Review: The Maid I Recently Hired is Mysterious

Yuuri (left) and Lilith standing in a colorful void, with Yuuri being upset at Lilith and Lilith blushing.

Around the same time that I picked up anime again and started with Spy X Family, I decided I needed a few other shows on my plate to try, preferably not an action or stereotypical “shounen” type. I’m not super sure what ended up drawing me to this show though; it might’ve been the title, seeing an image of Lilith being cute, or it might’ve been a blog or post somewhere that caused me to turn this way. Either way, uhhh… well, you’ll see.

An Introduction

Yuuri (last name unknown) had a decent life in a small rustic mansion, nestled in the corner of a Japanese countryside… unfortunately, things would change when his parents suddenly passed away in a car accident. Rather than letting this keep him down though, he decided he would step up, inherit his parents’ mansion, and continue to live his normal life all on his own!

But maintaining a mansion, even a “small” mansion, is still hard work! And something he hasn’t done much of before. Yet another unexpected twist occurs when on one evening, he hears a knock on the front door. He opens it up, and a tall, beautiful woman with striking purple eyes is standing there, in a full traditional maid outfit. This woman, Lilith, asks Yuuri a simple request: if you let me stay in this mansion for you, can I be your maid?

Yuuri is hesitant, but he says yes… but there’s something mysterious about her…

The Plot and Characters

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. So you have this maid that lives with you, right? You wake up in the middle of the night, you go down to the kitchen to get yourself a glass of water… and when you peek in, you see your maid reading from a book and messing with a pot on the stove. Hmm, you think to yourself… clearly, she’s trying to brew an insidious potion to put into my next meal! Only obvious explanation!

The show starts off with this recurring gag about how “suspicious” Yuuri finds his maid Lilith to be. Lilith may be a tad unorthodox in a number of ways, but so many of his accusations and suspicions are so off-base on their own (generally in the theme of her being a sorceress using spells/potions on him) or the events have simple explanations like her just being dedicated to her job. Things like how she keeps his clothes pristinely clean, how she prepares such delicious meals for him, and how she keeps the whole mansion clean. Especially in the first three episodes, we just see this done again and again. That’s not to say we don’t see anything else in these first three episodes, but most of the “comedy” is some form of this.

His accusations also turn into rambling explanations of how he finds her cute or attractive and that he misses her every moment that they’re separated. Either that, or he’ll drop a phrase that can be misconstrued as a sexual innuendo or a suggestion that he’s going to marry her. The unintentionally romantic leanings of his outbursts are clearly that: unintentional. He’s just blurting out whatever crosses his mind, and hasn’t actually considered other possible meanings of the words he just said. This is essentially our male lead, Yuuri: innocently blunt and also somewhat dense. If you imagine how brutally honest and blunt a little kid can be (purportedly; I don’t have any of my own) in the whole “kids say the darndest things” sense, that is Yuuri to a T – maybe even an over-exaggerated version of that.

To Yuuri’s credit, though, Lilith doesn’t make any of this easy for him. She literally appeared on his doorstep unannounced, begged him to accept her as his maid with no salary, and does her job with diligence and no complaints – this is indeed a tad suspicious. And the show does clearly hint at us about her having some “mysterious past” (which almost feels like a plot hook only here to try to keep you engaged), but beyond that, we don’t see much of a personality from her. Yuuri, by his own admission, doesn’t know much about her, but also any attempt he may have to try to learn more about her instead spirals into another wacky accusation.

We can tell she does get a tad annoyed about being accused of “suspicious” things (due to her being the narrator in episode 4) but his angrily tossed-out compliments on her appearance or his feelings for her causes her to become endlessly flustered and turning as red as a tomato. Thus, with the flustering and blushing, she never actually corrects him; in fact, she’ll occasionally jokingly go along with whatever accusation he set down, which sets him off even further with more sentences with unintended double meanings. That’s… all we really know about Lilith at this stage, 3 episodes in. She’s a hard worker, she’s easily flustered, she likes to do a bit of teasing, and she has some secrets about her past that she isn’t sharing – that’s it. It’s difficult for me to get invested in her character when she doesn’t really have much of a personality; that’s what’s mysterious about her: not her past, but her personality.

Thus far, the show just seems much more interested in doing light, repetitive comedy, rather than trying for anything deeper. As you might be able to tell, I found the joke tiring. On its own, I didn’t think the joke was particularly funny, but just repeating anything multiple times with little substantial variation will make anything tiring. However, it’s not like anything else happens in these first 3 episodes though.

Episode 2 introduces two cats… alright, I guess.

But episode 3 does actually have a bit more. Yuuri returns back to school for the first time since his parents’ passing; so now there’s the school setting and we meet his classmate Tsukasa Gojouin – she’s another young kid living in a mansion of her own with parents and a full staff of servants, including her own well-dressed maid named Fujisaki. However, we fall back into the same rut once Lilith gets reintroduced, and on top of that, Tsukasa overhears their exchanges and becomes smitten for their relationship, as she sees it akin to a romance novel playing out right in front of her. … So her and Fujisaki don’t exactly shake things up that much. Episode 3 also ends with a drawn-out sequence that was supposed to feel heartfelt but missed the mark, and instead just made it look like Lilith trying to comfort a whiny baby.

So yeah, at this point, I was about ready to drop the series. The joke I was seeing over and over was tiring, none of the characters were doing it for me, I was having issues with the show’s visuals (we’ll get to that), and… thinking about this logically: why are Yuuri and Lilith subjecting themselves to such a relationship? Lilith is being met with suspicion and doubt while trying to do her job, and this all seems like a waste of time for Yuuri. I questioned what appeal one would even see in this show.

However, the show starts to reinvent itself in the fourth episode.

The “Yuuri finding Lilith suspicious” thing was dialed down a lot, and instead formed the basis of exploring Yuuri’s actual thoughts and feelings about Lilith. We get actual character depth and development now. Episodes 4, 5, and 6 had proper emotional moments, where we got to see Yuuri and Lilith acting a bit more naturally and start to see a proper bond and connection with them, as well as delving deeper into the feelings and backstories of both of them. This was honestly quite wonderful to see, I enjoy seeing characters forming an actual bond on screen. This is the stuff that I was missing!

Episode 6 completed the transition, and the last 5 episodes (7 through 11) were just straight up, full-on romance anime.

It was nice to see Yuuri grow up and develop into a proper and more emotionally mature character, and seeing Lilith with a genuine smile was very nice. Also, it was good that they did more with Tsukasa than strictly keeping her to her shtick. The character development we got in the middle was all I needed to root for this main duo as the plot started moving. We, of course, got to see more of Lilith’s backstory, and enough things were answered or wrapped up decently well to finish the show with a satisfactory ending – not some “you gotta read the manga to find out what happens next” type of thing.

Needless to say, this was pretty surprising to me. This show pulled itself back from the edge of being dropped and forgotten, and now the final episode ends on a note that I had zero expectations of reaching after I watched episode 1. To be fair, it’s not like the final episodes were so completely different from the first ones that you couldn’t possibly expect them to be from the same series: the earlier episodes clearly had romantic undertones (although more done for laughs) and the later episodes still had some comedic moments – especially with the introduction of another character who surprisingly didn’t annoy me nearly as much as I thought she would.

The transition and slight shift from “romantic comedy” to “comedic romance”, with the added focus on character development, somewhat made the journey worth it… but doesn’t fully redeem this anime for me.

The first episodes were still unfunny and a slog to get through, and getting proper character depth and a bond between the main duo shouldn’t be “the reward” for getting through those episodes. We should’ve had more moments focusing on developing these characters, especially Lilith, well before they started toning down the comedy bit. Trying to tease Lilith’s “mysterious backstory” doesn’t give her a personality, and the final episodes had to rush a lot of development for her that could’ve been brought up sooner. The story that we finally end up with isn’t particularly unique or ground-breaking, either, with romance anime tropes to boot; in fact, I’d argue that it was maybe a bit over the top with some parts drawn out more than necessary and other parts (including Lilith’s backstory) not getting enough focus. (Thankfully, they didn’t end up going down the “misunderstanding” trope path, at least for any longer than they needed to make a quick joke and then move on.)

There’s also definitely questions here about what is really appropriate for the main duo’s relationship. We’re never explicitly told the age of Lilith or Yuuri – the Wikipedia article suggests they’re both under the age of 18, but Yuuri comes across as awfully young and Lilith as awfully… not under 18. Age thing aside, Lilith fills the roles of employee, parental figure, and romantic partner all in one for Yuuri. This isn’t a particularly healthy setup for either of them, especially Yuuri, but the anime seems more than okay about this. To be fair, this is far from the first show to tread this path.

Frankly, the tonal shift this show completed might be its only real claim to fame. If this was just a direct adaptation of the manga… part of me wonders if maybe the mangaka was just making some of this up as she went along (and if this wasn’t a direct adaptation… then just, why??). Such a tonal shift also has the potential to lose your audience. I personally am glad that this wasn’t just 11 episodes of that same comedy routine, but someone else might’ve come into this expecting to be just that (maybe similar to Master Teaser Takagi-san or Tanaka-kun is Always Listless)… and on the other hand, those looking for a more serious romantic plot would’ve looked over this show for being too comedic at first.

All of this leaves me in a kind of conflicted state. On one hand, this was a complete production with two characters that got a proper romance that other shows only hint at, presented through a story that doubled down on its characters rather than sticking to a cheap surface level joke for the whole run. On the other hand, the joke was a poor starting point that doesn’t gel with the more mature tone of the second half, and it glorifies a relationship whose appropriateness is questionable at best. And is the deeper character connections and proper development really something that should be doled out as a “reward”, rather than something the show had built in and executed beautifully from start to finish?

Ultimately, I did enjoy my time with this show, I’m happy with how it ended and I’m glad I stuck around to see that ending… but I don’t think I’ll ever watch this show again. And it’s debatable if I’d ever recommend it to someone else to watch.

Art, Animation, and Audio

The longer that I watched this show, the more annoyed I got with the visuals and animation. I realize not every production is going to be on the same level as Kyoto Animation, Studio Ghibli, or Trigger, but this feels below par – dare I say, a bit cheap at times.

It’s honestly a lot of smaller things. There’s heavy usage of panning shots or just still shots where the only movement is characters’ mouths, characters occasionally move in a way that looks more robotic and unnatural, and it sometimes feels like characters are just layered on top of the scene like a Photoshop image – rather than feeling like they’re actually in it.

Not even when you pause the anime and look at the still frames, are you safe from some slight jankiness. At least a few times each episode, there will be some shots where a characters’ eyes are placed a bit weirdly in comparison to each other or to the overall face – more often than not, that character is Yuuri. Also I invite you to pause the anime at any scene where you see Lilith and Yuuri walking down a hallway with windows – pause the video and just look at those windows, maybe even compare them to actual windows nearby you IRL. These windows look flat, don’t they? Almost as if they’re actually wallpapers that were plastered onto the wall to give the impression of windows. It’s surprisingly cheesy and bad looking (although I’d suppose that if you aren’t paying that close attention to the backgrounds and visuals, you might not notice right away).

Now, nothing here is that glaring that you’ll end up saying “wow, they really dropped the ball with this one”, but definitely a number of moments where I wondered if the animators were under a time crunch or if this was really the best they could do. No shots really appear that ambitious to me, in terms of framing or scene composition. Even if the quality did improve a bit towards the end, this still has to be considered below average, hasn’t it?

One major thing I do like though is the character designs. Lilith looks exceptionally pretty and cute with her round face, brilliant purple eyes, and a maid outfit that isn’t too complex and over designed. Yuuri usually sports a surprisingly involved outfit even when lounging at home, with a button-up shirt, suspenders on his shorts, and garter belts for his stockings. It looks and feels like something out of last century, which I suppose also fits in well enough with the traditional (if not antiquated) mansion; I do wonder if it would look a bit jarring if he roamed around in a baggy T-shirt and gym shorts while still in the same mansion.

I did actually wonder at first what time period this took place in, given that the mansion has such an older style and look and the main duo walks around in such outfits – but at the same time, they have a modern washing machine, Yuuri has a Nintendo Switch, and Lilith has a smart phone. As time goes on, you realize these two are the odd ones out; still, I don’t particularly get why Yuuri is dressed the way he is, even when just hanging about at home.

I’ll also note that aside from the impossibly thin windows and some weird line art stuff, I also find the backgrounds to be decently good. The warm, rich colors are nice and these artists are able to put together a pretty outdoor scene.

I feel the character designs and outdoor backgrounds do a lot of heavy lifting for this show visually, but again, there’s nothing outrageously egregious here. This isn’t unbearable, and indeed others might be better at overlooking these visual issues than I can. But still, I have to believe this is considered worse than average.

Okay, let’s move on to something else. How about the audio?

The soundtrack is a fairly standard combination of strings, woodwinds, and piano, used in a relatively light-hearted manner. However, there is the occasional track that introduces more of a drumset and adds a more industrial-ish sound to it that I do like – I call it the “Let’s do this!” theme. There’s a few other recurring themes I can recognize, but ultimately the soundtrack is forgettable. It isn’t a bother though, it serves its job well enough, and I also only tend to remember the soundtracks that aim to stand out on their own.

The opening song is strangely too highly energetic given what is shown in the opening animation. Minus a few panning shots, the animation is mainly Yuuri going about an average day, and the song has a very energetic drumbeat and multiple vocalists chanting the lyrics at points. It’s not too bad a song on its own – perhaps a tad generic – but it should’ve had a more energetic animation to match.

The ending theme is relatively cute, and the ending animation is also fairly tame and calm. There’s a bubble motif and a number of panning shots here too. It’s standard, but it’s all functional for an anime ending/credits roll.

I think Saori Hayami does a great job as the voice of Yuuri; it is interesting that this is also the same voice actress as Yor Forger from Spy x Family, given I often watched an episode of this after finishing an episode of that. Rie Takahashi does good as Lilith too, with good emotion, and I also have to shout-out Yui Horie for her performance of Tsukasa Gojouin.

Crunchyroll made an English dub for this anime as well – I guess this show was popular enough to warrant making one? After the initial hurdle of getting used to characters’ voices in another language, I think the dub is okay. Macy Anne Johnson does well enough as Yuuri, but I wish Natalie Van Sistine had a tad more emotion and energy in her performance as Lilith – at least more than the obvious outburst moments; some energy during the other parts too would’ve done better I think. All the other voice actors I think are pretty good, so overall the English side isn’t that bad; I personally would still prefer the Japanese side, but if you want to enjoy the show in English, the option is there and it’s not a real downgrade.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

The Maid I Recently Hired is Mysterious has the setup and appearance of being a single-gag show like Master Teaser Takagi-san was, with repeating the same joke and making slight romantic undertones… but the show turns into something else by reinventing itself halfway through into a full-on romance. It was nice to see Yuuri and his maid Lilith turn from shallow vessels for a tiring joke, into proper characters with feelings and bonds.

I would’ve dropped this show due to that repeating gag and lackluster visuals, had it not been for the tonal shift. But was putting up with the initial episodes worth it to get to the good stuff? I’d argue probably not. Maybe if you’re looking for a comedy show with a bit more meat on its bones, you could find enjoyment here, but I’d probably recommend most people move on to other shows that cater better to what they actually want.

Rating: Poor

Recommendation: Probably Pass

Plusses: good character moments, nice outdoor backgrounds, Lilith is cute

Minuses: first episodes are an unfunny slog, opening animation didn’t fit the song

Review: Spy X Family (Part 1)

The three main characters of Spy X Family dancing in their living room (ED1)

As I recently (rather, not so recently) posted, I’ve gotten back into anime! After poking the nearly-dead corpse of VRV and then turning to Crunchyroll to thrust myself back into this medium, I knew immediately what show I needed to watch first: Spy X Family.

Every now and then, there’s a big show that rises above the quarterly tumble of seasonal shows, and Spy X Family is one of the latest ones to do so. Anyone around me (in person or online) who was still talking anime, this was one of the biggest points of discussion. So… it’s time to jump on that bandwagon!

An Introduction

Spy X Family has a pretty basic concept: we follow the life of a spy man who’s introduced to us by his secret spy name: Twilight. Twilight is cunning, smooth-talking, and efficient – overall very good at his job at being a spy. So good that the country he’s working for – Westalis – has tasked him with the highest priority and hardest job yet: to start a family.

More specifically, he needs to get in and cozy with a certain Ostanian politician named Donovan Desmond, and Westalis determined the best way to do that is to have a spy shove together a fake family and use their fake child to get into the same academy that Donovan’s son is currently attending. Son and fake child become friends, and thus Twilight and Donovan become friends, and then Twilight can feed all of Donovan’s thoughts back to Westalis. Totally the most direct, un-convoluted path to that end goal.

