories created by the machine in the virtual world to be wiped upon returning to the real world, Kazuto vaguely recalls a name—Alice—and looming feelings of frustration.

All looks well for Kazuto’s part-time gig, until one evening while escorting Asuna Yuuki home. A familiar shadow from old Aincrad days mortally wounds Kazuto in a fight, but when Kazuto awakens, he doesn’t find himself in a hospital bed, but beneath the tall trees of a forest. Somehow, he’s been forcefully plunged into the Underworld—and with seemingly no way to escape. With no where else to go, he sets off on a long quest for Central Cathedral, a tower that soars high into the clouds, which might contain the answers he seeks—including the dark secrets holding the fabric of this entire world together.

gigas cedar

Once again, SAO is forcing light novel technological babble down our throats and naming it science. Call Kawahara’s musings with the concept of a physical soul the first major sci-fi plot hole in this newest story, but the series rolls with it anyway. Once you add in the fact that time experienced in the Soul Translator can be sped up by several hundreds or slowed way down, we might as well abandon all sense of realism and embrace fiction—as it should be.

All-in-all, SAO continues to be an engaging action fantasy series with a splash of sci-fi at its core. Unique to this newest story arc (the longest one in the series, might I add), is the central focus on the theme of adventure. You could say that SAO‘s always been an “adventure” series, and I wouldn’t disagree. But Alicization takes a more traditional approach to the genre. In Underworld, there are villagers, craftsmen, and other occupations customary of an old-fashioned fantasy adventure world. There are also magical rituals that the residents of Underworld engage in, spells, if you would, or “System Commands” as a gamer might know them. There’s more world-building in this single half of Alicization than in all of SAO‘s other VRMMO worlds combined—and to think that there’s ten times more to explore in the novels!

stacia window

The Problem with Pacing

To be fair, even the source has this trouble, with one chapter encompassing the span of several years and THREE volumes chronicling a mere 24 hours. As far as I’m concerned, this marks Alicization‘s second half as having one of the longest days in anime history, and one of the greatest battles of attrition ever written. In true fantasy adventure style, resources become scarce the closer our hero(es) get to the tower. Just when you think you have it all figured out, expectations quickly get flipped on their head. Never have I had so much fun with the unpredictability of a narrative than I did while reading/watching Alicization. 

Regardless of how you are consuming Alicization, it goes without saying that the story is full of deep lore, despite the rapid pace to fully appreciate it all. One of my favorite gimmicks from the series was how each Divine Object (AKA weapon) had a story to it, a history that plays a massive role in how to wield it correctly and unlock the blade’s full potential. Discovering how each foe’s blade was constructed (typically through the glorious art of combat) shows the depth of world-building and creativity that Kawahara has invested into this series.

In fact, the warriors we meet along the way (and their loyal weapon of choice) were SO cool that I was expecting lots of thrilling fights . . . which we only kind of got. While SAO continues with the theme of survival and the struggle to live, the fight scenes end so quickly that you’re left with very little fear for our characters’ well-being. After the visual marvel that was Ordinal Scale, I was expecting longer fights, more world-building, and more explanation, and while everything here is a good start, it’s not something I’d turn in for a final project. This story made me want so much from the fight scenes in particular, yet the rapid pace unfortunately leaves little to grapple with.

alice synthesis thirty

In general, there’s a lot of “dangling the carrot” with crucial story elements that the books thoroughly explored but the anime had to cut. Switching gears to something entirely new happens without warning, and this knowledge whiplash can leave viewers unsatisfied. This adaptation, despite totaling 50 episodes by the end, will be missing A Lot. For instance, there’s much more to the origin and purpose of the Gigas Cedar that anime-onlys will never get to understand, and that world-building element is crucial to helping define the personalities of many of these characters (like Eugeo).

Boy with the Flaxen Hair

The characters, OH the characters. I love the Alicization cast. Seeing Kawahara’s stylish knightly character designs come to life with splendidly textured armor and brilliant color palettes is especially a treat. For me, the titular Alice Synthesis Thirty was one that benefited the most from this adaptation. Maybe it was actually hearing her low, authoritative voice (thank you Ai Kayano), but every righteous word she speaks hold incredible weight to her character, and we are blessed that she has some of the best lines in the entire series. She is sure to play a critical role in the show’s second cour, no doubt about it.

Speaking of best lines in the series, I have to give it up to Alicization for giving us one of the coolest villain stories in anime. Administrator’s presence is legitimately chilling and terrifying. She’s a diva of chaos, yet so divine in her destructive ways. The allure of her calculating, piercing, silver eyes draws you in, marking her as manipulative, cruel, and obsessed with vanity and control. In this world, she is absolute authority, perfect stasis, and serves as a thrilling antagonist when pitted against the little mage in the library, Cardinal.

quinella awakening

What makes Alicization so special to many fans (myself included) is the addition of Eugeo, Kirito’s faithful friend that he meets upon waking up in Underworld. He’s the boy with the flaxen hair, and few are as hardworking, kind, dedicated, and endearing as this country kiddo. Eugeo is the softest boy, the bestest boy, and he’ll make you tear up more than once for sure (BLESS his VA Nobunaga Shimazaki).

Watching Kirito’s quirks and mannerisms both clash and rub off on Eugeo during their Swordsman Academy years fills me with so much life. As he grows from humble woodsman to a noble knight protecting the human realm (and beyond), it becomes no contest that although Alice may carry the name of the series, Eugeo holds the heart. I think giving Kirito a companion—a friend—like Eugeo makes him seem more human than anyone else could.

