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

Review: Daily Lives of High School Boys

My first experience with this show was during my freshman year of college. I had a friend for a short while whom I’d spend a lot of time with, and she was a huge anime fan (especially One Piece). One day, while going through her to-watch list, she picked this one out and we decided to just go through it as much as we could. We completed the entire series in 2 sittings, but honestly, most of those 2 nights were a blur. The show did stick with me, though, and eventually I decided to buy the premium edition Blu-Ray release.

After my recent rewatch of Nichijou, I decided to jump straight into rewatching this show afterwards. I didn’t remember much of this show, but I did remember it being similar to Nichijou, and I wasn’t ready to be done with sketch comedy anime yet.

(Edit – 29 August 2018: This review was updated to complete a paragraph I apparently never finished. How professional I am lol)

An Introduction

In a sleepy, average Japanese town, our main character Tadakuni runs out the front door of his house, toast in mouth, knowing he’ll be late for school. He soon runs into his two best friends, also running late: Yoshitake and Hidenori. … But rather than the traditional toast in mouth, Yoshitake is running with a plate of curry and Hidenori is slurping up a bowl of noodles.

And on top of that, a light beam comes out of the sky, destroys half the city, and the three boys find themselves face to face with a giant mecha. Luckily for them, a magical book appeared, transforming them into warriors and wizards, ready to fight. Yep, just another day in their normal lives.

… Wait, that’s that normal? Then, what does the average life of a high school boy look like? Well, I’m glad you asked, because this anime will gladly answer!

The Plot and Characters

It’s kind of hard not to compare this show to Nichijou, and it’s especially harder when you watch them back to back as I have.

On the surface, the premise of the two shows is similar: a sketch comedy series focused upon the surprisingly-interesting daily events of a group of high school friends (and others around them). What sets Daily Lives of High School Boys apart from Nichijou, though, is that while the latter tends to be absurd and go beyond what’s physically possible, this show more focuses on social issues and perceived societal norms. (This doesn’t necessarily mean this anime doesn’t ever have absurd moments, nor does Nichijou avoid social topics, however.)

Ultimately, Daily Lives feels like the “manly” version of Nichijou. It lacks the playfulness and purity present in Nichijou, and this is apparent out of the gate with the very first sketch featuring the main three boys trying on Tadakuni’s sister’s underwear. Masculinity (and quasi-punkishness) runs rampant throughout the series, both in the sense of “guys doing guy things” and acting tough, and also with guys struggling to conform to societal pressures of what a guy should be/do. Although that sounds deep and philosophical, the show rarely ends up going far that direction, though; this is a comedy, after all.

And the jokes here aren’t half bad… most of the time. Most sketches in Daily Lives last over a minute, so the funny ones have the time to build up to a great punchline, but the unfunny ones… they can cause me to lose interest in the show altogether. However, this most likely comes down to the show’s tone just not matching up to my sense of humor, though. I honestly have to say Daily Lives has some pretty dang good writing, even if every joke wasn’t to my taste.

What helps this anime stay intriguing is the constant influx of new situations we’ll find characters in. Jokes and sketches certainly get reused, but I’d say there’s only about one-to-two per episode. New characters get added, the same characters are presented new challenges, and are sometimes put into new settings. There’s a certain level of unpredictableness and new situations in Nichijou, but a lot of it would still result in an overdramatized (although still funny) reaction. Here, though, they’re truly unique and different situations, and you see new characters deal with new problems they’ve never encountered before, and it’s just fun to watch.

There is a wide cast here, and as I mentioned, new characters are added at the rate of about 3 per every 2 episodes. In the end, it does mean we end up with some characters (including supposed “main character” Tadakuni) not even appearing for some episodes. Each character has their own personality and traits, though, which allows the writers to approach various situations and topics from a variety of angles. (Although very few end up being very deep, which is both to be expected but yet disappointing). Some characters are one-trick ponies, and the various personalities more felt like checking off a list (which is admittedly extensive) rather than creating organic relationships.

The main trio of Tadakuni, Hidenori, and Yoshitake are basically just the straightman and two jesters. The show doesn’t stick to the “funnyman and straightman” schtick though, and it honestly has more comedic variety than Nichijou itself. Beyond the main three, there’s other boys, like the student council (including Motoharu, the intimidating-looking-but-kindhearted; Karasawa, the stone-willed one with the hat; and the council’s president, who is charisma incarnate) and characters from other high schools, such as Literature Girl – a girl who wants to see her own written stories acted out in real life, with strangers unwittingly playing the main role.

A number of episodes also end with a segment called High School Girls are Funky, which features three girls who, like Tadakuni, Yoshitake, and Hidenori, just hang out together and do stuff… although a lot of that “doing stuff” usually leads to harassing Karasawa (one of the few characters who appears in both this segment and the main show).