So that’s what happens. Twilight doesn’t seem a good name for an affable middle-class father, so instead he takes the name of Loid Forger (which I’ll use from this point on). And of course, if there’s a father, there has to be a child… this random kid from the orphanage named Anya will do, I suppose. Father… child… what else… oh! A mother! Luckily a woman named Yor Briar pretty much lands right in Loid’s lap. Alright, family put together, step 1 done!

Turns out, no one is this family is just some normal person though. Obviously we all know that Loid is secretly super spy “Twilight”, but soon we see Anya is an esper – a mind reader. And Yor too, she’s actually secretly a super deadly assassin. So the real question here is, are these three able to keep together the appearance of a loving family while also avoiding revealing their secret identities to the world (or each other)? Well, the rest of this show is answering that very question!

This takes place in what’s essentially Cold War-era Europe – I’m thinking around 1970s. Westalis and Ostania are thinly veiled imitations of West and East Germany, and I mean thinly veiled. The city this takes place in is called Berlint, for goodness’s sake.

The Plot and Characters

When I heard that this show was becoming popular for the spring 2022 anime season, and I heard the basic synopsis… I was a little underwhelmed. This sounded like a permutation on an existing trope, something akin to Nisekoi or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days… One or both characters enter a relationship under false pretenses, end up falling for each other, and then drama begins when they have to choose between the relationship or those original “false pretense” goals. I figured this was going to go down the same path, and surprisingly, it kinda did but also mostly didn’t.

Let’s take a step back though. Throughout the whole series, Operation Strix (the name given to Loid’s totally not-convoluted spy mission) forms the backbone of this show’s plot – which isn’t that surprising, given the premise of the whole show is seeing Loid pull off all parts of Operation Strix as excellently as a professional spy usually does. Pretty much every episode does tie back to it in some way, even the later episodes after he’s already put together his “family”. Once the family is established, the operation and the plot moves forward to getting the kid Anya into the academy and going from there, but I’ll circle back around to all of that later. I’ve seen a number of slice of life shows which start off with such a serious premise but uses that to simply establish a status quo that later episodes can draw from for random daily adventures; Ouran High School Host Club comes to mind. Here, however, there’s an actual advancing plot from episode to episode, with the goals of Operation Strix being the major driver that doesn’t get cast aside for random adventures (usually).

A big part of this is Loid himself. I said Operation Strix is a major driver, but really, Loid is the one in the driver’s seat. His spy training and personality causes him to try to plan out every single move ahead of him, and it can lead to him dominating a lot of conversations and what other characters do. There’s a lot of “okay, you’re going to do this, and this will be happening, and then you’re going to have to do this because of that”; even when he doesn’t actually say it out loud, he’s still thinking it and then he ensures things play out in just that way. While it certainly can be fun to see a plan come together (or see Loid and the cast make adjustments as new problems arise), it also comes across as a bit suffocating and limiting too. No one’s allowed to stray too far from “the objective”.

Of course, this does keep the anime focused. Sometimes, you do need that “driving force” or otherwise a show can become aimless and lose what originally drew people to it in the first place (or you end up with tonal whiplash with one episode being a fun, relaxing beach episode and the next one being like “oh yeah, the whole planet is at risk”). But I guess I wish there was a bit more of a middle ground here, where sometimes Loid would loosen up a bit. Episode 5 is a great example of that, and I wish there was juuuuuuust a bit more.

Unfortunately, Loid doesn’t really have much of a personality beyond this goal-oriented thing though. He comes across to others as a mild-mannered, positive and relatively charismatic guy, but we the audience know this is him keeping up a ruse. Is this his actual personality though, or is there more to him that we don’t know? We only rarely get glimpses into what he’s thinking, other than “Strix Strix Strix Strix Strix”. (Although, there is some fun to see him having to juggle and mode switch between being a serious spy and a mild family guy, without letting anyone be the wiser.)

On the other hand, we have Yor, who makes for an excellent character and a joy to watch, but her real job as an assassin is brushed aside pretty quickly in comparison to Loid’s spy profession. Yor is gentle and caring, and while she’s clearly still learning about what it means to be a mother and a wife, she’s putting her all into it. We rarely actually see her acting as an assassin, and never at all after episode 5 (and even in that episode, that was an imagined scenario); the only reminders we really ever get about her actual profession are her showing off her impressive hand-to-hand combat skills or Anya overhearing (overreading? overthinking?) Yor’s thoughts about how bloody or deadly her job is; if we didn’t actually know Yor was an assassin, one could excuse her thoughts as simply Yor having a quirkily morbid, macabre inner dialogue. I would’ve enjoyed seeing more of Yor in her element, as I think it’d make a fun juxtaposition to her kinder appearance, but I’m not going to complain about what we got. Seeing Yor trying her best each day is a pleasure all in itself.

Actually, now that I think about it, of the main 3, Yor is the one who doesn’t really have a goal here. In regards to Operation Strix, as long as she exists as part of the “family”, that’s kind of all Loid needs out of her (and her having a husband of any sort is kind of all she needs for her own goals). Anya has goals she needs to accomplish in the academy, and Loid needs to make sure his whole plan doesn’t go belly up. As of these 12 episodes, Yor’s accomplished the goals she’s had. I suppose the development she has now is working on becoming a better wife and mother, but that seems supplementary to her character and goals, not a core part of it. But while anyone technically could’ve filled the role of “wife”/”mother” here, I’m glad the one we got is Yor as she is a joy to have on screen.

Lastly in this little family here, we have young Anya. Being a little kid, it’s fun to just watch her doing little kid things (similar to Kanna from Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid), with a wonky, childish train of thought, and her applying advice given to her in an inappropriate but amusing way. The show is definitely aware of how enjoyable she is to watch, given how much screen time is devoted to her (and also the focus on her in the opening and ending credit animations), but she is also a plot-critical character.

After getting into the academy, Anya has to acquire 7 golden Stella Stars (awarded for impressively good deeds or exemplary… student-ness) whilst also avoiding 8 Tonitrus Bolts (which is grounds for immediate expulsion). Getting 7 Stella Stars and befriending Damian, the son of the target Donovan Desmond, is what Anya needs to accomplish to further Loid’s goal… So naturally, her first day at the academy involves her getting into a fight with Damian and earning a Tonitrus Bolt. Great work! Such a numerals- or ranking-based system is so common in anime, that when the concept of stars and bolts were introduced, I rolled my eyes a bit. It is what it is though, and having a definitive measurement of how close Anya is to her end goal is kind of nice.

On top of all of that, as a telepath, Anya’s pretty much with the audience as the only character knowing what’s truly going on here. A number of gags involve her overhearing Loid or Yor thinking about a deadly or serious part of their actual job and reacting in shock (I suppose in shock of how casually they think about this cool-sounding thing), similar to how an audience member like you or I may react – maybe a bit less exaggerated though. She’s not just an “audience insert” though, as beyond her being an adorable kid, she was able to discern the goals of Operation Strix from Loid’s thoughts, and so she genuinely tries on her own to accomplish what’s needed of her too, which is admirable and enjoyable to watch.

In fact, she uses her telepathy in a number of interesting ways throughout the show. Some of the examples I like the most are when she’s trying to further another character’s goals without revealing that she read their thoughts. For example, in episode 3, Loid’s thinking about trying to find a purse snatcher in a crowd, and Anya finds the criminal via telepathy. Then, she points out a bakery saying “I want to eat there!”, drawing Loid’s attention to the bakery that the purse snatcher also just happens to be running in front of. Really fun stuff.

I’m not sure I’d classify this as an action anime, as although we definitely do get a handful of scenes where Loid is showing off his abilities and/or Yor pulling some sick moves of her own, the actual fights are relatively short and more feel like something the characters have to get through to get to their end goal. Instead, I’m more inclined to put this in the “drama” genre, with an ongoing solid plot and a lot of time spent on watching characters talk and think their way through a situation – sometimes with some comedy too, and sometimes with some juicy action. Either way, the characters is definitely what sells the show and makes this a good watch.

The pacing here is good too, slow enough to give scenes what they need and not lose any viewers, but also fast enough that people don’t end up becoming bored… that being said, this anime does occasionally fall into the age-old trope of action taking a while because we need to watch an inner monologue and a flashback before a character can make a single move. But I’m being nitpicky here, and the biggest “offender” that uses this does it for comedic effect. That said, there’s some fairly good comedic timing here – there’s a number of small jokes that they will just casually toss out, and it’s done well.

Unfortunately, with only 12 episodes out for this first cour, it felt like things were starting to get real interesting before the run came to an end. Luckily, there’s also the second cour of 13 episodes (which I’ll cover later), and recently a proper 2nd season and even a film were announced too.

Similar to Nisekoi, each of the main characters are hiding something from each other. But while Nisekoi has its main cast hiding their romantic feelings from each other and each episode had the characters inching just the tiniest bit towards confessing (but yet it never happening), Spy X Family has the parents hiding their true professions (and Anya, I suppose, hiding her superpower). This does make a notable difference… but there’s some cracks. To a reasonably understandable extent, it makes sense why Yor and Loid aren’t sharing their true professions with one another: Loid is living in enemy territory, specifically that of an enemy with a strong, pervasive counter-spy operation and so blowing his cover to anyone would be a bad idea. For Yor, simply revealing she’s an assassin would probably scare off this (as far as she knows) normal family, which she doesn’t want to do (as a single woman at her age actually raises the suspicions of said counter-spy operations, and she definitely doesn’t need the government knowing her real job). Anya, for her part, actually had a bit of trauma growing up, and it was drilled into her that no one can know her true powers.

Of course, as the omniscient audience, we know all these things, and it is relatively easy to look in from the outside and say “things would be so much easier for everyone if they were just honest with each other”, and I’ll admit I had felt such an annoyed feeling at times. But of course, none of these people suspect such a thing at all from each other (although I’m surprised Loid isn’t more questioning given he’s seen a glimpse of Yor’s skills), and are more concerned about not blowing their own individual covers. You could also probably argue part of the tension and conflict with this series might be ruined if each of their abilities are revealed, as part of the fun is seeing Loid and Yor pulling off their main professions while also attempting to look like a normal family. Episode 12 is a prime example of this.

Also unlike Nisekoi, we don’t really see Loid and Yor falling in love with each other over the course of these 12 episodes, as I expected I would. It’s definitely clear that they’ve gotten closer and begun to feel comfortable with the life situation they’ve arranged here, but you’ll constantly still hear them reminding themselves that this family is just a front. I’m… not sure if this is what I wanted or not, to be honest. On one hand, I’ve already seen the “secretly falling for each other” situation play out in in other anime already (such as Nisekoi or B Gata H Kei) and it also feels like the predictable and obvious end result… but on the other hand, seeing these people put together a family built on convenience and not love makes the whole relationship feel a tad cold and forced, which also isn’t as fun to watch. This could be a slowly developing thing though, so future episodes/chapters may have them getting even closer; a slower, more realistic progression may be the best choice here.

All in all, I do feel for these characters though. I want Loid to succeed in his spy mission, I want Anya to succeed in the academy, I want Yor to… keep being Yor. The setting is interesting, and the premise was surprisingly interesting too, regardless of my first impressions when I first heard of it.

Art, Animation, and Audio

This animation team don’t seem to have the most confidence in producing action scenes, a bit of a surprising lack given the fact that two of the characters here are a spy and an assassin. While it’s possible they may be directly adapting what was in the original manga (which for anime I review, I usually have not read, I’ll add), one would expect that adding more choreographed action would be something one would do in an anime adaptation. Instead, a lot of action scenes use still frames or have the action occur mostly off-camera and we simply see people or things fall into the scene. It is effective enough for what needs to be done, and there are definitely times where they do bring their A-game and something cool happens on camera, but it would’ve been even better to see them step up to this more often. (Was this maybe done as a clever way to implement any needed censorship of violence/gore? If so, that isn’t the impression this framing gives.)

Otherwise, the animation is rather decent, if not a bit reserved. Characters move well and have strong and memorable reactions, with a look of shock being a common sight – especially from Anya as she “overhears” thoughts from her spy of a father and assassin of a mother. The show lacks the fascinating cinematography or over-the-top fluidity of animation as you’d find from shows that top my list of favorites, but what’s here is good, if not great, and we do not always need something that goes extra and strays from par. Just as well, there’s never a scene that makes me feel “ooh, that could’ve been done better” or anything like that; there was never really a bad moment of animation present here.

All in all, it’s clear the artists here are definitely talented. You can pause this anime at pretty much any frame and it’ll be a well-drawn and good looking shot. Colors are vibrant (but not crazy), and the artists definitely nail the feel and look of a mid-20th century German town. The characters always look on model and on point, and they usually do not fail in making Loid look cool, Anya look cute, and Yor looking cool or cute as needed.

Some details I want to point out in episode 4: first, a broken table, smashed by Loid, in particular shocked me with how detailed that was drawn. I also want to point out the scene of animals rushing into the courtyard earlier in that episode: the horse in the top-left is flailing its head around wildly like it’s one of those air dancing tube guys, and it cracked me up. This is absolutely not a complaint at all, minor things like that actually help with the personality and memorability of a show – this is, I’ll note, extremely minor, but it’s permanently reserved a spot in my brain.

Ahem, anyway, moving on from that, the voice acting is pretty dang good, I’d say.

Takuya Eguchi plays the role of Loid Forger, and he expertly pulls off the voice of both a cool, suave spy and a charismatic, affable dad. Saori Hayami also sounds great as Yor, and Atsumi Tanezaki knocks it out of the park as Anya. Of pretty much all of the recurring Japanese cast here, there’s not really a single voice I’m upset with: maybe how Natsumi Fujiwara voices Damian Desmond could be a bit annoying, but it seems in line for a voice of a young boy. So yeah, no real complaints.

Of course, getting used to the voices in one language will make hearing the characters portrayed by actors in another language a bit of a challenge. Alex Organ actually sounds decent enough as Loid; he doesn’t provide the vocal range to pull off the suaveness and gentleness that Takuya Eguchi can do, but he gets the job done. Natalie Van Sistine is also alright as Yor. However, I’m not sure about Megan Shipman’s portrayal of Anya – it sounds weird at points – although if I watched this show in English first and not Japanese, I might feel differently. There’s also the occasional issue where it’s not always clear when a character is saying something or thinking something in their head; this could give the wrong impression of characters blurting out things where they’re actually just thinking it… that being said, the Japanese side isn’t exactly perfect in this regard either, but I think it is a bit easier to tell. Overall, I’d say the Japanese voice acting is the better way to go, but it’s not like the English side is rough or bad.

Spy X Family’s soundtrack is just as varied as the differing moods present here: more industrial, cooler sounds for the action parts (as well as bringing in the brass and even bongos for the stereotypical spy themes), a combo of piano, guitar, and drums for the more casual moments, and an even gentler piano and strings when it’s sad backstory time. I do applaud the variety of instruments utilized in the soundtrack here; I especially like the acoustic guitar and drums really help give a different vibe than something you might find in a slice-of-life or more straightforward action anime. I’d definitely call this a good soundtrack, although, as is common for me, nothing here yet has driven me to try to listen to it on its own.

The opening theme “Mixed Nuts” by Official HIGE Dandism is a pretty fun song, and feels appropriate. The opening animation is wild, to say the least. A lot of it is displayed in a more abstract art style with little to no line art and less defined character shapes, with Anya running around the city while secret spy and assassin related stuff goes on in the background. It’s fun, and I kind of wish the whole opening was depicted in this style rather than switching to the more standard anime style during the chorus of the song. The “upset stomach” icon used towards the end of the opening animation also confuses me, although I’d bet it’s some reference to something in the manga. Regardless, I quite enjoy the opening theme and animation a lot.

I have slightly more mixed feelings about the ending theme, “Comedy” by singer-songwriter Gen Hoshino. It’s not a bad song, but I do wonder about the choice to use it as the ending theme. The ending themes do tend to be on the more mellow side though, so I suppose this fits. Either way, I always enjoy shows that put time and effort into a cool ending animation, and that’s 100% the case here. I love the ending animation a lot – is it overboard? Who cares, it’s great. And any complaints I have about the song all wash away when the chorus kicks in and we see Anya, Loid, and Yor all dancing in their living room – the chorus is a bop and the animation is just exceedingly cute.