Eugeo and kirito

Kitito’s headspace has always been crucial for understanding why this narrative is compelling, and the anime is notorious for cutting a lot of that out. While Aincrad, Fairy Dance, or Gun Gale weep, Alicization suffers. This entry in the franchise was the one able to prove to me that KIRITO IS A LIKABLE CHARACTER. But once again, the anime doesn’t give enough of his inner dialogue to completely convince you, which is deeply saddening cause, yeah, I like Kirito now.

Kirito’s inner turmoil about whether to save Alice Synthesis Thirty or the Alice Zuberg from Eugeo’s childhood—that which is the hero’s ultimatum—is almost entirely omitted, making the final fight seem significantly less weighty and stressful than it should. Eugeo’s sad struggle to connect with his family is vaguely mentioned, despite it being the anchor holding him back in the beginning arc (and being key manipulation for his actions near the finale). And I haven’t even started on the knights! I’m telling ya, read the books!

village kirito and eugeo

An Ambitious Project

I thought Fate UBW was wild, but wow, the digital effects work for Alicization is just nuts. Absolutely stellar coloring, layering, lighting, textures, special effects—you name it. The fights are exciting and fluidly animated, yet some of the camera angles and visual distortions don’t pay off as well as they may have been intended to. Some combat moments feel stiff or unrealistically warped, detracting from the thrill of battle. Other fights have awkward choreography, but otherwise decent direction from Manabu Ono. A quick shout-out to the background artists, as Alicization is full of beautiful scenery—the scaling of the landscapes is truly awe-inspiring! 

Given its rapid pace, huge ensemble of colorful characters, and reliance on high-energy fight sequences, animating the entirety of the Alicization was an ambitious project on A-1’s part. With a grand 50 episodes spanning across several seasons, it’s almost expected that animation quality will eventually dip in parts. Although most of the shots themselves are beautiful, there is no shortage of impossible midair jumps and lofty sword swings to be found. That said, the opening confrontation with the goblins and the light-show spectacle of Kirito and Eugeo vs. Fanatio boast thrilling, gorgeous animation.

So, it’s a bit of give-and-take, but overall a very solid production minus some awkward fight choreo here and there. (The Blu-ray edits bring drastic improvement the broadcast version, including vibrant lighting and layers of cool new special effects previously unseen!)

kirito vs fanatio

Wherever might the visuals stumble, the music soars. Kajiura makes SAO always worth it. Easily her best work with the series yet, Kajiura continues to create strong themes for these characters. The iconic “Swordland” theme (reprised here as “Sacred Swords”) will never not make my heart fill with overwhelming feelings. Listening to “Gigas Cedar,” “Sometimes she feels lonely,” “Tenderness and Strength,” “Climbing up the wall,” “Quinella,” and “She won’t stand for it” remind me of the chivalry, nobility, and courage of Eugeo, Alice, and all the other knights.

Manabu times these epic theme drops with all the crazy special effects of swords clashing and rippling energy beams to create utterly perfect sound direction. It’s an enchanting soundtrack rich with melancholic piano solos, delicate harp ballads, dramatic orchestral and choral tracks, and inspiring percussive anthems—heck, it wouldn’t be far off to call this one of my favorite OSTs in all of anime. ALSO, LiSA’s “Adamas” is best OP!!

Eugeo vs flame knight

Pulling Everything Together

The larger themes that SAO has been playing with since old Aincrad days finally come to the forefront in Alicization‘s legendary first half: What it means to live in a virtual world. What value virtual life has. The irony of fate. Desire and temptation. The cruelty of love. Obsession and deception. What it means to control. The roles of power and influence. What it means to be the hero. Defying our program to do what we think is right. And whether painful memories that only cause grief are worth keeping. Yes, SAO has always been this deep, and it only gets better.

With mystic foreshadowing, emotional highs and lows, excellent dialogue that is both powerful and poetic—these are the things that I want from not just SAO, but a true fantasy epic; the deeply integrated sci-fi background makes it all the more unique and fascinating. Each development builds on the one that came before, yet in a way that makes everything you previously knew to hold so many different, often construed and conflicting meanings. Again, the use of dramatic irony is highlighted, especially in some of the mid-late developments.

Wrought with dynamic character motives, a tightly written story, music that is equal parts enchanting as it is epic, and loaded with many twists and turns, SAO has never been this intriguing. BUT, it runs at an uncomfortably fast pace, almost too fast to revel in the intrigue of each world-shattering reveal. In the moments where I wanted Alicization to slow down and tell me more, it’d only rush along further.

That doesn’t stop the adaptation from being a highly entertaining watch, however—and one that I’ll continue to recommend for years to come. A tale woven with misfortune and heroism at every bend in the road, few stories have left me as shocked and caught off guard as the one Alicization has told so far. I eagerly await to see how War of Underworld picks up the pieces from this thrilling first act in what is sure to be a brilliant conclusion to this grand fantasy epic in the making.

eugeo and kirito finale


Love isn’t about control. Nor is it something you can gain as a reward or in a transaction. The same way you water flowers, you give it continuously. I’m sure that that’s what love is! — Eugeo


Afterword

Now, even I know that skipping the books of any series to watch the movie will involve leaving much of the original story left behind. But, at the same time, I can’t force it upon a person to read TEN freakin’ books just for this. That said—you won’t regret it, that I 100% guarantee you. You’re probably already so sick of hearing this, but Alicization really is a different beast from its predecessors. So please, consider checking it out if you thought you already might’ve given up on the franchise.

Thanks to Alicization, I came to love these characters and their world, felt new things about characters I thought I already knew everything about, and fell in love with a story. Since I have read the novels, my review is a bit biased, I realize. However, I’m still going to give Sword Art Online: Alicization the “Cafe Mocha” rating, sealing it as one of the most entertaining anime I’ve ever watched (and one of my favorite stories ever told)!

