K-Project: Supernatural Secrets & Seven Kings || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 13-episode fall 2012 anime “K,” animated by GoHands, directed by Shingo Suzuki, Hiromichi Kanazawa, and Susumu Kudō, and based on the original story by Tatsuki Miyazawa (and GoRA).


Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Yashiro Isana seems to be an ordinary boy—and as far as he knows, he is. When a video of the unassuming white-haired teen maniacally shooting a young man is broadcast all across the net, however, “Shiro” finds himself in the midst of a manhunt. To make matters worse, his predators aren’t your typical PD, but rather various vengeful members of the Seven Clans of Color. Ruled by seven unique Kings, these psychic clans are truly the ones responsible for making Japan the technologically advanced superpower that it is currently is.

Wanted for supposedly killing a Red Clansman, Shiro is hunted by the Red Clan as their King, Mikoto Suou, faces his own grievous trials in Blue Clan captivity. Also out to weigh the justice of Shiro’s crime is the infamous “Black Dog” Kurou Yatogami, a skilled swordsman determined to follow the will of his late master, the Seventh King. As Shiro struggles to prove his own innocence for a murder he doesn’t even recall committing, a strange conspiracy starts to unravel that calls his own existence into question. Far from concrete, perhaps memory is just as fragile as a floating cloud.

yashiro isana

What started as a puzzling murder case spirals out into a war between supernaturally gifted Kings. Although this first series centers on the conflict between the fiery Red and tactical Blue Clans specifically, I have a hunch that later entries in the franchise expand upon this calamitous war of honor, duty, and brotherhood. Season one in itself has quite a high entertainment value on its own, however; if you were to stop here, you’d still be satisfied by these 13 episodes alone.

primarily falls under the action and supernatural genres, but isn’t afraid to sneak in a joke or two here and there. In fact, the entire first half of the series—besides following the whole mystery plot about a boy trying to find evidence for a crime he didn’t commit—shows off the rather ordinary daily lives of Shiro and his classmates. It’s a peaceful beginning to what will eventually be an all-out war in the latter half (and subsequent adaptations). All the tensions gradually build to this superb midway twist, ending with a grand identity reveal and the inevitable, explosive duel between the Red and Blue Kings.

These first seven or so episodes are spent watching Shiro and Kuroh gradually warm up to one another, and the addition of the mischievous shape-shifting cat girl Neko adds a layer of gag comedy that’s surprisingly effective. I’d even go as far as to say the first half is stronger than the second, but that’s just me being picky—the whole narrative is tons of fun. Finding out how Shiro—unbeknownst to even himself—is deeply woven into the lives of all these characters is really cool. If you enjoyed any of the Science Adventure Series or Eden of the East, you’ll likely be entertained by just as much.

red clan

Kings, Clans, and the Cat Girl

I’ll be up front with y’all, I had a lot of fun with this cast. Shiro’s an adorable and innocent little space cadet, yet holds an allure that you just can’t trust entirely . . . Due to his suspiciousness from the get-go, we are treated to an exciting narrative trick: the unreliable narrative. We can’t seem to want to trust Shiro 100%, even if we didn’t see him do anything wrong, and that’s half the battle we have to overcome. Shiro’s dub VA Sam Riegel completely sells the role, even if his voice is a little lower and more hollow-y sounding than you’d expect.

The rest of the cast is also PERFECT. Matt Mercer’s Kuroh is deep, but believably young-sounding for his age. Listening to him recite his Master’s teachings at the most odd yet pinnacle moments was hilarious—same for whenever he yells at Neko. Speaking of, Stephanie Sheh’s Neko is everything you’d want from a cat girl—and without being annoying, it’s great! If Kuroh’s view on Shiro is “Guilty until proven innocent,” Neko is the other way around, representing companionship, warmth, and trust for our protagonist. I could’ve watched this goofy trio dicking around in Shiro’s apartment for hours, their banter balances out so well. But alas, we have a story to tell—and a murder to solve.

kuroh and neko

I also love how the cast is divided into these Clans, which are, of course, colored by their respective attributes. You can expect Red Clan members to be hanging out in alleyways like a gang, roughing up opponents and violently trying to get their way in literally everything, no matter how childish. Blue Clan members are reserved, focused, and assemble formally at their base desks. They act as a vanguard of knights loyal to their King for his authority, whereas Red Clansmen protect one another out of brotherhood and respect for hierarchy through strength and acknowledgment by “the boss.” Color plays a bigger role in than simply dividing the cast up.