As previously mentioned, the second half of this first season aired towards the end of 2022, and we’ve now gotten confirmation of both a second season and a film coming up. So there will be more of this little faux-family for us to watch for a while. Crunchyroll is handling all international streaming, including also producing an English and Spanish dub (and maybe even others). A bit surprisingly though, I’ve not seen any news yet about a Blu-Ray release coming, at least in the US. Perhaps right now is still a bit too close to the end of the second cour, but I still would’ve expected at least an announcement by this point.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Despite how much this anime was talked about, I came into this show expecting myself to enjoy Anya but otherwise be underwhelmed (it’s happened before). However, probably to no one’s surprise, I had a really fun time here, and I liked how all of this came together. I could sit here and try to draw similarities to Nisekoi or spy films or whatever, but this show has forged its own identity, and I’m looking forward to watching more of the Forgers.

Anya is just as cute and fun as expected, and Loid was executed well as a cool and resourceful spy, but the big surprise for me was how much I enjoyed seeing Yor on screen. Combine this lovely trio of characters with an impactful and ever-forward-moving plot, with a mixture of action, comedy, and more heartfelt moments, and this show is a winner.

Spy X Family probably has enough action and fun stuff going on for the standard shounen fan, but even those who usually stick more to the romance or slice-of-life genres can get some fun here too. Gore isn’t frequent and isn’t excessive when it is present, and the wholesome moments of the main cast acting as a family is just nice. This anime seems like a nice middle ground that pretty anyone can get some enjoyment out of.

Rating: Great
Recommendation: Put This On Immediately
Plusses: Anya and Yor are delights, great visuals, great opening and ending themes/animations
Minuses: things got interesting just as this run ended, not enough of Yor in her element, please show us your true feelings Loid

Review: Arrietty / The Secret World of Arrietty

Unlike a number of anime fans, growing up I didn’t really know anything about Studio Ghibli. I think at some point in high school I began to hear mentions of movies like “Laputa” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, but I’ve never seen any myself and knew pretty much nothing about any of them.

Then one day, while watching Disney Channel (I was a big fan of Wizards of Waverly Place growing up, don’t judge me!), they had a short special on a new movie that Disney was publishing: The Secret World of Arrietty. It had a few known Disney Channel stars (namely David Henrie (whom I keep calling Justin in my head for some reason) and Bridgit Mendler)  and some other actors too… Anyway, long story short, this is how I ended up watching my first ever Studio Ghibli film: they aired it one time on Disney Channel!

Since then, I’ve now watched a handful of other films, but I still have a long way to go before I’d consider myself up to speed on all things Studio Ghibli. But hey, gotta start somewhere, right?

An Introduction

Needing somewhere quiet and relaxing to rest before an upcoming heart surgery, Shawn spends a week with his great aunt Jessica who lives in a more rural area. Just his great-aunt Jessica lives out here, alongside her caretaker and housemaid Hara (who also becomes Shawn’s caretaker while he’s visiting). It’s a quaint little house with a nice backyard and garden, filled with decorations and knick-knacks collected over the years, and also a small family of tiny people who come out at night to “borrow” some things.

Oh, yes, you read that right. These little people, who call themselves “Borrowers” and can fit into a human’s hand, have found a nice spot to build themselves a little home underneath the floorboards of a closet in the house. They do everything they can to stay out of the way of the humans and not get noticed or caught, but at night, they’ll climb out and grab a few things that they need to survive, which their human hosts probably won’t notice missing: a single tissue from a tissue box, or a single leaf of a plant.

While there used to be more Borrowers living in Aunt Jessica’s house, now it’s just one small family of 3: Pod, the father; Homily, the mother; and their young daughter Arrietty. And they’re peacefully living their lives, until one day the human boy Shawn thinks he’s caught a glimpse of a tiny young girl climbing among some leaves in a garden…

(And yes, I realize that Disney renamed some of the characters when the brought the film over to the United States in an attempt to “American-ize” the film. As these names are the ones I’m most familiar with though, they’ll be the ones I’ll stick with. The differences are: Sho (the young boy) is now Shawn, Haru (the caretaker) is now Hara (a strange minute difference, maybe Haru “didn’t sound feminine enough”?), but then there’s great-aunt Sadako, which they just changed to… Jessica. We’ll discuss more of the regional differences later.)

The Plot and Characters

(Editors note: added an extra paragraph since the initial publish.)

One of the best things about a Studio Ghibli production is the film’s ability to whisk you away on a journey. While some films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are more clearly framed as an actual journey, their other films also have a journey of their own, even if you aren’t venturing into some other world. My Neighbor Totoro, while more akin to the slice of life anime of today, is still a journey, following Mei and Satsuki as they encounter Totoro and how they handle things just not going their way. The Secret World of Arrietty is definitely a journey too, but one that entirely takes place within a cozy rural home.

The concept and world of “Borrowers” is fascinating to me. These tiny, resourceful people that reside in some makeshift home underneath the floorboards of your house, occasionally emerging from hiding spots to pick up discarded and misplaced items and sneaking into your kitchen for a single tissue or sugar cube. There’s a lot of details and small quirky-but-world-building things that we see which helps sell the realism of such an idea, and gives character to these… characters. While practically impossible, I wouldn’t mind finding myself the unwitting host of such a little family, giving new purpose to various small items that I probably wouldn’t have noticed had gone missing. May as well have someone making use of my junk if I’m not!

Unfortunately, while some of us might find fascination or amusement with such an idea, others might see such a scene and start freaking out about little pests or thieves living in the walls (and arguably, they’d be justifiable in their feelings). I’d liken myself to Shawn, while others would be more like the character who winds up being the eventual antagonist in this story.

And on a basic level, that is the main conflict here. While a family of Borrowers would probably love to have a Shawn to live with and assist them, they can’t take the risk of being found out by some human who would trap their family in a jar and call in some pest exterminator once they’re discovered.

For our protagonist – little Arrietty, age 14 – this would be, I’d imagine, the biggest lesson that gets drilled into her from birth: don’t get seen by a human, don’t trust humans, avoid humans at all costs. However, after accidentally exposing herself to Shawn, she seemingly almost immediately throws out her family’s wisdom and instead makes herself obviously known to Shawn to say “hey, leave us alone” (rather than staying hidden and extra cautious, leaving Shawn to believe he was imagining things), thus setting up the events that transpire from there. While obviously this entire movie wouldn’t exist at all if Arrietty didn’t make that move, it does seem a bit strange to me that she would go against her father’s warnings and do the things she’s explicitly told is the biggest of big no-no’s. At the same time though, she’s young and headstrong, boldly making decisions although she doesn’t always consider the consequences all the way through. That’s not to call her bullheaded or stupid, however, and her impulsiveness has helped her just as much as it had hindered her.

This makes her an interesting contrast with her parents. Her mother, Homily, is skittish and full of worries, but it comes from a place of love and caring, and she does what she can to bring comfort to herself and her family. Arrietty’s father, Pod, is more a man of action rather than words, and always has a plan; setting out at night on “borrowing” expeditions to collect items from around the house and spending his days tinkering to make clever tools to use on future nights. Not sure how these risk-averse parents ended up with the adventurous spirit that is Arrietty.

Immediately coming out of the movie, Shawn – the movie’s other protagonist, and eventually the human helping hand for Arrietty – seemed like he didn’t have much of a personality beyond being simply selfless and caring. However, upon further thought, I think the movie does subtly give us a bit more to him. We learn that he has some heart condition, about to undergo an operation with only a chance of success. This boy is staring at his own mortality right in the face, so he decides he may as well try to enjoy the time he has and help those who he can. This explains the weirdly morbid turn one of his conversations with Arrietty goes. However, unfortunately, he isn’t quite that interesting to watch while on his own, as he’s very quiet and soft-spoken, in comparison to the animated Borrower family or the industrious Hara. The scenes and moments where he’s interacting with Arrietty are genuinely fun though.

And overall this movie is a genuinely fun time. I’m drawn in on concept alone, and – although it has the pacing of a relaxed afternoon walk, allowing us to truly breath in this world at times – the plot and its turns are engaging and keeps me interested in how events will unfold from here.

The big question Arrietty ends up facing is, how do you put a lid back on a secret (like, you and your family’s entire existence) after very openly and clearly making yourself known to a human? Because now that human is going to start acting a bit funny too, and then other people will catch on, it’s going to be a big whole thing… how do we balance the safety of our tiny little Borrower family and this newly-made friendship with a surprisingly nice human? It’s an interesting little story and situation, and each of the characters act realistically, with their own best intentions and putting their priorities first. You just want everything to be okay for everyone, but the further this plot goes, the more you realize something around here needs to change. It’s an entertaining piece of animation, and it ever so gently touches my emotions as it goes on.

However, I also can’t help but feel that this film does feel like it’s missing… something. There’s no shocking twists and a savvy viewer will know how it ends before you even reach the halfway point. There’s no edge-of-the-seat action or drama. But I don’t think that’s the missing thing that bothers me so much. While the relaxed pace is great, it combined with the 1.5 hour runtime results in each scene needing to do something to advance the plot or tie into something later in the movie. Us being able to “breath in the world”, like I mentioned, only occurs at the times that characters are doing mundane things and not reacting to the events unfolding around them. The sequence of Arrietty going on a borrowing mission with her dad was great, and I wish we had more of that, to be honest. Once the plot gets going, there’s no stopping or detours. While one could say this film is “unwaveringly focused” and “has no filler”, it would’ve been nice to have more time seeing these characters just being themselves. And ultimately, Shawn and Arrietty only have 3 proper conversations with each other throughout the whole film; surprisingly few (and with no other conversations implied) for two characters whom we’re supposed to believe have developed some unspoken bond during the course of this story.

I do wonder sometimes if Studio Ghibli’s writers try to impart lessons onto us viewers as we watch their films. Princess Mononoke certainly seems to have a lesson to take away from it, but I’m not sure if Secret World of Arrietty is supposed to teach you something. There could definitely be lessons to infer from it, like sometimes a risk is worth it as you can end up with a dependable friend, but I wonder what the writers intended while crafting this journey.

Either way, I’m glad this was a journey I embarked on.

Art, Animation, and Audio

A big part of Studio Ghibli’s films’ capabilities to take us on journeys comes from how gosh darn pretty so many of their scenes look, and this film is definitely no exception. The bright greens of the grass and gardens, the more subdued, realistic yet still enticing colors of the interior of the houses (both the humans’ and the Borrowers’) – combined with the amount of clutter and detail that added to so much of the interior backgrounds – this is a world that I wish I could just jump into and experience with my own eyes and senses. Ghibli is great at eliciting such a desire.

But of course, another big part of any animated film is… the animation. And Studio Ghibli, at that time, was probably only beaten by Kyoto Animation in respect to adding expressiveness to their characters. Shawn is animated decently (although he expresses more through body posture and movement than his face), Homily is even more expressive and dynamic, and with Arrietty, you can tell every thought going through her head with how expressive her face is. However, the one who takes the cake for facial expression and contortion is definitely Hara, although the cat Niya is also a top contender.

As far as the character design of the humans go, it’s kind of a bit plain. Shawn in particular doesn’t have that distinct or unique a design. But I suppose the idea is that they’re supposed to look a bit plain. Hara’s design is pretty good though, with a face good for molding the afore-mentioned expressiveness onto. On comparison, the Borrowers are way more memorable. Arrietty’s character design is simplistic, but pretty, with the distinctive wavy, red hair. It’s a decent design, and she looks even better with her signature red dress. But my favorite design is Homily’s, with her wavy hair, the slight wrinkles on her face, and the yellow apron on purple dress… it’s distinct and memorable, I love it.

The sound design for this movie is interesting, during the scenes and moments where we’re following these tiny people around a much larger world that humans have made for themselves. Arrietty and her dad travel into a bedroom, and the ticking of a clock sounds so loud, due to the fact that this clock is really probably 5 times the size of Arrietty herself. It echoes, tick tock tick tock, throughout the entire scene, and just sells the feeling of a small person in a big world. There’s other moments like this throughout the movie as well, like the footstep sounds of rats and insects, but there’s also a few choices that were… amusing.

This could be a bit nitpicky, but the scene where Arrietty’s dad shows her the kitchen for the first time, she looks around and the screen flashes through a few shots of various parts of the kitchen (the sink, some plates, the stove, etc.) while sound effects related to those things played (water running, silverware and plates clattering, something simmering in a pan, etc.) It probably helped fill the soundscape of the scene and quickly establish familiarity for a viewer, but it felt a bit strange to me to have these sounds present while presenting a quiet kitchen at nighttime. I might’ve more preferred an appropriate piece of soundtrack to play instead, something a bit mellow and subdued, but filled with wonder.

However, background music isn’t really used a lot for Secret World of Arrietty. It’s certainly present in various establishing shots and shots where there isn’t dialogue and it’s just a character doing some stuff (like walking from one place to another), but a lot of this film’s audio scape is filled with the sounds of the world around the characters instead. When there is music, it’s primarily piano, with some stringed instruments brought in for good measure (and rarely, some woodwinds). It’s very whimsical and a bit folky, reminding me a bit of traditional Celtic music, I like it!

There’s also two songs with lyrics in them as well: “Neglected Garden” played at two points in the beginning of the film, and “Arrietty’s Song” played at the end; these can probably be seen as the opening and ending themes, if we needed to force them into that sort of categorization. Neglected Garden, which is sung in English no matter the dub language, has lyrics that doesn’t immediately seen relevant to me, but perhaps I’m thinking about them too literally; either way, it is a nice song. Arrietty’s Song is also really pretty and nice, and apparently Cecile Corbel, the composer of the film’s soundtrack, sang this song in 6 different languages for various international releases.

In Disney’s North American release, they also added one more song onto the credits: the song “Summertime” sung by Bridgit Mendler (the American voice of Arrietty). It’s… not a bad song, per say, but its 2010s pop sound is a rather jarring genre switch, and the lyrics are a bit more generic and more romance-leaning.

I suppose that’s a good enough point to segue into discussing Disney’s release as a whole, and the various dubs. The English dub Disney produced is actually pretty decent, with Bridgit Mendler doing a fine job as Arrietty and Carol Burnett as Hara. However, David Henrie’s performance of Shawn left a bit to be desired – he sounded kind of bored. I’ll chalk that up to voice direction though, as I figured they were trying to have him go for “sick, low-energy kid”; I also wish the voice directors gave Hara’s portrayal some more subtlety, like in the Japanese version. There were some kinda big names in the English cast, like Carol Burnett, but also Amy Poehler (who knocked it out of the park as Homily!) and Will Arnett playing the father Pod, doing a better job than his Japanese counterpart. Disney’s dub came out 1.5 years after the film debuted in Japan – the film hit Japanese cinemas in July 2010 and American ones in early 2012. The dub stays pretty faithful to the original script, but there are some differences that left me a bit confused as a viewer, confusions that cleared up when I rewatched the film in Japanese with subtitles. Disney’s dub also adds a small post-credits monologue by Shawn that is totally not present in the original release; I guess they wanted even more of a resolution.

There is also one other English dub though, that came out in between the Japanese release and Disney’s dub. Released in British theaters in late 2011 and then out on DVD in 2012 while the film hit theaters in the US, Studio Canal did their own dub for the UK audience. I don’t really have an easy way to hear this dub of the film though, excepting through some clips on YouTube… it sounds like Tom Holland does a pretty good job as Shawn/Sho though (yes, that Tom Holland). There’s some other relatively big names like Olivia Colman and Mark Strong as well; overall, the UK dub sounds pretty decent from what I’ve heard, although I wonder if the sound mixing is a bit off or if it’s the low-quality YouTube clips I found…

Circling back to the Japanese dub, it’s alright. Kind of difficult for me to judge a bit fairly given I’ve always grown up with Disney’s dub, but I finished the rewatch feeling Mirai Shida did an okay job as Arrietty and Ryunosuke Kamiki’s performance of Shawn/Sho was… at least better than the English version. I’ll also call out Kirin Kiki who played Hara/Haru (and kinda looks like her too!) and Shinobu Otake, who was also amazing as Homily. I think she’s my favorite character! Anyway, Disney’s dub is actually not a bad way to go to experience the film, for us in the United States.

Although Disney no longer holds the distribution rights to the Studio Ghibli films in the US, G Kids’ re-release of the Blu-Ray and posting of the film on HBO Max still maintains the Disney dub (common practice with anime changing licensors), and you also have the original Japanese version available on both mediums as well, in case you want that. (Let’s hope it doesn’t get kicked off HBO Max…)

Final Remarks / TL;DR

The Secret World of Arrietty is another example of Studio Ghibli doing what they do best: whisking you away on a journey within a different setting and experience. The concept of “Borrowers” had me hooked from the beginning, and while the film could’ve done more to show the characters just living and being themselves, the relaxed pace and engaging story makes this a fun watch the whole way through.