I know opinions are pretty well divided by this point, and that’s understandable. But, to those who enjoyed this first half of the Alicization story, what did you like most about it and why? Who’s sticking around for the second half of War of Underworld? I’m such a big SAO geek, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the series, positive or negative, in the comments! Who knew I could ramble on about this series for so long? Thanks so much for reading, and until next time everyone!

– Takuto, your host

Weathering With You – Taking a Chance on Love || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 2019 anime original film “Weathering With You” or “Tenki no Ko,” animated by CoMix Wave Films, and directed by Makoto Shinkai.

hodaka in the rain


Fate Brews a Storm

The rain hasn’t let up on Tokyo for weeks, and it doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon. It’s an unusually long rainy season, and the endless showers have started to dampen the lives of those residing in the city, including runaway high school student Hodaka Morishima. He has no money or place to stay in Tokyo right now, but fate delivers him to a writing gig at a small-time journaling outlet helmed by the unkempt and scruffy Keisuke Suga. While he may not be living the Tokyo dream, Suga’s beautiful assistant Natsuki makes the crammed office feel like home.

Also struggling under the dreary Tokyo skies is the orphaned Hina Amano, who is doing all she can to find work to financially support herself and her younger brother Nagi. When Hodaka recognizes Hina as the girl who offered him free food during his first days in the city, he attempts to rescue her from shady men in suits. In their fleeting escape, Hodaka discovers Hina’s bizarre power to call out the sun whenever she prays for it. Seeing potential in Hina’s supernatural gift, Hodaka helps Hina become a “sunshine girl”—someone who can part the clouds for people when they need it the most.

Under thunderous skies and pounding rain, fate intertwines two young lives as they are forced to dig deep within themselves to try to find their own purpose in life. But while the miraculous sunshine girl is able to bring smiles to those she helps, all gifts come with a price—and what is graciously given by the elements can just as easily be taken back.

the morning sun

Visionary director Makoto Shinkai is back with another beautiful fantasy romance film that perfectly balances the daily trivialities of a slice-of-life drama with the more sincere and heartfelt emotions that we all know human relationships bring to the table. While the plot is simple in the grand scheme of things, parts of the middle (and especially the road to the end) feel somewhat disjointed. Whereas Shinkai’s other films typically feature a shocking twist that unexpectedly plays on one’s expectations (yet still directly ties to the punchline), I felt like I was just watching a sitcom of these characters’ lives with no real end goal in mind.

That’s not such a bad thing, however, as it allowed me to connect with these characters more than I have with any other Shinkai film cast, especially some of the secondary characters. And yes, while somewhat divisive, the film’s plot twists will shake up your viewing experience. Although the film lacks some of the logical build-up necessary to pull off a truly astonishing finale, emotions still run high in this story about throwing caution to the wind and taking a chance on love.

sunshine prayer

Shinkai’s Most Personable Cast

I said this about Your Name., but it would seem that with every film he makes, Shinkai gets better and better about attaching more than just spontaneous feelings and circumstantial likeness to his characters. Whether watching these Hodaka, Hina, and Nagi channeling the sun’s energy for money or following Hodaka and Natsuki as they chase down urban legend sightings, I only think, “Wow, what an incredible waste of time.” Yet, on the other hand . . .

It looks like they’re having so much fun.

When I mention above that I felt like I was watching a comedic sitcom for the earlier half of the film, I mean that I could watch these kids running around Tokyo with the wind against their backs for an entire series. Through hard work and happenstance, Hodaka quickly realizes that living the “best Tokyo life” doesn’t come from how you spend it—it’s who you decide to spend it with that makes it fulfilling. And I think we lucked out with just the kind of cast you’d want to spend part of your life with.

nagi hina hodaka

Hodaka and Hina stand for so much more than young love and determination—they represent the adversity faced by youth poverty, the ones the world left behind as it continued to spin round and round. As the rain only continues to pound on poor Hodaka’s shoulders, I can’t stress enough how central this theme is to the film. The resilience he develops thanks to his newfound Tokyo friends allows him to transform into an admirable character who can make one of the toughest decisions imaginable. Even if the whole world was against him, Hodaka draws from his own experiences and judgments to challenge the very heavens above him, and I think that’s a fantastic message for today’s youth who are growing up in a world where the deck seems stacked no matter where we go.

Having Hina, Nagi, and Natsuki by his side are just about the best companions Hodaka can ask for. Hina’s hardworking spirit and natural optimism show Hodaka that people his own age also going through dark times can not only survive but blossom on their own. Nagi’s charm and whimsy reveal a hidden wisdom as he is able to support his sister in a way that few others could. Natsuki may seem like your token “hot biker chick,” but really, she’s trying just as hard as anyone else to pull her life together and find her own path in this giant metropolis. And Mr. Suga may be the sketchiest side protagonist I’ve ever seen, but even he’s got ones he wants to protect from life’s downpour of troubles. As always with Shinkai, friends and family are just as essential to life as love itself, and that sentiment echoes in this fun, endearing cast.

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“I Can’t Believe it Got Prettier”

Those were my immediate thoughts when watching the opening sequence alone. Sprawling cityscapes, dazzling lighting, majestic skies of clouds, and painstakingly delicate attention to detail make this CoMix Wave Films’ prettiest production to date. If you can’t vibe with the story or characters for whatever reason, you can always rely on the visuals in a Shinkai movie to be nothing short of stellar. I know he preaches about expanding past the achievements of Miyazaki and Ghibli, but honestly, I’ve always preferred Shinkai’s aesthetic when it comes to portraying reality in fiction. And he’s only. Gotten. Better.