The entire show carries the same tone, even in the High School Girls sketches, despite the content of various sketches and mannerisms of characters being completely different. It never feels like you’re not watching a Daily Lives episode. The show’s pacing is also excellently done (and surprisingly consistent) up until near the end of the show. In the final episodes, it felt like they were starting to run out of steam and padded some of the sketches so the punch line didn’t arrive too early. It’s a difficult balance not having a joke run too short or too long, and the writers came so close to doing it perfectly for the entire series.

All in all, though, I can’t praise the writing enough. If you’re a fan of sketch comedy anime, including Nichijou, this is the next show you should watch.

… But don’t watch them back to back as I have. Watching them back to back made me hyperaware of the (even minute) differences between Nichijou and Daily Lives, and showed a few more cracks in Nichijou than I had even expressed in my review of the show (and, likewise, a few cracks in this show as well). No show is perfect, of course, but I feel that Daily Lives of High School Boys stands best when it’s not put directly beside another show.

The Atmosphere

The animation and art for this show is, surprisingly, average. Again, this may be the result of me jumping straight to this show from Nichijou, but characters don’t move as frequently (or fluidly) as I expected them to.

The background art has this strangely clean, almost-blocky look to it – due to the usage of perfectly straight lines everywhere, with no blemishes or imperfections anywhere unless it was intentional. It almost feels a bit surreal and manufactured, rather than a lived-in place, and didn’t seem to match up too well with the somewhat impure, punk-ish tone of this show. This problem is further exacerbated by the bright color scheme used throughout as well; the background colors look mostly washed out, though, and overall seems a bit too watercolor painting-y.

This is contrasted by the character designs which tend to feature darker, deeper colors, and (despite their simplistic look) display more expressiveness and individuality. The characters do sometimes have a problem of looking a little bit too similar, but the show constantly reminds us that it doesn’t matter for us to keep track of who is who (a sentiment I don’t necessarily agree with, especially given the ending sketch).

This is not all to say that Daily Lives is a bad-looking or poorly-produced show, no. This show is truly enjoyable, and there’s no “in spite of” at the end of that sentence. It just surprises me a bit to not see more invested into the visuals side of things, although I’ve certainly been very spoiled by the absolute fluidness and quality of Nichijou’s visuals.

Daily Lives’s soundtrack relies heavily upon electric guitar, unsurprisingly, but it all feels very same-y to me. I’m certainly no guitar aficionado (especially of the electric kind), but the music just kind of blends together and nothing really sticks out… excepting for the pieces that actually introduce other instruments, such as piano. All in all, the soundtrack is pretty decent, though, and it blends beautifully into the energy and tone of the show (as a good soundtrack should), but the lack of any individual track standing out keeps me from really wanting to listen to it on its own.

The opening theme is Shiny Tale, by Mix Speakers Inc., and it’s pretty good, if not a bit too action anime-esque (although I’d bet that’s probably the feeling they’re going for, as the opening animation also is quite action anime-esque).

However, the ending theme – O-hi-sama by Amesaki Annainin – frankly sounds a bit too quirky and cheery for this show. It’s a totally fine song in its own right (although, honestly, it kind of sounds like two people who found some cheap instruments online and decided to jam one day in a garage), but I’m always taken out of my suspension of disbelief once the song starts. Despite the show’s consistently good writing, O-hi-sama (and the accompanying ending animation) is the one exception to the consistent tone; it just feels strange and too different from everything else and it sticks out like a sore thumb. Funnily enough, O-hi-sama wasn’t originally intended to be the ending theme of Daily Lives. A different band’s song was planned to be used, but after some band members publicly insulted the show and one of the voice actors, their song was taken out and Sunrise improvised together a clip show for episode 1’s ending while this new animation was made to go with O-hi-sama.

Daily Lives shines spectacularly with its voice acting, though, and I have to give major praise to the voice actresses of the three girls in the High School Girls segments: Yuu Kobayashi, Chiwa Saitou, and Yukana. They do absolutely wonderfully in their roles and sell their characters 110%. Tomokazu Sugita does a great job as Hidenori as well.

If you’re looking to buy this show in physical form in the US, NIS America is the company that holds the license. NIS America tends to do good work when they bring over anime to the West and this is no exception. There is no dub here, but that’s alright. However, you should save yourself the trouble and not bother with the premium edition box; not only is weirdly long (which makes it awkward to fit onto an anime collection’s shelf), but the included art book has little more than a character list and an episode list. Granted, the entire book is written in the tone of a survival guide for high schoolers, which is amusing, but none of it is worth the extra time/money to try to find and acquire.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Daily Lives of High School Boys is another example of a well-executed sketch comedy anime. The writing is awesome, even if not every joke lands the mark. The show’s presentation is marred by unnaturally-clean background art and an out-of-place ending theme, but there’s twice as many positives as there are negatives.