For some people and groups, Studio Ghibli and their films is a sizeable part of their childhood and experience growing up. I didn’t really have that as a kid; for me, this was the first Studio Ghibli film I ever saw, and I was about halfway through high school when this came out. I have a decent appreciation of this film as a result, maybe more than others as I don’t hear this one talked about as much as Ghibli’s older classics. Either way, whether you grew up on Ghibli or you didn’t, I don’t think this is a film to skip over. Especially if you want to spend an evening with something not too intense but still enthralling.

Rating: Great
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ Homily, great execution of “Borrowers” concept, Ghibli’s art and animation
— bit too focused on the plot, Shawn is the weakest link , Arrietty is a bit too foolhardy (although that isn’t always bad)

Review: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Alright, alright, let’s not pretend this is something that it isn’t. You know why I’m here, I know why I’m here.

Madoka Magica received resounding popularity and praise, and completely upended the idea of what it meant to be a magical girl back in 2011. The ripples it made through the anime subculture is palpable, and it overcame the rolling tide that is seasonal anime to become a lasting major success.

If you’ve spent more than a few months in the anime world, I’m sure you’re more than aware as to what Puella Magi Madoka Magica is, and what its big twist is. If not… well, why don’t we get started?

(Seriously, if you don’t know what Madoka Magica is about, you’ll be seeing some spoilers down below! … Up to episode 4.)

An Introduction

Madoka Kaname had a weird dream last night.

There was this mysterious girl, she was jumping around and fighting against something big, and there was also this white cat-thing… Well, dreams are just that way, I suppose. But when Madoka arrived at school that morning, a new transfer student came in: Homura Akemi. Wait, Homura looks just like that girl in that dream last night! She seems to know who Madoka is too, and she gives Madoka a cryptic message: if you cherish the ones you love, don’t do anything to change yourself. Stay as you are.

This only left Madoka confused, and her confusion grew even more when she heard a voice calling out to her: the source was that same white cat-thing (which called itself Kyubey) as it was being chased down and shot at by Homura. After stumbling into Kyubey, she also wound up face-to-face with Mami, and the world of magical girls was opened up to her.

It’s a bit overwhelming and sounds pretty dangerous, but Kyubey makes a pretty nice offer: if you become a magical girl, he will grant you one wish – no matter what that wish is.

Suddenly, Madoka finds her life has been turned upside down. She and her best friend Sayaka experience first-hand how dangerous being a magical girl can be, by watching Mami die in front of them. In the void of Mami’s absence, Madoka finds herself needing to answer a number of questions: Does she want to become a magical girl, even after learning the price you pay as one, as well as the ultimate fate all magical girls face? What does she even want to wish for? And will she lose all her friends in the process?

The Plot and Characters

Writing a cohesive, well-paced, all-ends-tied-up, satisfying story for a 12-episode series is really hard. That honestly isn’t a lot of time. Given that the first 2 or 3 episodes are usually dedicated to introducing the characters and the world, and the final 3 are the main climax and the buildup to it, you’re already left with about 6 episodes – half the total amount – to add suspense, worldbuilding, and depth. If you do one adventure or one topic per episode, that’s already a tough time. (On top of that, movies have even less time to tell a story, so it’s even more of a feat when a film is able to pull off a wholly satisfying plot.)

So when it comes to 12-episode (1-cour) shows, Madoka Magica often stands out in my mind as the ideal example as to how to write a plot for this short period of time.

Usually, when trying to create a whole story in a single cour, something ends up suffering. Sometimes it’s a character’s backstory or motivation, other times it’s just failing to fully realize the story’s premise or idea (like Yuri on Ice), or you’ll see the pacing falter (as in Brynhildr in the Darkness), and in some cases (such as Beyond the Boundary) it’s the worldbuilding that ends up lacking. In the case of Madoka Magica, however, it’s hard to find anything that really felt underdeveloped. Everything they do, they do in the perfect amount, and (almost) all of it ties back into the main storyline somehow. Devilman Crybaby, which I recently reviewed, also does exceptionally well at crafting a story in so few episodes, and Madoka Magica is even leaner than that show.

In essence, the point of Madoka Magica is to present a different take on how being a magical girl works. It takes the elements of the genre – the transformations, the magical powers, the never-ending onslaught of enemies to fight – and bases them in reality in a different way. The big baddie of the day here are “witches”, mysterious creatures that bring despair and sadness to their victims through this weird zombie-like mind-control state. Witches must be confronted in their labyrinths: reality-bending dungeons where minions can come out and attack you. And as the show does a deeper dive into all of this stuff and more, it reveals a surprisingly dark underbelly as the tone grows more and more grim. This also becomes the focus of the worldbuilding, a task they could do as beyond this whole magical girl thing, the world is just like our own – just maybe a few years in the future.

Madoka Magica, rather than throwing all of its secrets and info at you right out of the gate, though, withholds these revelations and plot twists, like cards in a hand, only to be shown at precisely the right time.

And it’s this withholding of information, both through the “mascot” character Kyubey in-universe and through what the camera and writing direction allows us (the viewers) to see, that makes Madoka Magica so effective. We’re brought into this show expecting it to be some visually-impressive but otherwise standard-fare entry into the magical girl genre, and Madoka Magica plays with this expectation we have, allowing it to misdirect us and bring us on this path that slowly takes apart everything we expect and replaces it with something completely different.

But on top of that, the show never directly lies to you either. Mami and Homura in the beginning tell Madoka and her friend Sayaka, in no uncertain terms, how dangerous being a magical girl is, and that it’s not as pretty as it seems; Kyubey – the all-knowing reference guide on “how to magical girl” – is consistent in his explanations and tone, the biggest fault he has is that the info he provides comes down to the questions you ask him. Once you watch the whole show the first time through and everything is revealed to you, you can go back and watch it all a second time and see the true meaning behind everything that gets said, every action that is taken. But even if you only watch it once, you still learn exactly everything the show wants to tell you – you really don’t need multiple viewings to truly “get” Madoka Magica the same way you have to with other shows, which is great.

The first two episodes maintain a slightly lighter tone in comparison to how dark the rest of the series can get. The writers had intended to blindside their viewers back in 2012 with a tone shift, but at this point now, given the popularity of the series, it’s hard to really take the lighter tone seriously as most anime fans know the show by reputation alone. To be fair, the show isn’t exactly coy about its darker inclinations in these first episodes either, so it’s hard to really call it an unforeseeable tone shift in any case. And I will note, despite how much I (and other reviewers) talk about how dark this show is/can get, it’s definitely not the darkest thing you’ve seen out there, nor is it the darkest anime ever made – even among magical girl shows. There’s definitely parts and revelations that can make you gasp, but the show stops short of presenting anything truly deplorable on screen – even with characters dying, I don’t think we see that much blood. This is still being made for TV, after all.

From an overall cast of about 14, six of them can be pretty much considered the main lead roles. One of these six is the mascot character, Kyubey; Kyubey and Madoka both end up being the catalysts to this entire plot, with Kyubey more visibly so.

The other five are the five magical girls (or non-magical humans) that we use to explore this show’s world: Madoka, Sayaka, Mami, Homura, and Kyoko. Homura, Kyoko, and Mami start off the series already turned into magical girls, and they enter into Madoka and Sayaka’s lives for each their own reason. Since each of the five has a different personality and outlook on life, and a majority have varying levels of inexperience as a magical girl, the show expertly utilizes this to explore this world from different angles and through different lenses. Mami, despite her attention in the fandom (and promotional artwork) and her importance to the others in the main group, is not present for the majority of the series. She’s the one that introduces Madoka and Sayaka to the world of magical girls, and the two look up to her as their mentor and friend – which makes for a fitting change in tone when she’s suddenly killed at the end of episode 3.

Rather than escaping the underground world of magical girls after Mami’s death, though, Madoka and Sayaka stay roped in as Sayaka decides to turn into a magical girl herself. The absence of Mami’s guiding hand turns the whole experience into a frightening one for them, though, as they stumble through it all themselves, only given help when they know what to ask Kyubey. And the further they dive in, the more they see and the more emotional baggage and trauma they accumulate. On top of that, they’re pitted up against Kyoko (a bona fide veteran) and Homura (who’s been antagonistic from the start), who both have their own reasons for intervening. They’re antagonistic, but it’s justifiable as we delve more into their characters in turn: they both already have a tremendous amount of baggage – due in part to being magical girls and also due to their respective backstories.

The rest of the cast are supporting roles, quite literally, as their actions and existence are there to support the personalities and motivations of the main cast. They’re present in the story for a purpose, and once they fulfill their purpose, they fade into the background so the show can focus in on our five leads. As a result, there’s not a lot of extraneous characters here. The only ones I could consider pretty much unnecessary are Madoka’s dad and her homeroom teacher: two characters that would leave more questions if they were absent.

Madoka Magica’s pacing is another thing to marvel. It’s fast, so that they’re able to get through everything that there is to explore, but it’s extremely consistent, and it’s not too fast so as to leave you overwhelmed. With this pacing, along with how they drop-feed you information, the show does a good job at making sure you’re not left behind when it reveals its next card.

If I were to level any complaints at this show, I’d only have two:

First, I have a bit of a love-and-hate relationship with Madoka. She’s definitely the main character of the show (her name is in the title), but she lacks a goal until well into the second half of the series. The only thing she seems to want is for everyone to be happy – an admirable goal, sure, but it doesn’t really answer what she actually wants to do with her own life. Everything else, she just kind of hems and haws about. While she jumps in and helps out when others around her jump to action, she doesn’t really take any initiative herself until the end. But at the same time, that’s kind of the goal of her personal arc. We don’t know what she wants to do with her life because she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life; it’s something that’s focused on and returned to throughout the series, so there’s character growth and all that stuff. Given how high-stakes some of the situations are and how much pressure she’s under, it’s no surprise that she has a hard time immediately making a decision. A lot of this is still new to her, and she’s still young and has a lot to figure out. But I have a hard time getting behind indecisive characters, and even though the show does ultimately sell her story to me, I feel this is a character arc they could’ve spent a bit more time on in the first half.

My second complaint is in regards to Homura, but I don’t want to give out any more spoilers than I already have, so I’ll try to keep it vague: I love a lot of what they did with her and her character, but there’s a few points where I wonder if the things she does are realistically the actions Homura would take. To an extent, the show kind has a counterargument against my complaint, but I feel some of her actions (or inactions) were simply done so that the writers could keep the mystery and intrigue.

Honestly though, I don’t even think about these complaints while I’m in the middle of watching this show. Even though I’ve seen it a handful of times already, I still get sucked in and fall in love all over again every time I put it back on. It’s definitely hyperbolic to call this is one of the best anime shows ever made, as others have done, but it is certainly up there on my personal list.

The Atmosphere

Puella Magi Madoka Magica’s visuals are striking, but beyond the grandiose architecture used in backgrounds and the avant-garde witch labyrinth sections, as well as the intentional disconnect between the less-assuming character designs and the darker tone, there honestly isn’t that much that I can consider truly amazing. The animation and art quality is well-done and fluid throughout the entire series, including the nicely-choreographed action scenes, but Madoka Magica could be considered just a solid production if it weren’t for those 3 elements I listed above.

But indeed, it’s those elements that help elevate this show’s visuals into something more memorable. Shaft, the main animation studio behind Madoka Magica, are often guilty of extraordinary architectural works in their shows, such as the Koyomi bathroom in the Monogatari series, and this is no exception; Madoka’s middle school is a combination of futuristically stark and traditionally ornate and seems as large as a college campus. The witch labyrinths are where Shaft’s visual effects muscle can flex (alongside some outside help, as well), producing some truly memorable artwork. The labyrinths tend to incorporate some real-life craft materials and other photorealistic objects, in some middle step between Terry Gilliam’s sections in Monty Python and the fully-realized craft aesthetic in Yoshi’s Crafted World. It would’ve been costly and difficult for the animators to use this aesthetic for the entirety of the show – as much as I would’ve loved to see it – but I’m glad they went all out in these sections.

Lastly, we come to the character designs, created by Ume Aoki. Aoki is the creator of Hidamari Sketch, a lighthearted slice-of-life manga that has essentially no tonal connection to Madoka Magica – and thus her designs are likewise lighter, cuter, and extremely moe. These descriptions also match her designs for the characters in this show as well, which helped with the producers’ intentions to blindside viewers with the darker tone. Even when the darker moments began, though, the designs (somewhat surprisingly) didn’t seem too out of place though; part of it was that they were adapted to be more flatter and fit in more by Takahiro Kishida.

Each character has their own distinct color and overall look, which really helps keep each one distinct; even if you’re terrible like names (like I am), you can instantly tell apart who is who in any given scene. Wild hair colors is super common in anime, and those same colors also extend to the characters’ clothes and eyes as well. Whether it’s the more casual/school-outfit look or the magical girl forms, I think the designs for all the human characters here are good. I also do have to praise the designs for Kyubey and the witches as well, they are truly awesome – although I wish they did more with Kyubey’s face than a simply pair of 2 circular pink eyes; it sometimes does seem a bit odd in the more serious moments of the show.

One amusing aspect of Madoka Magica’s visuals, though, is how the human characters are drawn when they’re in the distance or out of focus (and sometimes Kyubey as well). So much detail was omitted or changed at times that the results can look pretty comical – these drawings became the basis of the in-fandom meme Meduca Meguca.

It is, of course, impossible to talk about Madoka and its visuals without mentioning the disparity between the broadcast and Blu-Ray versions of the show. It isn’t uncommon for studios to return to earlier episodes and try to clean them up and improve them between the broadcast and the eventual Blu-Ray release, but what’s more noteworthy for Madoka is how much of a difference there can be.

Entire backgrounds were re-constructed for episode 2’s Blu-Ray release, for example, including adding and rearranging furniture to Mami’s room and changing her coffee table to glass. That one is a more well-known example, but you can go online and find a number of comparison images between the TV (broadcast) and Blu-Ray versions of a lot of the examples. It was no secret that Shaft was running right up until airtime to complete some of the episodes. The tragedy that was the 2011 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami and the nationwide mourning that followed gave the staff enough time to finish up the last 2 episodes without needing to delay further – I do wonder how the show would’ve turned out if that disaster hadn’t happened.

Madoka Magica has a distinct soundtrack, but I wonder how much of me saying that is simply because I’ve listened to it on its own? It is a great soundtrack, and – with the consistency with the instrumentation – feels like an integral part of the show; I doubt any other sound could really fit in quite as well. But beyond maybe a handful of tracks, I feel a lot of it isn’t really memorable outside of the show. That handful, though, really are great and stand out very well – such as the rocking guitar-heavy jam that is Magia, the uplifting track used for transformations called Credens Justitiam, and the mysterious but bouncy track played while Kyubey explains a facet of magical girl-ness called Sis Puella Magica! Yuki Kajiura does a great job, but she’s known for the quality of her work, so that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

Once the darker tone of the show comes more into the forefront in episode 3, the show also begins using Magia for the ending theme. I do wonder if, perhaps, the song is a tad over-used by the time the series is done, but at the same time, with a killer tune like that, they’d want to get as much out of it as they can. Two other songs are used for ending themes – Mata Ashita for episodes 1 and 2, and And I’m Home for episode 9 – although it’s possible these may’ve actually been added in during the Blu-ray release. Magia, as I’ve said, is pretty awesome (and the other two songs are nice and fitting for their episodes, even if they’re a bit generic), but all the ending animations tend to be pretty lackluster: either an image slowly scrolling or a silhouette of Madoka walking as she passes by other characters’ silhouettes.

The opening song is Connect, sung by Claris, and it’s pretty fun and upbeat, amusingly so given the direction of the later episodes at times. Unlike what others say though, I don’t think it feels as out of place in the latter episodes myself – it may be that I’ve simply accepted this song as a part of the Madoka experience. I enjoy the opening animation a lot though, and with every new rewatching of the show, I find something else in the animation I like.