I haven’t even praised the RIDICULOUS level of beauty the rain is animated in, cause WOW, that’s where the money’s at. I can’t even begin to imagine the sheer amount of effort and work the staff poured into making every single drop sparkle and shine as it would in real life—no, calling what I saw would only disgrace such beauty. This looks BETTER than real rain, as does everything else in Shinkai’s astonishing vision of Tokyo on a rainy day. For any architecture junkies out there (like myself), you’ll also be pleased to find a copious amount of cinematic cityscape shots and wide panoramic skies.

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A New Soundtrack to Love

Japanese rock group Radwimps is back to produce the soundtrack for Weathering With You, and man, these guys never miss a beat. The OST ranges from mystical harp expressions to touching piano themes, mixed in with some silly or suspenseful tracks to balance out the film. It’s crazy how well the music fits with the emotional roller coaster of the story! Truly, from the thunderous beat of the rain to the climactic drop of Radwimps’ own vocal tracks, this is outstanding sound direction.

Speaking of those vocal tracks, we are blessed with five new Radwimps songs to enjoy on endless repeat. “Voice of Wind” opens with loud, uplifting, and freeing country vibes. “Celebration” (feat. Toko Miura) serves as a wonderful transition to showcase Hodaka’s exciting adventures in Tokyo. Toko Miura comes back for “Grand Escape,” the trailer piece that guarantees to break hearts during the exciting free-falling finale with its chorus of chanting. “We’ll Be Alright” rounds out the film on a high note, if not a bittersweet ballad. And lastly, “Is There Still Anything That Love Can Do?” doubles as the catchy, emotionally stirring main theme and the film’s feature credit song. Seeing as how the music may have inspired much of the story itself, it’s no wonder that Radwimps leads the film with fervor and a hearty sense of lyrical direction.

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No More Regrets

Known for portraying the messiness and longing often felt between two people, Weathering With You continues to deliver messages of young love, purpose, and connection that are iconic to Shinkai’s style while also appealing to larger issues than simply romance and recklessness in youth. These include impoverishment, climate change, the impact of weather in our daily lives, and the challenges thrust upon youth on by previous generations. But unlike Your Name.‘s focus on regret for missed opportunities, Weathering With You emphasizes the power of taking action for yourself, even if it’s not what others may want. In a world rocked by rapidly changing climate, it’s up to the young to decide where we go from here.

As he has always done, Shinkai portrays his lessons on regret in relationships through his breathtaking works, and Weathering With You is no exception. If anything, Weathering With You offers more than most of his other films can compete with—including the masterpiece Your Name.—by opening the conversation to how our personal relationships can make waves, affecting other’s relationships and the cascade of lives that follow. Our attitudes, our feelings, and our actions are irrevocably connected, much like the ripples of a raindrop splashing on a puddle—or the radiant warmth of the sun that shines when the clouds finally part after a long day’s rain. 

Even in disaster, Makoto Shinkai’s direction, visual aesthetic, and willingness to jump off the deep end make this film a breathtaking experience from its humble beginning to its unpredictable ending. Weathering With You was nothing like I expected it’d be, but I am so, so glad that it exists.

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I want you more than any blue sky. — Hodaka Morishima


Afterword

This is a film every anime fan should see—it’s already established that much for itself. Regardless of whether you prefer Your Name. to this or vice versa, the fact remains that Shinkai is a visionary director who helms a team of artists and animators that deserve to be seen on the big screen. WATCH THIS MOVIE if you can, and if it’s not showing near you, I implore you to consider booking a day off for a road-trip. As someone who looks up to Makoto Shinkai and his work for creative inspiration in my own life, it’s no surprise that 2019’s Weathering With You is certified a “Cafe Mocha” film, a rating only for the best and brightest!

Did you make your way down to the theater to check out Weathering With You? If you did, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the film! What did you like most about it? What did you dislike? I’m all ears, always. ‘Till next time, everyone!

– Takuto, your host

To the Top of the Tower: How Alicization Encodes its Lore || OWLS “Fantasy”

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 tenth monthly topic of 2019, “Fantasy,” I decided to head down a less conventional route for portraying this genre with none other than the (in)famous Sword Art Online. But fear not, for in my most humblest opinion, the Alicization story is not only the franchise’s most competent arc, but most fantasy-heavy one as well.

In the month of October, we will be exploring the world of fantasy in pop culture. The genre of fantasy focuses on telling stories about our external and internal environments. There are many ways we can interpret the word fantasy. For example, we can talk about how a fantastical place could glorify what reality should be, or the dangers of ideal expectations. Fantasy could also be seen as taking a “wild journey” or a “hallucination,” and how that can affect our psyche and well-being. Additionally, fantasy can focus on our personal dreams and expectations, and how those expectations do not align with our reality. Overall, our posts will reflect on how we view the fantasy genre and what we can learn about these pop culture mediums.

Since I’ve got a review of the series coming in a couple days, it’ll be nice to focus exclusively on the cool story elements at play here. SPOILERS will be present. Thanks Lyn and Aria for the prompt!

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A brief discussion of the 24-episode fall 2018 anime “Sword Art Online: Alicization” as well as the original novel series, animated by A-1 Pictures, directed by Manabu Ono, and based on the light novel by Reki Kawahara. MAJOR SPOILERS WILL BE PRESENT. 

How SAO Blends Magic & Science Fiction

Reki Kawahara’s Sword Art Online has amassed into a franchise that sets its stories in a variety of fantasy worlds, but with a caveat: They are gaming worlds, virtual lands created by programming, and code is the law of the land. My favorite aspect of each season is watching how they seamlessly blends the two genres I love most—fantasy and sci-fi—with one another to create some of the coolest adventure stories out there. SAO is cool, yeah, I said it.