On the Blue side, I enjoyed Johnny Yong Bosch’s devilishly deceptive Saruhiko Fushimi and Tara Platt’s sultry yet strong Captain Seri Awashima. For the Reds, Todd Haberkorn’s suave bartender Izumo Kusanagi and Benjamin Diskin’s *holla at ya boy* Yata Misaki were so much fun. Ahh, Yata, DAMN I love this little shit. 

yata skateboard

The Vivid Colors of K

Visually, is just about one of the most unique series out there. Yes, the fight sequence animation is superb, and the character designs are very signature to each role. But what clearly stands out the most is the cool tone filter that overlays the screen 24/7. Some may find it irritating on the eyes, and I wouldn’t disagree—the bright color contrast and over-saturation can feel overwhelming. When your eyes finally adjust to this artistic decision, however, you find that this omnipresent blue-green color tone could only work on a series like K. The series is oozing with style, from the sharp uniforms and hairstyles to the meaning of color itself in the story. has a one-of-a-kind aesthetic, and I am living for it.

Can I talk about the soundtrack for a minute, because wow, Mikio Endo really knew how to deliver the directors’ vision. K‘s OST is comprised of many laid-back jazz and bossa nova-inspired tracks which support the series’ chill atmosphere. Like the visuals, the music is stylish, but it isn’t afraid to pull out a little dubstep during the action sequences or some elegant piano work for the more intimate Clansmen scenes. It’s all great stuff, and angela’s iconic OP aptly titled “KINGS” kicks off each episode with excitement. Meanwhile the ED theme “Tsumetai Heya, Hitori” sung by Neko herself (Mikako Komatsu) nicely provides that dramatic sendoff we need.

blue clan

Power, Revenge, and Redemption

Just as K is this tale of power and revenge, it is also the saga of redemption for vital parties on all sides of a dangerous war. I really appreciate the series’ attempt to fully flesh out the Red and Blue Clans and their collective attitudes and ambitions, as unlike with most stories of good versus evil, no one Clan is truly more virtuous than the other. At the end of the day, each of these characters value their pride, love, and trust for their fellow Clansmen to an equal degree; their respective Kings are just as admirable for upholding the lives of their comrades over the pursuit of power.

This isn’t an all-out war of good and evil—it’s a calculated power struggle between two forces that actually want to understand one another, yet ultimately cannot due to varying ideologies of honor and unity. Rather than fighting for glory, these Kings clash to protect their followers and friends, and I can respect that. Sure, the show feels a little rushed here and there, and there are A LOT of characters. But, this series really is so much more than your average action flick. (And all the pretty men, OOF.)

From its original mystery story and chivalric writing style (with a modern day twist) to its vivid animation and unique lighting design, is a commendable project right from the start. As to where the story goes from here: I can only imagine that as more colorful and daring personalities join the fray, will gradually transform into the great supernatural drama it was destined to be.

shiro neko kuroh


It’s not about a man’s appearance, or even what’s on the inside. My policy is to judge a man by his actions. — Kuroh Yatogami


Afterword

So yeah, I liked just as much as I thought I would! My only qualms would be that the story doesn’t hit “as hard” as it should when I know it’s trying to. Perhaps that’s just on me, but feel free to share what you like most about this series down in the comments! As for the cafe, I’ll gladly welcome as a “Cake” title, one that is too sweet to miss out on. I can’t wait to explore the rest of what this franchise has to offer. I read that there’s a film, a sequel, and a series of movies after that—looks like I know what I’ll be doing these next couple weeks! Thanks for reading, and ’till next time!