While I don’t necessarily think the transition from dubs or subs to the other in this show is as smooth as it may be in others, I have seen and appreciate both. I think you’ll have a good time no matter which language you choose; there isn’t necessarily anything the English nor Japanese cast do that blows the other’s performance out of the water, so I can recommend either. I do want to praise Madoka and Kyubey’s voice actors on the Japanese side (Aoi Yuki and Emiri Kato, respectively) and Madoka and Sayaka’s voice actors on the English side (Christine Marie Cabanos and Sarah Anne Williams, respectively) – the English voice actor for Kyubey, Cassandra Lee, does an overall good job too.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Honestly, at this point, there’s not really anything that can be said about Madoka Magica that others haven’t already said. That’s why this review ended up turning into the longest piece I’ve written yet; I’m not aiming this at people who are unfamiliar at the show – instead, I’m aiming this towards existing fans that want to see another person’s thoughts on the experience. At this point, I’m assuming pretty much everybody knows about this show.

Madoka Magica truly is great, though. There’s so much this show does right, it can be hard to come up with any criticisms at times. It’s an emotional, high-stakes, no-punches-held story, combined unexpectedly with middle school girls and the magical girl genre. If you haven’t seen it yet (somehow), I highly suggest you go and do so. And if you decide to jump off, make sure you do after episode 3 or 4, just so you’re not jumping off before Madoka Magica finally bears its teeth.

Rating: Near Perfect
Recommendation: Put This On Immediately
+++ great story told in 12 episodes, fascinating world and mechanics, Magia (ending theme)
— Madoka is indecisive and unsure (although she’s written that way), Homura’s characterization, ending animations

P.S. If you’re curious about hearing the thoughts of some people who are just now watching the series for the first time, I humbly suggest you check out the podcast Madoka Magicast to get their episode-by-episode reactions.


Review: Karakai Jozu no Takagi-san

Editor’s note: I swear, I proofread these things! Please believe me lol… (fixed a lot of embarrassing grammatical errors. Like, how do I not even notice… ugh, whatever…)

When the Winter 2018 season began, I was excited to see what new cool anime shows were coming out, and this was one that caught my eye with it’s fascinating name: Master Teaser Takagi-san. I was watching this week by week as it was coming out, but (unsurprisingly to me) I ended up falling behind at some point. A full year later, I finally finished it!

I wonder if I’ll finish any of the other shows in that season… (minus Pop Team Epic, which I stayed on top of every week somehow).

An Introduction

In some undisclosed city of Japan, we see two middle schoolers sitting next to each other in the back row of a classroom: a boy and a girl.

The boy, Nishikata, tries to come up with a plan for a joke he can play on the girl next to him. Maybe some folding paper toy that pops out and scares her, a funny face he can pull to throw her off, something… you may think this is a bit mean or unkind, but the reality is, that girl is Takagi, the master of teasing.

No matter what Nishikata tries to do, she seems to always be a step ahead. Pop out scary toy, she’s made a better one. Funny face, she has a funnier one. Takagi teases him constantly, day in day out, and now Nishikata is just waiting for his chance to get back to her.

Sometime, somewhere… walking to school, in the classroom, at a store together, Nishikata always has a new plan in mind and he won’t quit until he succeeds…

The Plot and Characters

Takagi-san is another example of a sketch comedy, slice-of-life type show, something I haven’t touched in a little while. This genre is honestly something I’m usually a big fan of, loving shows like Nichijou and Squid Girl. Takagi-san falls pretty much right in line with them on paper, but there’s some dissimilarities that do make this a different experience. As is normal with a sketch comedy, each episode is divided into a handful of smaller segments/parts, with each part usually focusing around a distinct topic. The parts can often times blend together or feature some transition from one to the next, but they generally stand on their own without any additional context needed.

Almost every part in Takagi-san (we’ll discuss the outliers shortly), though, feature one of two premises: either Takagi is teasing or flustering Nishikata, or Nishikata is trying to get back at Takagi but fails at the critical moment (often times by being flustered or overthinking things). When boiled down, every single segment fits into one of those two categories, all the way from episode 1 to episode 12.

In fact, we see exactly the same structure used three times in completely different occasions: episode 5 (“Bookstore”), episode 8 (“Typhoon”), and episode 11 (“Cat”). There may be more, I don’t recall, but they all go as such: Takagi comes across Nishikata doing something he finds embarrassing, she tries to get him to admit the embarrassing thing, and after he finally admits or Takagi drops the subject, she nonchalantly reveals that she knew all along. This is the same story being told 3 separate times, the only difference being the “embarrassing thing” in question (ooh, Nishikata likes cats, how scandalous!). There are some minute variations, if you really want to be pedantic, but since they’re spaced apart in different episodes, it makes those variations even harder to notice and thus makes the sketches feel even more repetitive.

This show is pretty much the definition of “formulaic”.

In my experience with slice-of-life shows, I usually see them do a couple things to break up the monotony and keep things from feeling stale. Most shows have multiple characters to split their attention across, and you’ll see the characters (and their varying personalities) in different combinations throughout the show’s run – Daily Lives of High School Boys takes this idea in particular to the extreme, by introducing a handful of new characters every other episode. You’ll see shows introduce more traits or twists to a character’s personality partway through the series, such as Kyoya brushing the girls’ hair in GJ Club, or Seo in Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun. These twists and additions keep it from being the same setup-punchline over and over with a particular character (sadly, I wish this was something they applied to the rest of Nozaki-kun). Lastly, some shows will put in some sketches with differing tones to help keep things fresh, such as Squid Girl’s highly effective dramatic segments, or a number of various recurring segments in Nichijou (such as Like Love). Even with the same characters, the same personalities, it’s enjoyable to see them painted in a slightly different light.

Karakai Jozu no Takagi-san, however, lacks most of that. 80% of the show’s sketches are just Takagi and Nishikata, with Takagi teasing Nishikata or Nishikata being flustered. It’s the same setup and punchline, over and over again; sure, there’s variation in the setting and topic of the sketch (from calligraphy to playing with smartphones to making a game around throwing cans in the garbage), but there’s no changes in how the two interact, and it’s always presented in the same light comedic tone. A few sketches (as in, once per 2 episodes) have the rare heart-string pluck, but those come at the end of the usual comedic banter. Takagi does have feelings for Nishikata, which she isn’t subtle at sharing in those rare moments, but – as you’d expect – these feelings go nowhere (in the original series).

The other 20% (the aforementioned “outlier” segments) is focused around 3 other girls: Mina, Yukari, and Sanae – so the show does try to break up the monotony in one form, at the very least. These are actually the main three characters from Ashita no Doyobi, a spinoff that takes place in the same school/classroom. Especially with Mina, these three are best described as comic relief; their sketches show them light-heartedly explore various topics in school life and early teenage years, and with the three different personalities, you’re bound to relate to at least one of them. They’re a fun distraction, but unfortunately, they’re not enough to really break up the otherwise incessant march of repetitive Takagi/Nishikata sketches.

I would’ve been interested to see the show delve more into some of the other supporting characters that otherwise only get a few lines throughout the whole series. Seeing something like Nishikata hanging out with his male friends, or that other couple Nakai and Mano… heck, even just seeing Takagi by herself, showing us what kind of “cute anime girl” things she does without having a Nishikata to tease… these things would’ve added some great variety. Maybe they could’ve gone somewhere with Takagi’s feelings for Nishikata, something genuinely sweet or fluffy, or at least a side of their friendship that is more than just teasing/being teased – some form of actual, genuine acts of friendship and connection between the two of them. There has to be some reason why Nishikata continues to subject himself to her teasing (minus simply “because he likes her too”). The show hints at and implies these things, but I feel they could’ve really gone much further to show us this; they had the perfect situation too with the tandem biking segments, but most of that happened off-screen. Just… any form of variety like this would’ve really helped this show a lot.

And so, you’re probably thinking I don’t like this anime a whole lot. We’re almost done with this section of the review, and all I’ve done so far is share a lot of negatives and complaints. … But at the same time, I did manage to stick with it all the way to episode 12 (albeit over the course of a full year), so what kept me coming back? Was it simply sheer willpower, so that I could write this review?

The truth is… Karakai Jozu no Takagi-san was still enjoyable. At the core of it, even beyond Takagi teasing a lot and Nishikata being flustered a lot… it shows kids just being kids. They’re middle schoolers, walking to/from school together, hanging out, eventually even texting each other. They have these ridiculous little games and challenges they do; it’s their unique laid-back way to add some levity and spice in their usual routine of going to school every day, dealing with chores and homework and tests. On top of that, they’re awkwardly trying to explore their friendship, themselves, each other, and the world around them. There’s an overall sense of innocence and basic joy that does come from this series, almost to the point of longing for those bygone childhood days of my own. Takagi-san is simply just a fun, relaxing ride; you can put on an episode, lean back, and have a chill alright time for the next 22-ish minutes. This show definitely won’t give you the highest highs you can get from other shows (in fact, it may not even come close), but it also never reaches the lowest lows either… again, not even close. It’s consistent, it’s relaxing, and it’s friends hanging out.

I don’t think the show was truly intended for me, or anyone, to delve so deeply into how the plots are structured, or even how one-note the characters are; it aimed to deliver a consistently light-hearted fun time, and that’s precisely what it does. But that doesn’t invalidate my criticisms either: as it is, I have a hard time recommending this show to my friends or really anyone. There’s other shows out there that deliver the exact same things, but with more variety and fun. Takagi-san is a good time despite the criticisms I’ve leveled at it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a better time to be had elsewhere.

I am still looking forward to the second season coming out later this year though. I’m hoping there will be something in it that wows me, but I’m not expecting anything except “more of the same”.

The Atmosphere

Although you wouldn’t think it at first, there’s some nicely-done visuals on display here.

The animation is fluid, the characters are expressive and have a sense of liveliness to them. The colors on display are good too; they all stand out, but yet stay subtle enough to not draw attention away from what needs the focus. The backgrounds are also good, with a decent amount of detail and the aforementioned good color (although the quality of detail can vary a bit). But on top of it all, there’s a surprisingly good display of camera usage and shot composition. A lot of scenes will have the camera in a fascinating position, or it’ll quickly focus in on a small detail (a hand moving, the eye of a character) when appropriate, sometimes effects like a wide-angle distortion or Dutch angle will be utlized at times too. The overall quality caught me off guard, they didn’t have to go the extra mile, but I’m soooo glad they spent the thought and time to do it.

This is very well exemplified in episode 9. The first segment, “Cell Phone”, implements a lot of the nice camera work and good background design I just mentioned. One of the middle sections, “Horror”, starts with Nishikata and Takagi erasing drawings on a chalkboard, and the drawing they’re rubbing the eraser over slowly gets blurrier and then disappears as they pass over it again and again. It’s a little detail that surprised me and it stuck with me for a while after that.

If I had to complain at all about the visuals, it would be that there are times the characters are drawn a tad funny or off. It’s not enough to be distracting (most of the time), but it’s enough to be noticeable. Also, strangely, the visuals seemed to have gotten better as the episodes went on, rather than worse. It’s as if the artists/animators needed a few episodes to figure out how to best draw these characters.

The character designs, at least for the main two, are great. Nishikata’s eyes are large with really tiny pupils, they add to his expressiveness, although they can definitely contribute to those off-looking drawings at times. Takagi has a distinctive head shape, with which she looks pretty cute at times – something the animators are very aware of and utilize well. I also like the designs for Mina and Yukari, with Mina’s bushy eyebrows and Yukari’s head shape and eye design. The remaining characters, by comparison, more look like your standard anime high schooler designs, there’s not as much to comment about. Hatching is used for some designs though, and that’s pretty neat.

Takagi-san’s soundtrack tends to rely mostly on woodwinds, which I found interesting. It worked out well for the show overall, as they were able to get emotions across surprisingly well with them. A bassoon (or something like that) is used for when Nishikata is trying a plan to tease Takagi, and it is pretty iconic. Strings and some other instruments do come into play at various points too, but it’s still definitely a lot of woodwinds. The show’s soundtrack isn’t exactly distinct and experimental enough to really become that memorable for me, but it’s still a decently-done job.

I don’t have too much an opinion in regards to the opening animation. It’s pleasant, but doesn’t really do much to differentiate itself at all from other comedy/slice-of-life style anime shows, unfortunately. I think that may be to the show’s detriment because I would’ve enjoyed something a bit more special for this show. Honestly, it’s kind of a pity too, because the show’s opening theme, “Iwanai Kedo ne.” sung by Yuiko Ohara, is actually quite nice and I enjoy it a decent amount.

The show ends up using a lot of ending themes and animations, though. There’s a total of 7 songs, each one is sung by Rie Takahashi, the voice actor for Takagi herself, and the animation is slightly changed for each song as well. The changes aren’t too significant, the ending animation is still primarily just Takagi biking alongside a river or a field or something (with or without Nishikata), and to be honest, the ending songs in particular aren’t that different either. It took me a few episodes to even notice the songs and animations were even changing at the end, and even when I did notice “hey, this sounds/looks different”, I still wasn’t 100% sure. While the opening animation has a hard time distinguishing itself from other anime in the same genre, the various ending animations have a hard time distinguishing themselves from each other. Crunchyroll doesn’t provide subtitles for the songs, but I’d fathom the lyrics are general fluffy love stuff. I’m definitely not opposed to having the different songs and animations and stuff, I genuinely welcome it, but how similar they ended up being, part of me wonders if maybe this time and effort could’ve been put into making one or two killer opening and ending animations.

I’m honestly not really going to complain that much, though. All the songs sound nice, the animations do their job and feel in place with the show. I love shows giving 110% into something, and since the visual quality of the episodes themselves is definitely where the animators did give that 110%, that’s really the most I can ask for.

Voice acting-wise, I was obviously stuck with the Japanese cast on Crunchyroll, but I quite liked it. Rie Takahashi does a pretty nice job as Takagi, although at times the laugh sounded a bit strange and forced to me. (Different people have different laughs, though, so I won’t discriminate.) Nishikata was played by Yuuki Kaji, and he also did a pretty nice job. It’s amusing to hear the same voice actor for Eren Jaeger in Attack on Titan take on this role in a relatively low-stakes setting, but there’s a distinct enough difference in how he voices the characters that you don’t immediately notice.

One thing I did notice though, with Yuuki Kaji playing Nishikata, is when he yelled or exclaimed something, you could definitely tell that he was in a recording studio. The shape and size of the room you’re recording in definitely makes a difference into how the final result sounds (as your voice echoes and different materials absorb or reflect sounds in different ways), and so I could tell this was the sound of an indoor room. It was amusing and a tad immersion-breaking when this happened, though, as it often happened while Nishikata and Takagi were outside or in a larger space, but I can’t imagine there was much they could do about it (probably cost more money that it’d be worth to rectify).

Final Remarks / TL;DR

As far as sketch comedies I’ve watched go, Karakai Jozu no Takagi-san (Master Teaser Takagi-san) fails to place among my favorites. It has a single joke, Takagi teases her friend Nishikata, and it does it over and over again; the differences between the various situations and the attempts to break it up with cameo segments from Ashita no Doyobi don’t do enough to break the repetitiveness either. However, the show was still a nice watch for me, because at the end of the day, it’s kids being kids and there’s a pure simple joy in that.

However, due to that repetitiveness, it makes this show a hard one to recommend. I did ultimately enjoy my time with it, but if someone came to me and asked for a show in this genre, I would’ve pointed them towards something else first (like GJ Club).

Rating: Good
Recommendation: Don’t Watch
+++ great animation, simple joy seeing kids being kids, Takagi’s design
— same premise over and over again, didn’t explore Takagi alone or side characters much, multiple ending themes but they all sound the same

Review: Devilman Crybaby

I don’t quite remember if there were any other Netflix-exclusive anime shows that came out before this one, but this was definitely the one that was talked about a lot after its release. As is usual for me, I didn’t get around to watching it until after most of the hype died down. … So, now that it’s 1 year later, how do I feel?

An Introduction

On this lovely planet of ours that we call Earth, two species actually coexist here: humans, and demons.

Well, coexist is a relative term. Most humans don’t actually know demons exist, and most humans that do run into demons… don’t live from the encounter. Demons are powerful, giant, shapeshifting, remorseless beings that simply want one thing: to be on top.

Somewhere in big city Japan, we’re introduced to Akira Fudo, a teenage boy who can’t help but find himself crying when he sees others being hurt. His childhood best friend is Ryo, also a teenager, but Ryo’s day job is being a college professor, and let me tell you: he’s loaded. Cha-ching! On an expedition in South America, Ryo discovered the existence of these demons, and he wants Akira to help bring them to light. It’ll end up turning into a long hard-fought war, humans versus demons, but humanity will end up on top, right?

Well, we can help tip the scales by forcing Akira to fuse with one of these demons, Ryo decides – transforming Akira into something new, something different… a Devilman. Immensely strong, charismatic, but still keeping his human heart and soul, Akira the Devilman and Ryo set out on their new task: it’s time to kill the demons.