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Every magical attack, legendary item, or floor boss is portrayed through a fantasy lens, but can be broken down scientifically by sword skills and hit-points, system stats, and in-game features. SAO, GGO, ALO, and the latest VR world “Underworld” all operate on systems that actively try to rationalize even their most fantastical of elements. Often, yet most especially with this third season, the series isn’t afraid to dive into weapon lore and in-game backstory whenever permissible to explain certain mechanics and unique properties. As such, SAO is a universe structured around duality: the relationship between code (the outside world) and lore (the inside world)

In this community, however, it is rare for people to call parts—let alone entire story arcs—of SAO “good” or even “great” like I do, which kinda sucks as a fan. But the coming of Alicization changed the game, truly, and imparted with us a story of epic proportions unlike anything the series has tackled before. And with the grand War of Underworld on the horizon, there’s no better time than now to sit down and take a look at the inner mechanisms of this latest world our hero finds himself trapped in.

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System Call: Underworld’s Unique Features

As with previous seasons, Kirito is forced into another virtual world due to circumstances far out of his control. What immediately draws his eyes to this virtual reality, unlike others have done before, however, is that “Underworld” looks and feels very real. And it should—it’s based on a network of real human memories, after all. By highlighting the neural pathways of the brain—the “Fluctlight”—and flooding them with visual imagery that stimulates one’s haptic, echoic, and visual senses, a person hooked up to the “Soul Translator” can essentially experience life in an entirely different world, detailed down to the tiniest speck of dirt.

While the mind is in some far off world full of swords and dragons, the physical body remains intact on the outside. You could almost view Kirito’s wild journey through the fantastical unknown as one big hallucination, as every memory made in the game world is erased upon awakening (due to a contractual agreement made between the Rath Scientists and the subject). This allows Kirito’s mind to continue operating and maintain the neural connections that would otherwise be lost due to his fatal encounter at the third season’s beginning.

And so here we are, in this world that looks just like ours on the surface, but operates under an entirely different set of encoded gimmicks and laws. Instead of chemical properties and physics, everything in Underworld has life and experience points. Rocks, trees, food, weapons, and of course people are all bound to a numerical HP. Can’t seem to lift a heavy blade or open a particular door? Perhaps it’s not your own strength at fault, but the fact that such “objects” may be assigned a higher priority number than your own level can currently interact with. And you don’t “make” fires—you “Generate Thermal Elements.” Such cool coding lingo.

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The system gets even more interesting when it comes to the Integrity Knights’ Divine Object-class weapons, one-of-a-kind arms they wield to protect the human realm. Each with their own unique origin, such legendary swords or bows can unleash unimaginable powers beyond their prescribed damage set, especially if the weapon’s memory is triggered via the “Enhance Armament” system command, followed by “Release Recollection.”

For instance, Kirito’s Night Sky Sword, made from the highest branch of the once-infellable Gigas Cedar, can summon all of the darkness amassed through years of gazing at the stars in one incredible blast when its memory is released. Eugeo’s Blue Rose Sword, born from a lonely rose which blossomed in the snow and ice of the End Mountains, freezes all in its user’s path, encasing foes in icy vines and frost.

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For the Integrity Knights, the lore embedded within their Divine Objects runs even deeper due to their creator’s self-assigned calling as Ruler of Underworld. The titular Alice Synthesis Thirty’s golden-petaled Osmanthus Blade was originally the first tree programmed in Underworld, and thus the oldest creation in the land. Fanatio Synthesis Two’s Heaven Piercing Sword was a physics experiment of Administrator’s in which the concentrated the light of a thousand mirrors was forged into a single blade in an attempt to mimmick the great Solus itself.

And get this: the great Bercouli Synthesis One’s Time Piercing Sword was crafted from the needle on the first village’s clock tower—Underworld’s own system clock. I just love the way Kawahara marries gaming mechanics and programming with story lore to form not just creative weapon origin stories, but an entire world full of intrigue and wonder to be fascinated with.

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Cracking open the Central Cathedral

When a story presents you with a tower, you climb it. Whether you’re adventurous or not, that’s just what you do. Kirito seeks out the towering Central Cathedral at the center of the human realm in hopes that somewhere waiting for him on the very top lies a console in which he can log himself out through. While he’s not technically wrong, the costs of getting to the 100th floor far outweigh the prize he seeks.

The very act of ascending Central Cathedral floor by floor feeds us with hope that whatever lies at the top will scratch that itch we’ve had since Kirito first woke up in Underworld. Little did any of us realize how truly unprepared we were for the rich irony awaiting our poor characters, as well as the truth behind the horrific secrets holding the fabric of their world together. 

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As the Pontifex of the church, Administrator, imparts her devious and wicked plots to Kirito and his friend Eugeo, we finally come to understand that some truths are in fact better not knowing. The holy order that’s been maintaining peace in the realm, the legend of the three goddesses who blessed the land, the very truth behind the coming cataclysmic invasion by the forces of the Dark Territory—

Of course, it’s all fake. Yup. Fantasy often leaves us spellbound, instilling within us a feeling that something holds deeper meaning than it really does. Perhaps that’s because we want fantasies to entertain us, to dress up the real world, even if the characters may be desperately trying to tear it all down. Like Administrator’s Integrity Knights, which have been brutally brainwashed into fighting on the behalf of some made-up higher power than themselves, we want to believe there is deeper meaning to what we do, and that we’re not just vehicles for someone else’s success or failure.