– Takuto

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe: A Thrilling Ride Through Space || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the young adult fiction novel “The Loneliest Girl in the Universe,” written by Lauren James, originally published in 2017 by HarperTeen.


Adrift in Space

Carrying with it the hope of humankind, The Infinity continues its noble trek through the blackness of space, despite all but one of its crew having died on board in a horrific accident years ago . . .

Although she bears the title of first child born in space, Romy Silvers only has connection to her therapist on Earth and her wits to occupy her as she drifts alone in deep space aboard The Infinity. But to her surprise, Romy’s mundane life in space suddenly picks up when she finds out that a new NASA ship, The Eternity, has set course to meet her on her long, lonesome journey to a new planet—and sooner than she ever could have anticipated.

While initially eager to unite with another of her kind, cryptic emails from both Earth and J, the friendly pilot of The Eternity, start to trigger anxiety-filled memories of the past and terrifying visions of the future. Perhaps, as she quickly realizes, there are worse things than being alone . . .


The Infinity is the biggest, most expensive scientific mission in history. I get to be the very first person to see the results. I’m so lucky. — Romy


A slow-build yet gripping sci-fi thriller with a sprinkling of romance throughout the journey, the plot of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe begins leisurely by showing us several chapters of Romy’s character and daily routine, but rapidly escalates in the last third of the novel (AKA the big plot twist part). To build this energy up, author Lauren James features a countdown system instead of traditional chapter titles or numbers, most beginning with “365 Days Until The Eternity Arrives,” then “364 Days . . .” and so on. 

The book’s printing is quite large and generously spaced out, making these 300 or so pages seem like they just fly by. It helps that James writes short chapters, most being no more than a couple pages. Like a series of diary entries strung together in one large narrative, we quickly get a feel for who Romy is, and why things like people—not the black abyss of space—scare her most of all. 

Finding Strength in the Darkness

Lemme begin by getting it out there: If you’re wanting a story with strong feminist energy and mental illness rep, this one’s all for you. Romy may only be sixteen years old, but given her scary close relationship with loneliness and anxiety, she’s one hell of a ship commander. I really appreciate the mental illness rep going on here. Romy’s severe anxiety doubles as both something she must learn to accept (or fight) AND a first-person story-telling trick: the unreliable narrator.

Sometimes we have to question whether the sights and sounds Romy experiences in the night are real terrors or nightmares stirred by her anxiety, and Lauren James handles the balance between the real and surreal with incredible deft and care. James has created a feminist character who’s stronger than she knows, and following her journey has me inspired to face some of my own fears with isolation and nihilism.


It’s hard to focus on the future when the past is so distracting. — Romy


One of Romy’s qualities that I absolutely commend is how—despite having the ability to spoil herself—she always puts the needs of The Infinity first. Always. It’s her ship, clearly, and she feels strongly for it just as how any of us would for our own children. When ship efficiency emails start to suggest that Romy observes using less electricity by turning out the lights early or conserve water by taking shorter showers to maintain ship’s water supply, she obliges, even if the message’s sender seems sketchy.

She knows that being the sole commander of The Infinity comes with it the responsibility to maintain the vessel; making necessary sacrifices is just one part of the job. This respect and care for her ship—her home—is no doubt a trait she inherited from her dutiful parents, especially her good-natured father whom Romy was especially close to. As the story unravels, we gradually find out how they met their end, as well as the understand the tragic events that occurred during Romy’s early childhood that led to her being alone.


My life is a gambling chip thrown carelessly across the universe in the hope it’ll land somewhere my descendants can survive. I represent the culmination of centuries of human achievement and exploration. But who cares if my name goes down in history, if no one remembers who I really am? — Romy


Thrilling to the Very End

If you couldn’t already tell, I had a blast getting to know Romy and speculating with James as to what interstellar travel may be like in the near-distant future. I also loved the messages of longing and learning to love yourself, even if that process can be slow, confusing, and often painful. While I had my suspicions about certain plot twists, I was completely thrown off by the exciting change of pace near the finale—what a fantastic ending! It makes me appreciate even more the 150-200 pages of careful build-up that Lauren James so meticulously crafted—and I was already enjoying the adventure since the first page!