The Plot and Characters

The first episode of this show is really fascinating, and helps paint a picture of how the entire series goes. You end up being repulsed by how strange and nonsensical the first episode is, but you’re still intrigued by the bits that do make sense (especially in the latter half) and that’s what keeps you coming back.

Well, there is also the unparalleled amount of nudity and sex present in this show. That may keep you on board… I won’t judge. 😉

You may come into these first few episodes of Devilman Crybaby expecting it to turn into your average monster-of-the-week superhero show, and you’d be forgiven to think so. I certainly did. While there’s a lot of fighting the demons and discovering just how pervasive they already are in the human world, the show turns immensely darker (and it’s already pretty dark in tone) around the halfway point, as the entire world discovers the existence of demons and everyone begins to panic. Akira and Ryo find themselves caught in the middle of this newly begun war of humanity versus demons, and how they react is what will change the tides. At the very end, this show turns itself all the way up to 11.

There is a large, gruesome story being told here, and it’s ramped up surprisingly well.

What surprised me even more, was along with this story going on, they were able to pull off the impression that this is a worldwide panic going on, all while keeping the bulk of the focus on Akira and Ryo. And this is just 10 episodes too. I’ve seen other shows try to portray a global epidemic or panic, but really fail at showing the “global” part of this beyond some spoken dialogue or a few generic shots (such as Aldnoah.Zero, although that’s far from the worst offender). In this anime, through the dedicated scenes of random unnamed people out there that our main cast comes across, you can see how the rest of the world is reacting too – it’s a show-don’t-tell setup that performs well enough for us to get the idea.

When you get right down to it, this show is excellently written, and a big part of that is its expertly crafted scenes. Every character you see on screen, you know what they’re here for and what they’re trying to do. You can really sense the impact of each scene, whether on the characters themselves, or on the world around them. There’s yelling, there’s panic, there’s heavy silence, and there’s true compassion shown on screen here; all these emotional notes are hit just right to allow us to see straight into the minds of these characters. Of course, not every single scene is a winner, but most of them are, and they’re able to . Devilman Crybaby has twists that don’t feel like plot twists, because its clever writing keeps you engaged and lets progression in the plot just come off as completely natural.

And indeed, every character here that’s given a name, they have a role and purpose in this story, even if it’s just a small one; without them, events would’ve played out differently. Even the random rapping teenagers from the first episode, most of them end up having a significant role to play, and – bonus – through the raps they make throughout the series, they do an excellent job at providing worldbuilding and painting the mood.

Miki Makimura is Akira’s long-time crush and other best friend (as well as a well-sought-after track athlete), and he actually lives with her and her family. Miki helps Akira not forget his humanity, and also helps Akira paint his moral compass as well. Miko Kuroda, while still friendly with Miki and Akira, really has a growing resentment for Miki and her track-star fame – she’s cast in the shadows while Miki soaks up all the attention. She gets some important characterization and plays a major helping role in the latter half of the series. And indeed, track and field is the sport majorly present here, although its inclusion seems odd and borderline unnecessary, beyond using the relay run as a metaphor towards the end of the series.

One major flaw with this show’s plot, however, is just how globally-famous a lot of these characters are. Ryo, along with being a super-rich college professor at the age of 16, garners a global audience through his weekly TV talk show. Miki and another world-famous track star Koda both have large followings on social media, capturing the attention of tabloid magazines and sports TV networks. It just feels unrealistic, all these characters with global attention and fame, as global fame isn’t nearly as fantastic and easy as this show makes it out to be. And unfortunately, this show relies upon this one flaw, as without them having this fame and adoring audience, this story wouldn’t be able to happen at all.

Overall, though, this show’s plot is very nicely tied in and cohesive. There may be small time jumps from episode to episode, but you can figure out what’s changed between then; the show feels like it doesn’t need to bog you down with the play-by-play, and honestly, it really doesn’t have to. This show doesn’t take its audience to be mindless or stupid, and because of that, it’s able to get through a lot in these 10 episodes.

However, getting through as much content as it does also means the show’s pacing does take a hit. It isn’t as wildly inconsistent as (insert train wreck show here) and it isn’t too fast as to leave scenes feeling unsatisfyingly short… but it’s not consistently great either. The important bits, the show will take its time on to let the full emotional impact soak in, but sometimes it goes a bit too slow. There’s a scene in episode 9 that is really important, but really kills the pacing for that episode, a sad fact given that it’s the second-to-last one. As well, the pacing in episode 1 also really isn’t great, and I suspect that may have dissuaded people from continuing this otherwise awesome show… at the same time, though, I feel I’m a bit more of a stickler for pacing than others may be though.

At the end of the day, though, Devilman Crybaby is a fantastic and unique experience, which was very obviously carefully crafted from beginning to end. It feels hard to believe this show which begins with a track and field practice in some high school in Japan moves on to an earth-shattering storyline and ending – an ending that is quite unique and definitively wraps up the show in the only possible way it can.

The Atmosphere

The visuals and character designs in Devilman Crybaby remind me of something out of a Mamoru Hosoda film, and I think this similarity comes down to one reason: a lack of gradient shading. Most other anime shows will use gradients to portray shadows and the roundness of people’s faces or body parts. Instead, here, there’s either no shading or highlighting at all, or even when there is shading, it’s a simple two-tone thing: one color for shadow, another color for not in shadow. Instead, a lot of the characters here just appear… flat. It’s not necessarily a good thing or bad thing; at the end of the day, it’s just something I’ve noticed.

Overall, the show’s art style and visuals seem to err more on the simplistic side. The flatter characters, the relatively featureless backgrounds, even the designs of the characters themselves. The demons we encounter throughout the series are probably the most complex designs on display here; each human character does look distinct however, such as with Akira’s cleft chin or the different hair styles and colors on display. The male characters here have quite varied hair styles, honestly. I also like the visual distinction between the Devilman (I.e. Akira) and regular humans – the eyeliner and darker skin tone; it’s a helpful visual distinction that the show uses to a decent effect.

The show’s animation tends to be pretty good, overall. There’s some surprisingly fluid areas, especially with character expressiveness in the lighter scenes; when they want a scene to flow smoothly, they’re capable of it. Unfortunately, the animators seemed to not have the ability to get around to applying this fluidity evenly across the series; you can notice some poorly choreographed action bits or less-than-stellar camera work. There’s also some scenes and moments with just still frames and shots. While some of it can be dismissed as a stylistic choice, it doesn’t shake off the feeling that this anime felt rushed in certain areas, especially towards the end. I could be wrong, but if it was released as the full 10-episode batch on Netflix even in Japan, then I don’t see why there would’ve been an issue with simply delaying the release a few weeks to clean it up a bit.

One positive – or at least interesting – thing that came out of Netflix being the platform of choice is the high amount of sexual content and nudity present in this show.

Even in the first episode, Akira and Ryo enter into a “Sabbath” party, with a large amount of naked people dancing and openly having sex. While obviously Devilman Crybaby doesn’t focus on these scenes long enough to really be considered a hentai, it definitely does toe the line a decent amount throughout these 10 episodes. This is all stuff you wouldn’t be able to get away with on actual TV, at least not without a large amount of the censoring white clouds of steam.

Amusingly, the English dub seems to shy away from the more sexual dialogue in the few places it comes up. Netflix allows you to display the subtitles while still watching the dub (something I really enjoy because I can compare the dub script to the more-direct translation), so when actual sex is displayed in the episode, the dub goes for more tame words than the subtitles seem to suggest. The dub, by the way, is surprisingly pretty good, with one exception: the young child versions of Akira and Ryo. Griffin Burns and Kyle McCarley do a great job as teenage Akira and Ryo, respectively. Also props to Johnny Young Bosh and Keith Silverstein for their portrayal of two of the rapping teenagers. I haven’t really tried out the Japanese voices much, but I have absolutely no troubles with recommending the English dub.

Devilman Crybaby’s soundtrack is, in lack of better terms, jammin’. While some of the music pieces go towards more your standard loud-male-choir-and-orchestra sound, most of the background songs rely a lot more on synthesizers and a groovy drum beat – something that wouldn’t be too out of place in the 80s or 90s. There is an everpresent undercurrent of something deeper or darker throughout all the songs, though, which is fitting. Admittedly, however, the soundtrack tends to fade a bit into the background with the various sound effects and people talking over it.

The opening theme is “Man Human”, by Denki Groove. It’s a strange song, the lyrics consisting of only the words “man” and “human”. The vocals are distorted and it also goes for that dark synth-heavy sound the rest of the soundtrack uses. It did not fail getting stuck in my head. The opening animation is a fluidly-moving series of black-and-white silhouettes, displaying Akira, Ryo, Miki, and some of the various demons they encounter throughout the series. I thought of it as little more than fancy Rorschach test blots at first, until I recognized the subtle shapes about halfway in.

The ending music is usually just one of the soundtrack pieces extended into the ending credits, with one stand-out exception later in the show: the theme “Konya Dake” by Takku to Tabibito is a slower guitar-backed ballad, with some synth-y sounds coming in a bit later on. It’s meh on its own, but given its contrast and placement in regards to the rest of Devilman Crybaby’s music, it stands out a lot more.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Devilman Crybaby is a fascinating series in a lot of ways, if not because of its exclusive airing on Netflix alone. It focuses in on the conflict between humanity and demons, with Ryo and Akira right in the center, and it goes through a lot in just 10 episodes. It’s backed by a rocking soundtrack, excellent writing, and a surprisingly good English dub.

This show is an easy recommendation for those who enjoy drama shows with a darker tone, and there’s probably enough action scenes in it to appease action fans… if you are on the fence, though, give the first few episodes a shot and see how you feel – assuming you have a Netflix account. As long as the explicit parts aren’t too much for you, I think it’ll be an engaging time for you.

Rating: Great
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ great writing, surprisingly good English dub, fun soundtrack
— visuals feel rushed at certain points, pacing takes a hit, characters are unrealistically famous

Review: Beyond the Boundary

Beyond the Boundary (known also as Kyoukai no Kanata) marks the fourth show since Kyoto Animation began treading its own path with Love, Chunibyo, and Other Delusions. Despite me having become a fan of KyoAni by the time this show came out, I wasn’t really as much of a fan to know what the studio was actually putting out.

So when I suddenly discovered the night of my birthday, October 2013, this brand new show being animated by Kyoto Animation, I watched the first 3 episodes that night. And then I stayed with the show all the way to the end. I remember enjoying it a lot, and that feeling of enjoyment stuck with me when Sentai Filmworks brought out the Premium Edition box for the show here in the US – which I went for.

Despite that, I never thought much or said much about this show since then, beyond simply saying “I liked it a lot”. Since I’ve recently been going through a lot of shows I enjoyed in my formative years as an anime fan, I figured I may as well return to this one as well.

(Edit: added a paragraph towards the end of the Plot and Characters section, wanted to make sure I hit all the show’s points clearly.)

An Introduction

While walking home one day, young Akihito Kanbara happens to look up and see a girl, standing on the edge of a school building, about to fall. A split second later, and he decides someone has to do something about this. And so up he runs onto the roof to try to talk her down.

This girl isn’t just some ordinary girl, though… which Akihito soon discovers, as her blood manifests into a sword and stabs him in the chest. Her name is Mirai Kuriyama, and she’s a Spirit World Warrior. But not just any; she’s the last of her clan, a clan with blood powers. Spirit World Warriors have one main goal: to exterminate “yomu”, magical monsters that cause havoc but can’t be seen by regular humans.

Akihito, our protagonist, is one such yomu… actually, a half-yomu to be precise. An extremely rare case indeed. But his yomu half grants him the power of immortality. So that blood-sword stab? It hurts, but it’s not gonna do much.

But Akihito is often seen as an outsider, a monster, a freak due to his yomu half. He’s really not a yomu, but he’s not really a human either. Mirai, on the other side, is seen as an outsider, a monster, a freak due to her unusual blood powers, which no other (alive) Spirit World Warriors possess.

And so with that single blow with fatal intentions, the two outsiders begin to forge a bond…

The Plot and Characters

It fascinated me, rewatching this show, going from “why did I even like this so much?” in the beginning to becoming enamored with it all over again towards the end.

I think I’ve talked about it before in my Nagi no Asukara review, but I’ve had times where I’ve finished a show feeling happy or satisfied, and those positive feelings will still be associated with the show as the years go on. It even lead up to the point where I got the premium edition Blu-Ray box for both of them. But when I came back to both of these shows, I wasn’t nearly as floored as I was the first time around.

Still both worth the premium box purchase though.

Beyond the Boundary sets up an interesting world, and even though today this setting is far from unique, it felt a bit newer back in 2013. (“Back in 2013″… I can’t believe I just said that.) Living secretly among us humans are these monstrous apparitions called “yomu” that feed off the despair of the people around them, and can only be seen by special people, here called Spirit World Warriors. A lot of these warriors are organized under various clans, such as the Nase clan, Inami clan, and Kuriyama clan, and these clans each exert control over all warriors in their respective area. At the same time, there exists a central Society of Spirit World Warriors which seems to operate all over Japan.

Here, through the eyes of Akihito, we see his unique experiences with one such clan, the Nase family. His closest friends are Mitsuki and Hiroomi Nase, the youngest of the Nases – and thus due to their age, they’re kept in the dark to all the inner workings of the family, even though they both so strongly want to prove themselves. Sitting as one of the heads of the clan is their older sister, Izumi, who, like the other clan leaders, shares very little with her siblings and is instead fine with being distant and cold. While the Nase siblings (and others) are all pretty definitively in the “secondary character” box, they do their role well as a supporting cast – although it would’ve benefitted the show greatly to have Izumi appear more often earlier on in the show.

Unfortunately, while something like Madoka Magica takes this idea of secret magical warriors and brings it to its logical conclusion, Beyond the Boundary is content with not going any further with its worldbuilding. Its casual approach to establishing how this world operates and showing the relationships between the secondary characters end up hampering it even when the biggest secrets and plot twists come to light in the final third of the show.

Spirit World Warriors can turn in the remains of yomu they defeat for profit, but what value these stones even have is left unanswered. The role of the Society of Spirit World Warriors is left a mystery, as is the actual relationship between the clans and this Society. Add onto this that the one character in the show said to represent said society, Miroku, may not actually represent them at all. Most egregiously, Miroku is never given a true motivation for his actions, even though the show builds him up as an antagonist from about episode 4.

Instead, the focus all comes down to the main pair: Akihito and Mirai. Pretty much everything that happens in this show, at some point, leads back to them. Akihito and Mirai are both oddballs, the weird special edge cases, that breaks the other characters’ conception of the world, so on some level, the attention they receive and the amount of conversation that centers on them does make sense. At the very least, Beyond the Boundary is clear on its intentions: these two are the ones we’re gonna talk about here, so if you’re not down for that, then get off the ride. But at the same time, the world here all centers around them, so we never get to see what the world is like outside these two; thus, the worldbuilding issues above.

To be fair to the show, though, they build up the relationship between the main pair surprisingly well. It’s not to say that how they wrote the romance between Akihito and Mirai is something that should be showcased as a prime example moving forward, but it’s a competent job that seeks to be different in a genre filled with clichés and repeated storylines. We get to see them explore a lot about each other (by actually physically confronting specters from each other’s pasts, a nice way to do show-don’t-tell), and they grow from a mutual dislike and “putting up” with each other, to a more compassionate friendship, and then to something deeper after that.

There’s another unusual sight, in which they’re able to build up this romance while also putting out your standard jokes about fetishes to the degree they have, and they still grow old just as quickly as they do in other shows. Akihito is all about glasses and “bespectacled beauties” (and, of course, Mirai wears glasses) while Hiroomi openly admits to a “sister complex”, to his younger sister Mitsuki’s chagrin. This show cannot go 10 minutes without mentioning one of these fetishes, and it gets tired fast. You early on get the feeling the fetishes were added in to check off that “personality quirk” box for these characters, but then they double down on it.

This high amount of focus on fetishes is most evident in episode 6, which – while being a fanservice-y filler episode – is arguably more popular than the rest of the show.

Beyond the romance, though, Beyond the Boundary is also a drama-focused show, with a bit more of a mysterious and darker atmosphere. There’s a lot of mystery and speculation – there’s always something going on, and always a secret not being told – although I’d argue this show has a bit of a problem with keeping everything a bit too close to its chest until episode 9. Episode 6 is a blatant open excuse to get the characters to dance around for a bit, but it’s also one of the rare times we get a break from all the action and deeper thinking and drama. This show’s plot never slows down otherwise.