To trust in that illusion is to fall for deception, and that’s exactly what Administrator did. She deceived people. She built up several lifetimes worth of fraud, lies, and corruption, which are manifested by the imposing, all-seeing tower of Central Cathedral itself. As Kirito remarks toward Administrator, toward Quinella: she’s no god or ruler, but a thief. Quinella preached unconditional love to her followers, but all she really desired was absolute control. So she stole what she wanted from the humans of Underworld, and fabricated layers of mythos to protect her frail ego from the mere thought of losing her power, her authority, and her control over others.

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Imagination Holds the Power to Change Everything

Central Cathedral and the Integrity Knights—“born” to fight for the good of the human realm yet unknowingly bow to Administrator’s whim—represent just how a land of honor, bravery, and magic can glorify these noble concepts: People should be born with the freedom to love and protect as they wish to, not as someone else pleases. Kirito and Eugeo’s quest to right the wrongs of this land’s all-powerful Ruler present the dangers of ideal expectations in the form Quinella’s knights that were led astray by her lust. But most of all, we experience firsthand how human morals can be easily twisted when the right bait is dangled in front of our faces.

The power of using imagination to change the world—or in this case create one—is the philosophy that lies at the core of the fantasy genre. If we can dream it, it shall be, and SAO is no exception to this principle. Fantasies can conjure forth one’s greatest mystical musings about how the world can be, and Quinella took this power in her own hands to create a reality where the world bows to her wishes, not the other way around. When Kirito forces his way to her chambers on the 100th floor, her expectations of the fantasy world she created are called into question.

As a VRMMORPG fanatic, I guess you could say Kirito’s ideas of a truly enjoyable fantasy world overpowered even the Ruler’s imagination of such a world, and thus he manages to slay Administrator in combat, single-handed. By then, it was not a battle of strength, but a clash of two individual wills—and an exchange for the truth that resulted in the shattering of over 300 years worth of painstakingly crafted illusions, and the destruction of a young greedy girl’s entire fantasy.

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The only proof of my existence is the control I exert. That desire is the one thing that motives me and gives me life! These legs of mine are meant only to trample over others. They are not for bending at the knees! — Administrator


Afterword

Lots of foreshadowing there at the end, I know! It’s not THE Quinella post I wanted to write, but it’ll do for now. This post probably made no sense whatsoever to non-SAO fans, and perhaps even to people who watched and even enjoyed Alicization‘s first half. I often ramble in these posts, but man, someone really should’ve cut me off with this one! A full series review of Alicization is in the works, so I’ll save any kind of rating for then. In the meantime, if you, too, liked the first half of this epic third season, I encourage you to share your favorite aspects about the series in the comments!

This concludes my October 29th entry in the OWLS “Fantasy” blog tour. Scott (Mechanical Anime Reviews) went right before me with a much more pleasant post over the light-hearted Flying Witch that you can read right here! Now, look out for Naja (Blerdy Otome) with an excellent post about the portrayal of romance in her favorite otome games tomorrow, October 30th! Thank you so much for reading, and until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host

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

Perfect Blue: Life is Anything But Glamorous || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 80-minute 1997 anime film “Perfect Blue,” animated by Madhouse, directed by Satoshi Kon, script by Sadayuki Murai, and loosely based on the novel “Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis” by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. 

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Fantasy & Reality

Rising star Mima Kirigoe has just announced her retirement from her Japanese idol group to pursue an acting career. While she tries to convince herself that this is what she wants to be doing with her life, others couldn’t be in greater opposition. Namely, her fans, and one deranged creep in particular who begins to stalking her. As the people responsible for her career change are gruesomely murdered one by one, Mima herself starts to teeter on the edge of sanity.

From the genius mind of Satoshi Kon comes the bizarre story of a singer-turned-actor desperately trying to escape from the delusional head space that is causing the lines between fantasy and reality to blur. The film is swamped in Kon’s signature quick-cut directing style, with creative transitions, wacky visual perspectives, and bright colors guiding the eye through this terrifying narrative.

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Kon’s attentiveness to defining the boundaries of fantasy and reality is exemplified in Perfect Blue. Sometimes we are shown Mima acting in a scene, while other times the stage is very much mirroring reality. Figures from Mima’s imagination haunt both her visions of reality and the viewer’s perception of it. You often find yourself asking, is this a dream? Or, perhaps, the nightmare that Mima’s reality has become?

Set at the dawn of the Internet Age, this psychedelic trip puts the viewer on a wild roller-coaster ride through the darker tunnels of human emotion. Paranoia, loneliness, and fear are thoroughly explored in this masterful film that demonstrates what the psychological thriller genre of entertainment can do when a gripping story is met with heart-pumping suspense and a clever directing style that shows you exactly what it wants, when it wants.

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Living in Duality

Perfect Blue begins at the end. That is to say, the end of Mima’s career as a pop idol, and the beginning of her acting career. Despite being a beloved icon on stage, her back stage life is actually a realistic mess. Her apartment is cluttered, and she’s so in-and-out all the time that the cheese she buys at the beginning of the film expires a few scenes later. Mima is, to be frank, just another teenage girl trying to make a living in modern day Japan.

As such, it’s no surprise that Mima’s idol career was suffocating her. Much like a high school memory, sure, she had fun. But maybe it’s time to move on now. She is characterized by a sense of modesty and passion for her work, although she’s perfectly fine with moving on to a new phase of her life. That is, until the industry starts to exploit her talents.

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Without going into spoilers, I merely can offer this small sentiment: We really don’t have any idea of how the industry works, unless we are actively a part of it. In the world of money and fame, it’s not about you want to do, but rather about what other people want you to do. Sure, a girl can give her verbal consent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean she would be comfortable with being used for someone else’s gain. As an actor, you serve the director, and sometimes that can conflict with your own moral values as a person.