For those looking for THE perfect solitude-vibes title during this quarantine we’re all under, I cannot recommend The Loneliest Girl in the Universe enough. Lauren James has laid out a carefully plotted journey beginning as early as the title itself. There’s also a lot of references to pop culture—including YouTube, Netflix, and even fanfiction communities—that help bring Romy and her situation to life.

Just know, though, that this isn’t your typical fluffy long-distance romance plot. Sometimes the story is uplifting and kind, but other times it’s really gonna try and scare ya—don’t underestimate that part. Intelligent, suspenseful, and deliberately cautious, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe is thrilling to the very end—even in its quietest moments.

loneliest girl insta


This voyage was never meant to be easy. It was meant to be important. — Romy


Afterword

Man, what a wonderful, terrifying, and weird little book this was. Special shoutout to Natalie (Book of Bee) over on YouTube for recommending it to her viewers—it was delightful! While not technically an anime or film, I’ll gladly welcome The Loneliest Girl in the Universe here as a certified “Caffe Mocha,” a rating reserved only for the best works! If you read this novel, PLEASE, tell me what you liked or disliked about it in the comments! Also, if you’ve got any recommendations that are similar to this one, be sure to leave those too. ‘Till next time!

– Takuto

Azur Lane: Ships, Sisterhood, & the Warring Seas || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 12-episode fall 2019 anime “Azur Lane,” animated by Bibury Animation Studios, directed by Motoki Tanaka, and based on the popular side-scrolling shoot ’em up mobile game franchise of the same name.

Enterprise and eagle union


War is Bad, PERIODT. 

The “Sirens” came without warning, decimating any ship on the open seas with their overwhelming, technologically advanced arsenal. To combat the alien invaders, a divided humanity rose in complete unity for the first time, forming the Azur Lane. Armed in their alliance, Azur Lane powered through their mutual enemy with revolutionary improvements to modern warfare. However, opposing ideals in future confrontation with the Sirens caused the alliance to split in two: Eagle Union and Royal Navy with Azur Lane, and Sakura Empire and Iron Blood forming the Red Axis. 

Although these nations continue to skirmish with one another on the high seas, schemes of independent parties within the Red Axis working together with Siren technology to dominate the world threaten all of humanity. As one particular soldier comes to terms with her own personality and ambitions, however, the hope for reuniting humankind may be found in some ideals that even war cannot shake: empathy, camaraderie, and sisterhood. 

In an attempt to find duality, the series goes about telling the “war = bad” theme by contrasting the pleasantries of daily life in both Azur Lane and Sakura Empire with the frustrations of conflict on and off the battlefield. (Spoiler alert, fighting ain’t much fun no matter which side you’re on.) I think this speaks volumes about the series’ viewership, though, as my favorite parts were, in fact, the high energy combat scenes. Chalk it up to my obsession with ship fighting in general, but when the girls are geared up for war, the show promises to at least be halfway entertaining. Otherwise, the plot itself is full of generic motivations and reveals on both sides of the tide. 

akagi and kaga

Iron and Steel—But Make it Fashion

While I’m no stranger to cute girls fighting with heavy artillery ALA Strike Witches, Girls und Panzer, and basic knowledge of Kancolle, I am a newbie to the Azur Lane franchise. The series markets itself under the sci-fi action and military genres, but spends far too much time indulging in forced yuri shipping and awkward loli lewding. (I mean, these are anthropomorphic warship girls—you already know the kind of audience they were tailoring this franchise to.)