At the end of the day, Beyond the Boundary is a fun watch, a good balance of drama and romance, all surrounding our main couple. It does keep all its mysterious stuff, well, a mystery, for quite a while – expecting you to just “roll with it” until then – but there’s still enough intrigue, action, and budding romance here to keep you watching. And then, it all pays off well in the final episodes.

The Atmosphere

As yet another show that was animated by Kyoto Animation, you probably know what my thoughts are about them by this point. They’re good at what they do.

Beyond the Boundary relies on darker colors than you see in most of the studio’s other works. A lot of purples, blacks, dark reds, a lot of night scenes… a loooot of night scenes. It’s a darker tone that matches the more serious dramatic feel the show is going for. The animation is really well done, as you’d expect with KyoAni, with the characters staying fluid throughout the entire show. In the years since they made Munto, they’ve improved a lot on action scenes, and it really shows here. The action is interesting to watch, fluid, and paced better. Throughout every scene – action, sad, or anything else – Kyoto Animation continues to shine when it comes to character expressions as well.

The overall designs of these characters are pretty good here too, which each one being distinct. As you’d expect, Mirai’s is the most memorable design in the show. But Ayaka and Ai, the yomu stone appraisers, are both stand out designs as well.

Yet another good thing on display here is the show’s background music, although it doesn’t stand out nearly as well as the visuals. There’s a lot of bells and symphony, to give that “magic” feel (as you’d hear in, say, Harry Potter) with choruses used to deliver the main melodies. It all stands out as unique and distinctive to this show, and also thoroughly cohesive thematically from start to finish, but doesn’t stand out enough to really be worth listening to on its own.

The opening theme, also named Kyokai no Kanata (sung by Minori Chihara), is pretty good, but probably not what I’d want to listen to a lot on my own. But it goes along with an opening animation which I actually really love because (minus the random sequence of clips in the second half of the opening) it shows Mirai coming into town for the first time – thus, kind of a prequel of the events of the show itself. It’s a small thing (it’s not like anything that exciting happens), but it’s a thing I like regardless.

The ending theme, Daisy by Stereo Dive Foundation, is absolutely amazing. I’ve put that song into my usual rotation of songs, I love it so much. The ending animation is flashy with colors and quick cuts and what-not; I like it a lot, even if it doesn’t have much substance to it.

Finally, we arrive to the voice acting. The English and Japanese voice acting are both at comparable quality here. Specifically, this quality is “oh, is that really how Mirai sounds like? That’s the voice they chose for him? Okay…” but by the end of the first episode, you’ve already gotten used to it. Mirai sounds squeaky on both sides (voiced by Risa Taneda in Japanese, and Krystal LaPorte in English), but after some reflection, I’m not sure if I’d have it any other way; it reflects Mirai’s inexperience and lack of assertiveness, but she begins to sound stronger and more sure of herself in both languages the further the show progresses. I’m impressed with how Sentai’s writers were able to translate over the various characters’ mannerisms and catch phrases (such as Mirai’s “Fuyukai desu” into “How unpleasant”). So my suggestion is, choose whatever side you want (sub or dub), and stick with it. You’ll do fine either way.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Coming back to Beyond the Boundary, I found myself liking it almost as much as I did the first time around. What the story lacks in worldbuilding and handling its antagonists, it makes up for with its romance elements and good visual and audio production. It’s a darker, more dramatic story than Kyoto Animation had animated in a while, and I think they did pretty well. There’s only so much you can do in 12 episodes.

If you’re into drama or magical action-y stuff mixed with drama, I’d say give this show a try, and see how you feel after a few episodes. If you’re a romance fan, however, I’d give this a pretty solid recommendation. Those last few episodes will really make you fall for the main two.

Lastly, give me a few moments to talk about the home releases here in the US, as there’s two versions: the standard edition and limited edition. They’re both essentially the same in terms of content, except the limited edition comes with the Episode 0 OVA (along with some small physical goodies). If you find yourself liking Beyond the Boundary, I’d suggest going for the limited edition, if possible, for access to that OVA. It’s some extra fun times for fans of the series. If you’re on the fence about the show, you can find it online at Crunchyroll and Hi-Dive. (In fact, Hi-Dive also has the Episode 0 OVA on there too!) Both come with the Idol Trial mini-series too, which is… meh.

Rating: Great
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ romance between Mirai and Akihito, ending theme (Daisy), interesting world/story
— lack of worldbuilding/antagonist motivations, bit too much fetish jokes, voice acting takes a bit to adjust to

Review: Free! Eternal Summer

(Editor’s note: I know this image is from the movie. But, hey, it features all the characters mentioned here, so… it works.)

With a smash hit (or should I say, “splash” hit) on their hands, everyone expected Kyoto Animation to continue with a second season of their show Free!, and indeed, this second season did come the following summer, 2014.

It was fun to jump back into this series, and I was curious to see where the show’s staff would be taking it next. Free! does have source material, the book called High Speed!, but that took place in the characters’ elementary school days, leaving the show’s writers with a lot of wiggle room to decide to do whatever they wanted.

And so, they moved forward to the next year in high school.

An Introduction

A new school year begins for all of our favorite swimming anime boys.

For Haru, Makoto, and Rin, this is now their final year of high school. If they want to make things count, now is the time to do it, as scouts from colleges all over Japan (and the world) are watching them. If you want to keep being a swimmer after high school, they’re the ones you’ll want to impress.

After getting over his own angst in the first season, Rin has reconciled with his old friends (Haru, Makoto, and Nagisa) and even made a few new friends in Rei and Ai. By sheer luck, he’s also found himself captain of Samezuka’s swim team, and he even has a nice plan set up with a college back in Australia. Indeed, life’s looking good for him.

On the Iwatobi side, though, there’s some troubles. Makoto doesn’t exactly know what he wants to do post-high school, although he has some ideas… but Haru? He doesn’t have any clue at all. Haru just wants to “swim free”, like he always has… but that’s not a job. Haru has one year of high school left to spend with his friends and to also figure out what he wants to do with life, and time is quickly ticking away…

That’s not all though. To add to Rin’s perfect life, he’s even reconnected with an even older elementary school friend: a muscular chum named Sousuke who is Rin’s equal (or more) in every way when it comes to swimming. Rin gets to spend his last year of high school surrounded by all his friends and with everything in order, but… something seems off about Sousuke…

The Plot and Characters

When it came to this new season of the show, people were probably just looking for “Free!, but more”. The show’s writers could’ve given us just that – a retread of the first season – and we’d probably be satisfied (although perhaps a bit underwhelmed), but instead, they went much further.

The issue of figuring out what you want to do after high school is something a lot of teenagers deal with every year. Although there’s been some shows that dedicate themselves to this issue, most of them simply lightly brush the subject or simply play it off as a joke or character trait. Here in Free! Eternal Summer, we dive right into this issue and with more time and gravity than other anime tend to.

And Haru is the perfect character to tackle this with. The first season saw him set in his ways of only swimming freestyle, doing only what he needs to do to keep his precious swim club running and enjoy it with his friends… but ultimately, he’s of a one-track mind and is relatively immature. At some point, he’s due for a rude awakening that he’s going to need to adjust to the world around him, and this is a nice setup for that. He’s conflicted, he’s unsure, and this really isn’t an issue he wants to even think about. Why can’t life be as simple as it has been? Even with his friends around him to help him out, they more become a source of stress rather than one of relief. This entire journey is executed extremely well, leading up to an amazing pre-climax episode 12. It is here that Haru is finally able to come to a decision; I’ll say that it left me a bit confused and maybe a bit underwhelmed, but it’s not mishandled either.

Beyond this more serious conflict, however, this 2nd season is still the same sports anime at its core.

Makoto, Haru, Nagisa, and Rei are still best friends and members of Iwatobi’s swim club. They take their friendship seriously and take their swimming twice as seriously. Their big goal this time: the Nationals competition. With all the introductions and getting-to-know-each-other moments all taken care of, we’re given the opportunities to do more deep dives into each of these characters. Nagisa, Rei, and Makoto each get a focus episode, and it’s honestly great. These characters are more fleshed out, and their interactions and lighter moments are as great as they’ve ever been. There’s still a lot of fun with this group.

On the other side, though, Rin and the Samezuka group as a whole got fleshed out as well. While I’ve had a lot of praise for Haru’s conflict and the Iwatobi side as a whole so far, there is one part that has bothered me consistently this entire season. (And, as much of a surprise it may be, it’s not Ai.)

Ai, this time around, isn’t quite as intolerable. A big part of the reason why is because Rin is past his angsty teenage phase and is actually a lot more mature now. He’s rekindled his friendship with the Iwatobi group, and while he still acts as their fierce competitor, it’s in good fun now and not really a toxic situation. This still isn’t done out-of-character for Rin either, where we’ll still see moments of him being angry and emotional, but we no longer need Ai to be the metaphorical punching bag for him now, and thus Ai can blossom into his own as a character.

As his own character though, Ai still isn’t particularly great, if I’m honest. He puts Rin up on a pedestal still, and his personality is basically “I’m going to grow up to be just like you, Rin” – which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it just feels a bit too innocent for my tastes, especially given that this is pretty much his only personality trait.

But no, my bigger problem is with the new character introduced this time, Sousuke. Sousuke is Rin’s elementary school friend before he met Haru and Makoto; Sousuke wasn’t so much as even mentioned before his sudden appearance this season, but yet he comes in and starts to act as an artifical divider between Rin and Haru. This seemed strange to me, and felt unnecessary and also highly unwarranted (Sousuke, you haven’t seen Rin in years, you don’t really have any right or reason to be protective of him). I feel the writers primarily wanted to write Sousuke as this season’s new big rival/antagonist, but they kind of back off it after the first few episodes.

(And to be fair, as far as new previously-unmentioned-childhood-friend characters appearing goes, Sousuke’s sudden appearance honestly isn’t too bad… Just wait until next season…)

Instead, Sousuke turns into another source of drama for this season, with his own (admittedly somewhat important) conflict. However, he blows his issue into something much larger by attempting to simply cover it up and not talk about it, when talking about it would’ve been the best idea all along. All in all, Sousuke’s problems and how they were written into this show seemed a bit half-baked and not done to the best of its ability. It comes off to me as “well, we have to do something with him now that he’s here”, but to be fair, a large majority of the show’s time is focused on Haru so they didn’t give Sousuke’s conflict the time it needed. It kind of stinks because it would’ve been a really good thing to focus on, just as much as the deciding-what-to-do-after-school issue, but it was shortchanged and then blown up into this coverup-attempt issue instead.

Another character is added on to the Samezuka side as well: Momotaro Mikoshiba. I didn’t really have a natural way to bring up his older brother Seijuro in the first season, but the connection between the two isn’t super important. Momo is primarily a comic relief character, and is generally a joy to have on screen. Sometimes he can be a bit much though.

Well, at the end of the day, what does this second season provide us? Well, more fun antics and a heck of a lot of swimming, that’s unchanged from the first time, but there’s also a much heavier heaping of drama and conflicts than the first season ever had. It’s honestly a good pivot for the second season to have, and despite my issues with Sousuke, it’s all handled pretty darn well. It can be hard as a sequel to tread the line between “sticking with what’s familiar” and “trying something different/new”, but I think this second season was pretty effective.

The Atmosphere

Much like the second season’s writing takes the first season and adds more stuff on top to good effect, the visuals do as well.

KyoAni, like any other studio or person, is always working on refining its work and improving – It’s easier to compare and tell since Kyoto Animation uses essentially the same style between most of its shows for at least a decade now – and you can definitely see some improvements between the first and second seasons. The improvements aren’t like earth-shattering or anything like that; the differences are more subtle, but still makes for a nicer looking experience.

Shading and lighting is handled a bit better, the characters have a bit more contrast and presence now, and the background work is handled a lot better this time around as well. The level of detail is even higher this time around, and it pays off with an absolutely great-looking anime. Episode 12 stands out as a very special mention, but I think episode 12 is just a very memorable episode overall.

While I described the first season as “playing it safe”, (and I can’t necessarily disagree with that assessment here either) I think that given the higher level of detail and simply this becoming the visual style to expect with this anime, it’s not really a complaint worth lobbing here. It would be cool to see the visuals push the envelope a bit more this second time around, but seeing the writing has already done that (for this show’s standards), that’s honestly enough for me. This season, since there’s a lot more serious moments and such, we’re treated to the darker color palettes a lot more often that the first season.

The music continues to be as awesome as it was in the first season. There are some great vocal rap tracks that play, such as the one when Sousuke confronts Haru for the first (and honestly only) time, but I feel they play them a little too short. I wish I got more of a chance to enjoy the great tracks, but I guess I can’t complain about any staying past its welcome, now can I? Either way, I would love to enjoy this soundtrack on its own… just haven’t gotten around to doing so.

Oldcodex comes back for the opening song, this time called “Dried Up Youthful Flame” (that’s a bit of a mouthful). The opening song is nice, but I still find “Rage On” (the first season’s opening theme) more enjoyable. The opening animation is a bit more fluid than the first season’s, and is also rather good and especially fitting for a 2nd season. The ending “Future Fish” is really enjoyable (again sung by the main 5’s voice actors), primarily because of the animated sequences that go along with the ending song. The characters dress up as various professions (such as Rin as a police officer and Nagisa as an astronaut) and are shown in various situations interacting with each other. It’s a lot of fun, and the song itself is pretty good too!

Just like the first season, the final episode has this ballad-sounding song used for the ending. Unlike the first season, though, I enjoyed this one a decent amount too. Alongside it was a slideshow of what the characters did after the ending, showing Makoto in college and the Iwatobi Swim Club getting new members. It makes for a nice final wrap-up of the season (and series, prior to the later movies and 3rd season coming along). At the very end is a small post-credits scene that calls back to that old commercial from 2013, which I found fascinating. Did KyoAni know how much attention it got in the West, or did they call back to it for some other reason? Either way, all this together left the season with a good and satisfying ending.

The voice acting continues to be great as well. The choice for Sousuke was really good, Yoshimasa Hosoya does a great job. I honestly haven’t heard the English dub for the 2nd season at all (since I no longer have access to Funimation’s dub library (thanks Sony)), but given how all over the place the voices were last time, I’m not expecting much better this time either. I recommend watching the series with subs.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Sequels always play the line between “sticking to what’s familiar” and “doing something new/unexpected” – going too far one way or the other can be underwhelming or alienating. Luckily, Free! Eternal Summer succeeds in combining both well by keeping the same formula but adding some extra elements of drama in a realistic and expected fashion. While there are some hiccups along the way, this second season proves to be just as great a time as the first.

When it comes to recommendations of a 2nd season of a show, it’s pretty obvious: if you’ve seen the first season, you’ll like the second. If you didn’t like the first season, you won’t like the second. Even though this second season adds a bit more drama and tension, it’s nowhere near enough to capture those who passed on this show the first time around.

Rating: Great
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ continues with the first season’s strengths, deeper dives into each character (especially Haru), visuals get an upgrade
— Sousuke’s addition seemed not planned out, Ai is better but still a one-trick pony, ending of main conflict left a bit to be desired

Review: Munto 2 – Beyond the Walls of Time

Combined together, the first Munto film and this one, Munto 2: Beyond the Walls of Time, total just under 2 hours. It’s amusing to me to write two separate reviews for this, when I also make reviews for series with 12+ episodes, which have a combined total of 5 hours or more.

Munto 2, as you’d expect, is pretty much the second episode of this two-episode shindig going on here. It relies very heavily upon the first film. Again, this is all as you’d expect.

Will this second Munto film have the same downfalls as the first one? Or will it be able to rise above and save the franchise?

(Also, I should mention: after these two films, there is an actual 1-cour TV series that recounts the story of Munto, although it goes by a much longer name and has Yumemi as the true protagonist. These reviews obviously don’t touch on that series, but I figured I’d mention it here in case I get questions/comments later.)

An Introduction

Over a year has passed since the day everyone saw the floating islands above. They only appeared for a few minutes, and no one understood where they came from or what they are… except for one person, Yumemi.

Since that day, Yumemi hasn’t seen or heard from Munto, or anything from the Heavens above. Those floating islands are still up there, still out of reach… But all of a sudden, random memories begin appearing in Yumemi’s mind. But these memories aren’t her own… It’s the memories of Munto! Why? Why is she receiving them? Is something happening? Should she be worried?

As it turns out, something is happening. In the floating islands above, Akuto has returned to the Heavens, but war still continues. Some kingdoms and rulers are wary about how long this sudden resurgence in Akuto power will last, and have decided to strike while the iron is hot: take over the other kingdoms and lands while they still can! Munto and his Magical Kingdom once again find themselves as the defenders. But on top of that, the assailants are curious about where and how Munto even brought the Akuto energy back from, and how to acquire this source for themselves…

The Plot and Characters

Munto 2 delivered in nearly all of the ways the first one lacked.