As the story goes along, Mima becomes a victim of forced maturation. This includes being thrust into horrific rape scene that, despite knowing it is fake, scars her poor young mind. She is also met with increased anxiety, depression, PTSD, and even a separation of self by means of superstition. This delusional mindset causes negative thoughts to rise, as in so long as someone is Mima, who really cares if Mima is Mima. How the mind repairs itself and subconsciously shields you for self-protection is absolutely incredible, and that underlying theme is what ties every red thread in Perfect Blue together in one complex, disorienting knot.

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Sensation, Perception, & Direction

Madhouse boosts Perfect Blue‘s production value with an unbelievable amount sensory detail work that I can’t even begin to comprehend. Flashing stage lights, rattling AC units, the motor noises of a 90s desktop computer, the gentle hum of a fish tank—it’s almost sensation in excess, which is just what this film needs. Transporting us to modern day Japan, the attention to detail enhances the setting, and makes the story feel all the more real.

Another gift of watching this film is getting to understand the iconography that makes it so famous beyond being just a really good movie. The bath scene where Mima curls up and screams, bubbles rising from the air of her trapped emotions is particularly beautiful. Seeing Mima hold a knife in midair against a flashing digital backdrop of own image embodies the epitome of suspense. And although creepy in context when paired with the scary music, the scene where Mima chases her dancing, skipping pop idol self through a hospital building conjures up true feelings of horror and hysteria.

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Speaking of music, Masahiro Ikumi’s music score for the film adds an eeriness that today’s horror anime just can’t compete with. When we’re not jamming out to light idol music from the 90’s (or listening to it in the elevator . . .), pounding sound board effects, uneasy remixing, and metallic screeching accompany a wailing chorus of uncanny cries. It sounds unpleasant, and it is. But, without Ikumi’s OST, I doubt Mima’s experiences would’ve felt as intense and life-threatening as they were.

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It’s A Maddening, Cruel World

Perfect Blue takes an introspective look at how fantasy can shape reality, and vice versa. In subtle ways, it asks the question that, as creators of some kind of content, what do we owe our consumers? Are we ever miscommunicating with our readers and viewers, and how would we know? Also, if our successes define us to some extend, how long will they cast shadows into our future?

The world is cruel, scary, and unfair. If it can take something from you, it will. And it won’t give anything back. But Perfect Blue also tells us that if any of these thoughts we are having bother us, then it’s all reality because these thoughts still shape how we feel in real life. Even the most seemingly sane people in our lives . . . We have no idea what they may be going through. Life is a performance, a stage, and if we don’t tell people about what’s going on, they might not ever know. 

In that way, Mima’s story is one about winning yourself back. What does it take to feel confident in my words and thoughts, and how can I get to that place—that’s what I got from Perfect Blue.

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A harrowing journey through a young woman’s psyche as she tries to escape from the fever dream that her reality is becoming, Perfect Blue effectively uses deception in anime to play with his viewer’s mind. The perception of reality cannot be trusted, especially as the psychodrama heightens towards the climax. But WOW is it a compelling mystery. You actively want Mima to figure out what’s wrong with her life—you want her to solve the case. And with a sucker punch ending that’ll hit ya right in gut, the whole experience comes to a satisfying conclusion.

Believe it or not, for a story that began with existential worry and cleverly crafted chaos, the ending of Perfect Blue provides an outlook that favors hope, confidence, and independence. And seeing the light of those perfect blue skies completes this wild yet captivating journey through the complexities of the human psyche.

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The truth is that today more than ever, I wanted to have a good time with you. — Mima Kirigoe


Afterword

While I would recommend this film to every fan of anime out there, it IS full of gratuitous sex and violence. So, if either of those are triggering to you, definitely steer clear for a bit. More than just thrilling, suspenseful, and entertaining, Perfect Blue ponders so many ideas, from how the internet will forever change privacy, to the savagery in the entertainment world. A compelling mystery by master storyteller Kon himself, “Cafe Mocha” certified Perfect Blue can truly make you feel genuinely scared for your life (especially if you watch this at midnight by yourself like I did, eep).

I’d love to hear what you think of this classic film down in the comments! Special thanks go to GKIDS for rescuing this long out-of-print title and giving it a lovely Blu-ray remaster—they really are the best! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go binge Love Live! . . . you know, to maintain my own sanity. ‘Till next time!

– 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

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

Izetta: The Fairy Tale That 2016 Slept On | Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 12-episode fall 2016 anime “Izetta: The Last Witch,” animated by Ajia-do Animation Works, directed by Masaya Fujimori, and based on the original story by Hiroyuki Yoshino. 

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Die Letzte Hexe: The Last Witch

Back during the ages of old, a witch with pristine white hair wielded her powerful magic to protect her country of Elystadt, defending its people until her last dying breath. Years later in 1939, militaristic giant Germania invades a neighboring country, plunging Europe into a devastating war. Boasting far superior technological prowess in this industrial era, Germania sets her sights on Elystadt, a significantly weaker alpine country in the way of Germania’s great conquest.

To make matters worse for the tiny country, Germanian soldiers capture their princess, Ortfiné “Finé” Fredericka von Eylstadt, as she is heading to a decisive meeting with Britannia. When trouble aboard the transport plane breaks loose, another piece of precious cargo, Izetta, the last witch alive, escapes. Recognizing Princess Finé from a childhood memory, Izetta transforms a soldier’s rifle into a flying “broomstick” and rescues Finé.

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Now reunited with her princess, Izetta pledges to protect Elystadt from the clutches of Germania—just as the White Witch of legend once did—and with the last surviving witch on their arsenal, Elystadt hopes to turn the tides against the imperialist war titan.