The fan service is clear and abundant (and not really my thing). But, the core premise of iconic and historical ships clashing in what is at least to say a “unique” fashion is actually quite cool. Thinking back, were it not for the eye-popping and abstract character designs, I might not have stumbled upon this title at all. Seeing how the various ship parts come together to form a semi-feasible battlesuit must’ve required some intense layout and design work—especially for the more elite warships—so props to the character designers on this one. These characters may already originate from the game, but to make these girls move AND not seem overly clunky, man, hats off to ya!

character designs azur lane

As for the characters themselves, this is where Azur Lane starts to sink. I get it that franchise adaptations don’t want to leave a single girl out, but WOW, they really did just try and shove every single major and minor character into this one. And it shows, because aside from the stoic “Grey Ghost” Enterprise herself (given life by Rachael Messer’s powerful performance in the dub) and her few close companions (namely the lovely Lindsay Seidel’s benevolent Belfast, and Jad Saxton’s elegant Illustrious), I couldn’t really tell you a think about any of these girls. The sidelining in this one is so bad that you could practically take out the entire Iron Blood faction and the story would be the same. 

Oh ok, I suppose Amber Lee Connors’ cunning and devilish Akagi is worth an applause, same for Dawn M. Bennett’s strong performance as Akagi’s dear sister, Kaga, and Mallorie Rodak’s low and majestic Prince of Wales. On the other hand, I particularly found ALL of the lolis to be more annoying than cute, save for Tia Ballard’s Laffey and Lara Woodhull’s Ayanami, although that wouldn’t be a fault of any of the voice actors so much as children just being, well, children. As a whole, the dub is quite enjoyable, and the accent work is a nice touch. 

Illustrious

A Strong Soundtrack *Almost* Saves the Day

Where the story tanks into generic territory, the production value of Azur Lane helps keep things interesting. You can clearly tell that a variety of talents handled the animation in this show, cause oh man, when it’s bad it’s so awkward to watch—but when it’s good, it’s badass, and that’s what I want to talk about here. The best fight scenes in Azur Lane are on par with Fate/Apocrypha levels of fluid sakuga. Episode 8 is a standout particularly for both the dramatic tone shift in the story and the serious, high-octane battles that take place on these warring seas. 

On the music side of things, I love battle anthems, and Azur Lane is FULL of them! The OST is the strongest unsung aspect of this adaptation, believe it or not. Lots of epic orchestral tracks cue the opening shots of war, and each of the nations have their own culturally appropriate couple of tracks to accompany their respective atmospheres, Sakura Empire’s Japanese-inspired melodies being my favorites. It’s a shame I couldn’t find credits for the composer on MAL, but I would assume these tracks also come from the mobile game. Lastly, the OP theme “graphite/diamond” is full of great energy, and is unmistakably characteristic of the wonderful May’n!

Enterprise finale

A Game of Hit and Miss

Depending on what you’re coming into this show for, Azur Lane may land hard or miss the mark entirely. I heard that even fans of the game didn’t care much for the anime, but that’s besides the point. However generic the story and cookie-cutter characters feel, there’s a lot of interesting things being done on the production side. Additionally, the themes of family being crazy and soldiers finding purpose in life beyond fighting will always be captivating ones for me. Overall, I found myself engaged with Azur Lane‘s unique character designs and soaring string melodies, so I’d say it was entertaining enough. As for being memorable? Meh, I couldn’t give a ship.

warships


The truth is . . . war never changes. It’s exactly the same, no matter which era it happens upon. — Enterprise


Afterword

I was actually going to skip reviewing this one, but it turns out that I had more to say about Azur Lane than I originally thought. I’m glad to be able to watch and review a show that was sitting on my backlog, even if it didn’t turn out to be “the greatest” series by any means. Heck, calling Azur Lane anything more than serviceable might be overdoing it, but I’m comfortable with giving the series the “Coffee” label, a humble rating for mediocre titles like this one. If you stopped at the docks to give Azur Lane a watch, be sure to let me know what you thought about it down in the comments! It’s nice to be back in the review space once again. I’ve got more in store, so 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.

family

“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.

tenki no ko tokyo

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.

soundtrack

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.

the sunshine girl


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

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.

hibari.PNG

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.

lady in the rain

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

Given: Broken Heartstrings & Unforgettable Sounds || Review

A brief spoiler-free review of the 11-episode summer 2019 anime series “Given,” animated by Lerche, directed by Hikaru Yamaguchi, and based on Natsuki Kizu’s manga of the same name.