The story flows a lot better this time around, and there’s a lot more polish here too. On both sides, it feels like there’s an actual story to tell, rather than just being some random one-day-in-the-life setup that the first Munto film had (which, to be fair, you don’t really realize it has until you watch this one). The first film had a buildup, climax, all that stuff, but it felt more arbitrary and the two sides lacked any connection at all. Here, there’s actual progression.

On the Earth side, Yumemi becomes the sole main focus; she’s had a shot of self-confidence since her first run-in with Munto, but it doesn’t matter much now that the guy that gave her that shot has totally disappeared again… until he appears again. We follow her as she tries to reach out to Munto again, and we also see how Ichiko and others around her react to her actions.

In the heavens, the war continues, with Munto and Co. as the defenders once again. There’s a lot more thought about this whole setup this time too. Characters (including the bad guys from the first film) have names now, you have a sense of the political alliances/structure there, and they’ve also explained the barrier between the Heaven and Earth. All the context that was lacking from the first film, minus some wedged-in exposition dialogue, is here now. It’s no longer just Munto’s buds sitting around giving vague commentary, either; there’s battles, strategies, decisions happening now.

The characters in general have been fleshed out a lot too. Munto, the films’ titular character, actually has a personality and backstory now, despite him being delegated to the role of damsel-in-distress here (although that’s marginally better than his constant harassment of Yumemi in the first film). Ichiko, Gus/Gass (his name was retranslated for Munto 2), and Yumemi receive some development as well, and feel more and more like actual people.

All these things are really appreciated, and it frankly makes for a much better film than the first one. Things are a lot better when we actually have characters we can connect to, and a world we can buy into.

There were also some weird decisions made as well, though.

Firstly, the addition of a new character: a guy named Takashi. He’s said to be long-time friends of Ichiko and Yumemi, but this is the first time that he ever appears (incidentally, they wrote out that line in the English dub). Either way, his inclusion still seems weird, and frankly unnecessary. His biggest role in the story is being the plot device in two scenes, but that role could’ve just been delegated to background characters rather than writing in a full character and trying to shoehorn him into this circle of friends.

Secondly, Ichiko. She becomes a lot more protective of Yumemi this time around, but also tries to shut her down a lot, rather than being Yumemi’s beacon of support as she was previously. The film explains her change, and it makes sense at the surface level, I guess, but still… I honestly suspect they changed Ichiko so that there was a source of tension throughout the film. Without her… there really isn’t any on the Earth side. A lot of this film’s conflict relies upon Yumemi trying to reach out to Munto and understand what’s going on, with Ichiko trying to hold her back. If Ichiko continued to be supportive, it’d take a lot of that tension away. It felt weird and kind of sad to see Ichiko act this way towards Yumemi though.

Suzume, by the way, is relegated to more of a background role this time, and Kazuya is barely even mentioned.

The Heavens and Earth are still definitely treated as two separate entities, but there’s a tiny bit more connection now, and it’s a connection that makes sense. Munto 2 focuses on one side or the other for a long period before switching (with somewhat smooth transitions), so it felt more like we got to dive deeper into each side than we did the first time around. The two sides don’t constantly butt in to each other (sometimes quite literally) like they did in the first film.

Pacing is still great too, and in fact is even better than the first film. The extra 20 minutes over the first film allowed more quiet, refreshing moments between the big plot scenes.

The plot and writing certainly isn’t unoriginal, but it still felt like it was lacking that something to make it seem more meaningful. I think a lot of it may come down to the climax (and I’ll be vague, despite this film being 12 years old): beyond an emotional conversation, nothing much impactful happens. Visual effects occur, and that’s about it. No battle scene, the bad guys lose, bam, that’s it. The big scene that they were expecting to carry all this emotional weight, just doesn’t have any… and it’s due to one main reason: the relationship between Yumemi and Munto.

There really isn’t any chemistry between the two; the only interactions they had with each other in the first film is Munto appearing out of nowhere to bark at Yumemi until he disappears again. These two films say that he gave her the strength to believe in herself, and so that made her want to see him again, but that just wasn’t portrayed well in the first film at all. Since this relationship is what the second film depends upon for some conflict, and especially for the climax, unfortunately, this is where the second film falters.

It’s not even entirely the second film’s fault, either. It comes back down to the writing problems the first film had, and how poorly (and forcefully) that film executed its ideas. Munto 2 is such an improvement in so many ways, but since it depends upon you feeling a connection between Yumemi and Munto that the first film failed to create, its impact is considerably lacking.

However, at the end of the day, what really matters is whether I enjoyed my time with this film. And, honestly, I did.

Munto 2 improved in every single way that the first Munto didn’t, and I enjoyed that highly flawed film. There’s so much more to latch onto and soak in while you’re watching, with a more complete world and more interesting characters. It’s a shame that Munto 2’s biggest problem is a reliance on something the first film failed at, but it’s a fun time. I liked it, and, honestly, isn’t that good enough?

The Atmosphere

Just like the writing, the visuals got a very notable upgrade in this sequel too.

The art and animation looks dated by today’s standards, of course, but for 2006, you can start to see Kyoto Animation’s trademark high-quality work appearing. The backgrounds are a lot more detailed, you can see subtle changes in characters’ expressions and demeanors, and the visual effects continue to be good.

That’s not to say every shot and scene is great, high-quality stuff, but in comparison to Munto, this film very much feels like the studio has gotten a hold on their process, their style, and they’ve started to execute it well. Action scenes are still a weak point here, as a lot of them are simply one or two flashy effects and that’s it. You can sniff out some corner cutting and a few pain points, but you can easily look over those too.

Visually, it feels like KyoAni was definitely trying to be more ambitious. While a lot of the first film was generic small-city Japan scenes mixed with generic fantasy ones, there’s a decent bit more this time around. The climax takes place in a half-destroyed amusement park, for example. There’s more outfits for main characters and more background characters in motion. A lot of this ties into the improved worldbuilding too, but even the more-standard-looking small Japanese city locations feel more like an actual place, and the scenes and different countries up in the Heavens seem more fleshed out too.

Even if the climax ultimately didn’t give me much emotion, you could still definitely see the emotion in the characters’ expressions and movement. It’s a nice touch, and it’s something that’s now become standard for KyoAni.

Like the first film, music was used rather sparingly here – mostly only being brought out for the most dramatic scenes. Almost all of the pieces were piano-heavy; they do sound pretty decent, although it isn’t exactly a style I’d listen to much on my own. There was some melancholy and sad tones in there, which was fitting, and the pieces all blended into the film well in such a way that it wasn’t really even that noticeable when a music piece started or ended.

There is a main vocal ending theme this time around, but, frankly, it’s mostly forgettable.

The entire dub cast returns from the first film again, and a lot of my thoughts there apply here. Sean Schimmel somehow fits in a tad bit more as Munto now, but perhaps that’s just the Stockholm syndrome talking. Big shoutout to Kelly Ray as Ichiko this time around; her character got a lot more focus this time, and she hit it out of the park this time around. Ultimately, I’d still recommend the Japanese voices over the English dub, but the dub feels a bit more adequate this time around.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Munto 2 is everything the first Munto should’ve been. It has two interesting worlds, characters with depth, and much improved visuals to back it all up. There’s all the polish and quality here that makes this a much more enjoyable film over the first one. Unfortunately, the main conflict still heavily relies upon the first film forging a connection it failed to create, and this ends up sucking out a lot of emotion in the climax.

If this film wasn’t so connected to the first one, I’d recommend it in a heartbeat for any fan of mid-2000s anime. Honestly, I may still recommend people skip over the first film and go straight to this anyway. The Central Park Media DVD includes a “Munto 1 Recap” special feature that you just need to watch beforehand and you’re set. With that said, I say to give Munto 2 a shot.

Rating: Good
Recommendation: Give It a Shot
+++ much needed polish, improved visuals, focus between two worlds shifts better
— relies upon first film, Ichiko’s personality change, Takashi

Review: Munto

(Editor’s note: Do you know how hard it is to find a good usable image specifically from this 2003 film? It’s harder than I thought it’d be. So sorry if this one isn’t of the best quality.)

I’ve been a big fan of Kyoto Animation for years now. From my reviews of Nichijou, Chunibyo, and Dragon Maid, you’ve probably heard enough of me giving them praise. But one particular work stuck out to me.

Munto was a 2003 short film created and produced entirely within the doors of Kyoto Animation. This came years before they started publishing their own novels and anime, and even unlike those, this is a completely original film. Some say this was done to showcase the talents of the company (although a quick Google search couldn’t confirm this). Among all of the works KyoAni animated, even their lesser-known ones, this original anime is practically never discussed or mentioned.

It felt elusive, and so I was intent on seeking it out one day. … And ironically enough, my local library had a copy of the DVD release. I guess that wasn’t too hard to find after all!

An Introduction

Floating high above the clouds in the sky, are the magical islands of the Heavens.

There, human-like beings live, blessed with a magical power given to them by the gods: the power of Akuto. Akuto flows everywhere around us, and can be harnessed by these beings to bend and twist the fabric of reality. It’s a magic as powerful and fantastic as you can imagine… but, as the beings soon found it, it has its limits.

Akuto isn’t renewable, and every time they perform magic, a bit of Akuto is used up. Worried about the rapid, inexplicable depletion of their magical source, war broke out, and has continued for thousands of years. (Because, of course, using up more of your Akuto energy to fight this magical war is really going to make it last longer…) One faction of the magical lands decided the solution was destroy one of the magical kingdoms off the map so the remaining people can preserve the Akuto energy – the kingdom they chose was that of Lord Munto.

Munto, as you’d expect, isn’t going to just stand and take this, but he has a solution. Through divine sight, he found the solution to all their problems: a young Japanese schoolgirl, living on the Earth below, named Yumemi. Yumemi is the only Earth human who’s had the ability to even see the magical floating islands above, but little does she know of the power she truly holds.

And so Munto jumps from his island, down into the clouds and the land below, to a place where magical beings have never returned from…

The Plot and Characters

A lot of the introduction above discussed the issues of the magical world above, but Yumemi has an issue of her own:

One of her best friends – Suzume, the most childish one of the three – announced that she would be getting married to her delinquent boyfriend, Kazuya. And the marriage would be tomorrow.

As Yumemi and her other best friend, Ichiko, travel around the city to hunt down and confront Kazuya… and as the two of them simply process through this situation in general… this is where Munto appears. He appears suddenly, demands Yumemi hands him her powers, and gets upset when she doesn’t understand what’s going on. Frankly, I think anyone in her situation would be lost and confused, and even more so when Munto suddenly disappears moments later and Ichiko is left there wondering who the hell Yumemi was talking to.

Beyond this, there is absolutely no connection to the two worlds. On the one hand, there’s the magical Heavens in the middle of a war, and there’s the Earth, where Yumemi and Ichiko are dealing with what’s happening with Suzume.

Excepting for Munto coming down to harass Yumemi into submission, there is absolutely no other connection between the two worlds. Munto and Yumemi are the only characters from the two sides to interact, and literally no one else even sees Munto; on the magical side, only two other characters know of Yumemi’s existence, and that’s primarily only because they sit and commentate through everything the entire time. This strange dichotomy between the war of the Heavens and the domestic issues of Yumemi’s friends comes at odds sometimes; there’s one scene in particular where Yumemi and Ichiko are running around on-screen while a narrator exposition-dumps something about the magical world. It’s two distinct entities that just aren’t blended well together, primarily because they just have no connection to one another at all.

All in all, this film’s writing just seems to lack polish. The two sides lack any connection, Yumemi is (for no apparent reason) just “the chosen one”, Munto yells his demands at Yumemi rather than helping the poor girl understand what’s even going on (even though he realizes she doesn’t understand), the only character who has any depth whatsoever is Kazuya, and beyond his sudden appearances, all we see of Munto is him laying around on a rock. Finally, in the end, Yumemi just decides to help out Munto anyway, despite him giving her barely any explanation and she still believing him to be a hallucination.

Ultimately, I know that this is just a 50-minute film, and there’s only so much you can do in that time. But if they took this from a different angle – played around with this idea while sticking to the concept of “Munto must travel to Earth to have Yumemi save his world” – we could’ve gotten something interesting. Instead, we ended up with this mish-mash of two very different settings and two very different problems, with an insensitive (and mostly absent) titular character.

That’s not all to say I despise this film though. There’s enjoyment to be had here.

Although the two aren’t blended together at all, you get caught up in the drama surrounding Kazuya and Suzume on one hand and the plight of the magical people on the other. It may’ve been because Kazuya was the only character with development, but you begin to root for him and Suzume during the marriage scene. They may’ve relied upon the “chosen one” trope, but you do get some cool moments where Yumemi contemplates her role in life and the idea of responsibility.

On top of that, the film’s pacing is good, for as much as they have to squish into 50 minutes. Excepting for a surprisingly fast beginning, things move at a pretty good pace; fast enough to get everything in there and keep people from being bored, but slow enough to allow people to digest what’s going on and to allow scenes to have the impact they deserve.

In the end, I wouldn’t consider this a film to avoid. But I’d also consider it one not worth your time to go out and see… unless you really want to see everything Kyoto Animation has ever done.

The Atmosphere

This film is indeed animated, and fully created, by Kyoto Animation.

For a 2003 work, the animation is pretty decent. For a studio that is commonly associated with high quality visuals, however, KyoAni’s work with Munto here seems more standard-fare for 2003 than above-average. There’s not much of an attention to detail here, the backgrounds look relatively plain (although it is all bright and colorful), and characters – especially background ones – just aren’t very animated. There are, of course, exceptions to each point I listed. There’s a magical being named Gus who is at the front lines of these magical wars, and there’s been a lot of detail applied to him – especially his weird arm markings – and he oozes character in his poses and movement. The next character that comes close, animation-wise, is Suzume. As well, the backgrounds used in the magical kingdom are also pretty detailed, as well as some background work down on Earth during in the climax of the film.

The rare times visual effects are used, they’re top notch for 2003. This includes Gus’s arm markings, floating screens used in the magical world, as well as some effects in the action scenes and the climax. The 3D models used at some points do stand out quite a bit (especially the moment Yumemi’s mom parked her car during the marriage scene), but they’re used sparingly enough to not really cause a problem.

The film’s few action scenes are handled not too well, although this was a weak point for KyoAni in this time period (in my humble opinion). The first fight scene features Gus against an entire army, and a lot of white-light visual effects were used rather than animating much fighting. There’s a fight that occurs between Munto and an assassin robot, but that’s done almost-entirely off-screen.

All in all, the animation and visuals certainly aren’t bad, but they’re average. And for KyoAni, especially given their reputation today, that’s saying something.

There’s not really much music used throughout this film either, honestly. I could count with my ten fingers the number of times a song is used during a scene, including the song used for the ending credits. The songs aren’t bad, but they’re definitely forgettable. The ending theme (which is also featured in the DVD menu and all of the DVD’s special features, and also the included trailers for the anime) utilizes what sounds like generic MIDI instruments (and it also gets a bit grating when used literally everywhere in the DVD).

Speaking of the DVD, this is a Central Park Media DVD. And you know what that means: an okay-to-bad CPM dub. And this dub… is pretty meh. Veronica Taylor does decently well as Yumemi, Dan Green and Micheal Sinterniklaas play Gus and Kazuya pretty well, respectively… but Kelly Ray’s interpretation of Ichiko was weird-sounding at points, and Sean Schemmel’s voice just didn’t really match up with Munto at all. Overall, I’d suggest watching the Japanese voices if you seek out this show.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Munto is a film with two stories to tell, and not a good way to tell them together. In the end, we get this weird mish-mash of magical world battles and Earth-side romance quandries, with both only being bridged together with Munto, the titular character, jumping from one and trying to butt into the other. Polish and direction is what this short film lacks, and it isn’t made up by the visuals or sound work either.

If you’re interested in the complete history of Kyoto Animation and want to see every work by this company, that’d be the primary reason for watching this show, I feel. Beyond that, it’s a lesser-known, poorly executed, 50-minute, 2003 anime film that really doesn’t need your time. Don’t go out of your way to avoid it, but there’s better stuff out there.

Rating: Poor
Recommendation: Don’t Watch
+++ Kazuya and his storyline, Gus and his storyline, great visual effects
— storylines don’t connect together at all, everything Munto, action scenes not great