Original projects excite me. There’s nothing more freeing than hearing a studio trying to bring together a story from the their own combined passions, and then seeing the results. Izetta was no exception. While underwhelming in its finale, Izetta provides a magical spin on a historical setting where a world war is fought . . . by a witch.

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What if a World War had a Witch?

Izetta is a bumbling little mess of emotions and crimson hair. She’s kind and overly humble, but often disregards her own well-being for the object of her affection: Princess Finé. Speaking of, our Princess of Elystadt herself is quite the noble woman. Just as Izetta, she’s loyal to her countrymen and responsible to a T. Respect is another quality that runs deep in the Elystadt family’s lineage (or at least the legend has us believe), but trust me when I say that Finé is the genuine article.

The two are a power duo, and many of my favorite scenes don’t revolve around the engaging combat, but rather the quiet nighttime conversations that are exclusive to the pair. Although they act selfishly so as to preserve the others’ safety, Izetta and Finé are undeniably a cool couple bound together by lore and destiny.

Aside from Izetta, Finé, and a young Germanian spy boy named Ricelt, none of the characters’ motives felt resolved, however. If this were an adaptation of a larger work, then I could understand why some details might’ve gotten left out. But Izetta is an original story with an entirely original cast, and to have interesting characters that serve little more purpose than to act as mere decorative pawns is a crime. If one character’s role can be performed by a separate entity and the story pans out the same way, then that’s a sign you should probably rethink your character count.

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Banking on Design: The Art of Izetta

Ajia-do isn’t a studio known for producing the most outstanding works (the most noteworthy to me being Emma: A Victorian Romance‘s second season), but they definitely did Izetta justice. The magical dogfights featuring Izetta flexing her powers are super fun to watch, as she enchants a variety of guns, swords, and missiles to fly by her side and “aid” her. All of the CG armaments gliding around the battlefield are well animated, and the background villages, landscapes, ballrooms, and regal offices are splendidly colored.

Speaking of colors, the character designs are surprisingly detailed and ornate, especially Ortfiné’s. BUNBUN’s light novel-esque character designs mirror the quality of Abec’s works of Sword Art Online fame. The hauntingly gorgeous ED theme “Hikari Aru Basho e” by May’n features the beautiful original artwork in an elegant slideshow fashion. As for the rest of the music, Michiru delivers wonderful militaristic anthems for on and off the battlefield. Overall, the soundtrack supports both the dramatic and the more lax moments of the series fairly well.

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For dub fans, Funimation’s got you covered with another high quality English script. Mallorie Rodak brings a nobility to Princess Finé that is very reminiscent of her lovely work as Space Battleship Yamato‘s Yuki Mori. Derick Snow’s young boy voice for the soldier-spy Ricelt was, wow, perfect, and Jad Saxton’s Sophie makes for a wicked antagonist, even if I dislike the character. I found Skylar McIntosh’s Izetta to be the weakest performance here, but even then I grew to enjoy her natural naivete that fits so well with the role.

The End of Magic and Fantasy

Amidst the hype of the incredible fall 2016 anime season (which included Drifters, Bungou Stray Dogs‘ 2nd Season, Haikyuu!!’s 3rd Season, and the phenomenon that was Yuri!!! On ICE to name a few), Izetta slipped by the radar fairly undetected. Its flashy moniker and simple yet exciting world-wars-meets-magic premise was pretty well received by fans that somehow didn’t have enough that season to chew on, although few stuck around for very long. (Don’t worry Izetta, I made time for you back then.)

After the first stunning and smart six episodes, the promises and high stakes let on by this thrilling first half see a weak follow-up (and even weaker conclusion) come the end of the story. The introduction of a villain, aside from the uninteresting Germanian emperor, in the latter half serves more thematic purpose than anything else. That is to say, the addition of an actual antagonist to directly oppose our titular witch doesn’t make this story of war any more exciting.

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Prior to this reveal, the series was building up to one big narrative conclusion: that war is bad. It’s not novel, but it certainly fits. Seeing as how there are radicals, spies, and heavy losses on both sides of the border, I would’ve been quite satisfied if Izetta had held a more neutral position.

But then they go ahead and say, “Aha, this new villain is TRULY evil,” and any hopes of an appeal to the enemy side are lost in the muddy trenches. Maybe that kind of story works for you, but I just wasn’t a fan of the big baddie because it didn’t feel like the finale Izetta was building up towards. As an original tale, you could’ve gone anywhere . . . and this is what you decided on? At least Izetta looked great soaring high in the sky on that rifle of hers—I’ll certainly miss our little witch and her magic, even if just for that.

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I, for one, am glad we saw the magic. It may not seem like much, but I think the fairy tale of the White Witch who appeared in modern times left something good inside the hearts of people all over the world. — Izetta, the last witch


Afterword

It’s been three years in the making, and it took receiving a physical copy of the Izetta Blu-ray as a gift from my brother to finally make the time for a rewatch and give this series a proper review. Even if I was disappointed with parts of the ending, the final sentiment of leaving magic behind and looking towards the future will always bring a tear to my eyes. More than not, I’m so happy this project became realized by the production team behind it—it’s a noble little piece, and an achievement in my eyes. Izetta: The Last Witch receives the “Coffee” rating, a title that you, eh, might enjoy, but I wouldn’t recommend like crazy.

Were you one of the few who stuck around to see the end of the magic, or did you bail out of the plane halfway like Finé did in episode one? Let me know, because literally no one talks about this series! Really, the show is kinda dumb, but it’s fun popcorn material if you just want to turn your brain off. On another note, I’m in the reviewing mood, so I’m hoping to churn out a few more before the inspiration passes! So, until next time, this has been

– Takuto, your host