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Rocky Starts, Aching Hearts

Between playing basketball at high school and dabbling on the guitar in his small band, Ritsuka Uenoyama has found himself stuck wandering the lonely desert of academic boredom. He dozes off in class, sleeps during break, and only looks forward to jamming out with a couple of upperclassmen college friends in the evening.

One day, he sees a classmate of his, Mafuyu Sato, cradling a broken guitar on a secluded staircase. Although Uenoyama makes nothing of restringing Mafuyu’s red guitar for him, Mafuyu becomes completely attached to the dark-haired musician and insists Uenoyama teach him how to play it. Uenoyama initially shrugs him off, but when he hears Mafuyu singing for the first time, his voice leaves a deep impression on him. He can’t get it out of his head, and eventually finds himself drawn to Mafuyu’s aloof yet mysterious allure.

Given is a single story split among four separate narratives, each with their own unique perceptions of the conflicts presented throughout the series. Equal parts slice of life and drama, the series follows four students in an amateur rock band and the dual romantic relationships that form among them: between shy vocalist Mafuyu and passionate guitarist Uenoyama, and between the caring bassist Haruki and stoic yet silly drummer Akihiko.

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Given is also a BL adaptation, and it doesn’t ever stray from that intent (which I respect). But hear me out. At most, the series presents its shounen ai relationships with genuine care and realism. It’s far less sugarcoated than most BL anime out there, and frankly just a really good romantic drama about curious feelings and the closet. This particular set of 11 episodes tells the story of the band coming together, their complex feelings toward one another, and specifically the growing relationship between Uenoyama and Mafuyu leading up to their first performance. The series never felt rushed, nor does it end too optimistically to be true, which is probably what I appreciated most out of the series—aside for the characters themselves, of course.

Complicated Feelings, Complex Characters

The main focal point of this series is around Uenoyama and Mafuyu’s relationship, which admittedly has a rocky start and is only littered with more misunderstandings as they go along. But somehow, like with most love stories, the two make it work.

From the get-go, Uenoyama is about as relatable as they come. Uncomfortable with relationships (in general), unsure of how to express his feelings, questioning what these sudden emotions of his are and where they come from—the whole confused teen-sexuality shebang. We see jealousy build up in Uenoyama as he unravels Mafuyu’s past relationship with another boy, and how this jealousy and regret slow down his performance both on the court and in the practice room. His declining musicianship is called into question by Haruki and Akihiko, and from there the upperclassmen work to help out his love life (and in their own unique ways). I just love Uenoyama’s character arc, and I’m really satisfied with how he grows from a dense lump of laziness to a person who actively seeks to understand both himself and his partner.

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Mafuyu. Oh lost little Mafuyu. Cute little Mafuyu. This kid really does resemble a puppy, no lie! Introverted, quiet, and reserved, Mafuyu is on a quest to reconnect with a person from his past, unbeknownst to any of his new band mates. He’s never picked up an instrument before, yet seems to have a talent for singing. This secret agenda AND hidden talent of his are what guide him to Uenoyama and the band. Little does he know that through their mutual love for music, Mafuyu’s past is dragged out into the open and exposed—but also cared for and carried together with his newfound friends. While I personally found the plot spinning him in some moments that were a bit too melodramatic, I still like Mafuyu a lot, even if he isn’t the one I identify with most.

Haruki and Akihiko, bassist and drummer, are the other pairing in this story. While doomed with an obsessive, unrequited love, Haruki secretly fawns over Akihiko, even if the guy’s a big musclehead. It’s unfortunate that Akihiko just might already have a partner, but manbun can’t help himself anyway. The way Akihiko sleeps, the way Akihiko compliments him in practice—Haruki just can’t get enough. But as the band’s “leader,” he is torn between resisting his urges and pursuing his own happiness in love, despite this directly violating his philosophy that relationships between band members just doesn’t work out in the long run.

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More of Haruki and Akihiko’s relationship will be explored in the 2020 Given film, but I really like these two dorks a lot (especially manbun) and how they make the effort to support one another and their band mates. Such bros.

Iridescence in Motion

Lerche really is my favorite animation studio, without a doubt. Given boasts a visually bright style to highlight the beauty of youth and the joys of love in this series about those two very concepts. While the screen is light and colorful nearly all the time, we see color drain as winter sets in towards the end of the series—the pivotal climax where potential heartbreak lies. I use the term iridescence because, like emotions, these luminous yellow, tangerine, and turquoise filters shift when we see the same set from a different angle. It’s clean. And it’s aesthetically pleasing.

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Giving new meaning to the phrase “lighting design,” Hikaru Yamaguchi’s strong direction really shines in both the intense moments and those of tranquility or thoughtfulness. And the attention to detail in the instruments is NUTS, not to mention the studio painting a timeless picture of modern day Tokyo. The guitars, amps, and drums look AND sound incredibly authentic, and the detailed city backgrounds are delicately crafted with architecture that mirrors real life Shibuya and Machida, down to the last little street sign and business advertisement. Lerche makes anime reality look even better than REAL life in this beautifully made series.

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Character designs also glow with this attractive and cute aura while maintaining respective ages. (It’s nice to see college dudes that LOOK like college dudes and not 40-year-old men!) Speaking of characters, I don’t really give shoutouts to seiyuus unless they particularly stand out to me, but wow, here we’ve got four fantastic leads! Shougo Yano brings to Mafuyu a high-pitched innocence that has made characters (and fans) fall for his charm left and right. Yuuma Uchida gives Uenoyama a grumpiness and stubbornness that suits his character so very well. Masatomo Nakazawa makes hearts swoon as Haruki, and I just adore his sass whenever Akihiko requests something of him. And none other than Takuya Eguchi brings this lovable lug to life, perfectly capturing Akihiko’s serious and goofy sides.

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A music anime has to have good music in it, obviously, and Given does not disappoint. Michiru provides a musical score full of chill blues guitar, casual jam session rifts, and delicate melodies to make any grown man cry. My favorite piece of music from the show is the energetic yet wistful OP “Kizuato” by Centimilimental. Mafuyu’s VA sings for us the tender ED, “Marutsuke,” which appropriately features animation of a puppy rolling around during the theme. Mafuyu also gets his own little song that I won’t spoil for you, so all-in-all, you’re in for a real treat with the music this time around!

A Given from the Start

Is it okay to be happy when you know someone you loved had to suffer for it? The answer, of course, is yes. So long as we are alive, we will always have the chance to be happy. What matters most is whether you are able to accept what has passed and move on for yourself. That’s what Mafuyu has to find out for himself; Uenoyama just nudges in the right direction, and even gives him happiness in the present.

Having watched the series, there’s still lots I want to know about. What happens to the characters from here? Does the band go on to perform more concerts? Does Uenoyama still write music for Mafuyu to sing? For now, however, this is a strong step forward for BL anime, and incredible representation for the genre as a whole.

I like music anime, great romance stories, and studio Lerche. Perhaps it was a given from the start that I’d love this show, but the series has proven that if you surround yourself with positive influences, good things will surely come your way. At times painfully resonant, other times light-hearted and fun, Given will continue to pluck at your heartstrings both throughout each emotional episode and long after the series is over.

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Hearts are like guitar strings. They won’t play sound if they’re too loose. You have to wind them up until they’re about to break, and that’s when they become a wave the hit your eardrums. — Ritsuka Uenoyama


Afterword

Yeah, I liked this one a lot. No surprise here, but Given is certified “Caffe Mocha” stuff, and easily one of my favorite titles from 2019. I wonder who will pick up the license for this gem and give it the physical release (and dub!) it deserves. Until then, I’ll keep recommending this title through Crunchyroll—as all of you should be doing! I’m happy the reception for this series was so overwhelmingly positive, but I’d still love to hear your thoughts on Given or this review down in the comments. (Plz, I’m lonely and need someone to love this show with!) Until the next review, this has been

– Takuto, your host