As I mentioned in the review proper, Daily Lives is seen as the “manly” version of Nichijou. Cuteness and cheerful purity gives way to punk vibes and discussion of social issues. Unless the cuteness is what keeps you attached to Nichijou, you’ll be sure to find some laughs in Daily Lives. This is another comedy anime that should be put onto your to-watch list.

Rating: Great
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ excellent writing throughout, character designs, High School Girls
— weirdly too-perfect background art, ending theme, not every joke lands

Review: Nichijou

Nichijou header image, featuring the three main leads (Mai, Yukko, Mio)

Edit: I added and changed some things in this review after its initial posting. I wasn’t truly happy with how this review turned out, and so I made some adjustments. No changes in opinion or anything, but hopefully it reads a lot better than it did originally.

Years and years ago, I watched my first ever anime: Fullmetal Alchemist (2003). I fell in love with it immediately, and was excited to see more anime from there. The second one was the romance anime B Gata H Kei (truly a generic romance show, but I still love it). And anime number 3 I completed: Nichijou.

I can’t remember when or how I came across it, but I bet it was due to me finding a random GIF or video from it on Tumblr. It intrigued me enough to look out for it, and I was happy to find that it was available on Crunchyroll at the time, and so I sat down and gave it a go!

Now, years later, I’ve been revisiting a lot of the first shows I watched, and I was excited to jump back into Nichijou again.

An Introduction

In the city of Tokisadame in central Japan, a new school year begins. Three high school freshman become new friends, named Yukko, Mio, and Mai. Yukko is energetic and overdramatic, Mai is super quiet and super eccentric, and Mio is the straight woman (and closet manga artist).

Elsewhere in the city, there’s a young eight-year-old girl named Hakase (Japanese for professor), and beyond her youthful desires for fun and cuteness, she’s super smart and has created a robot teenager named Nano. Nano wants nothing more than to be a normal teenage girl, but that’s hard with a giant wind-up key sticking out of her back. Soon enough, they are joined by a new pet cat named Sakamoto, and he’s been given the ability of speech through yet another invention of Hakase’s.

Every day is a new (strange) adventure for each one of these people, and others not listed above. With the different personalities, senses of humor, and mental states, anything is possible. While all these things may look weird to us, for these characters, this is just another part of their ordinary life.

The Plot and Characters

Nichijou is truly a fascinating show.

At its core, Nichijou is a sketch comedy show, but its focus is on the day to day lives and activities of the people in the town of Tokisadame. There aren’t really any truly dramatic moments in the show (some heartwarming ones towards the end), but one of the things that makes it great is how it overdramatizes the otherwise inane snippets of life.

There are about 10 to 15 sketches per episode, but a number of them are the shorter couple-second-long ones, like characters trying to jump rope, and some recurring segments, such as Helvetica Standard (a random grab-bag of jokes), Things We Think Are Cool (which speaks for itself), and Like Love (heartwarming stories of kindness and love). These shorter segments tend to be more straight setup-punchline jokes, while the longer segments have longer or more complicated setups and tend to be more overdramatic. These sketches can range from Yukko trying to understand a new coffee shop’s menu, to one character trying to disprove the existence of supernatural beings, to Nano figuring out what to do with a cockroach she found, to the three main girls putting together a house of cards. The wide variety and the unpredictability are some of this show’s strengths.

A sketch featuring any combination of Mai, Yukko, and Mio make up about 55% of the total sketches, I’d say, with Nano and/or Hakase (sometimes appearing alongside the main three) being another 35%. The remaining 10% are random other characters around the town, such as the main three’s homeroom teacher, or an older tsundere girl with a crush on a “rich” farm boy named Sasahara, or a club president who created the Go+Soccer club to skirt around school regulations coming to learn that Go+Soccer is a real sport.

The side characters honestly are fascinating, but although I do wish we got to see more of them at times, the show made sure they got as much mileage as they could and didn’t go any further. None of these characters overstayed their welcome, and the only one that felt underutilized was Nakamura, the teacher dead-set on proving Nano is a robot. Some of them definitely only had one or two recurring gags, though, such as Nakanojou.

However, we spend a lot more time on the main characters. All in all, I’d say they’re pretty good, but I do feel they relied a bit too heavily on one or two key traits for each of them. Mio is pretty well-rounded (and feels like an actual person with real goals and desire for order, even in this world of chaos), but still gets left as the straightman most of the time. Yukko is the try-hard comedian, but she’s constantly portrayed as lazy, unreliable, and idiotic, sometimes to the point where these traits overshadowed who she is as a person. This, unfortunately, can lead to Yukko sometimes becoming stale as she keeps being cast under the same light over and over again. The only relief she gets from this is when she’s cast as the straightman instead, which frankly doesn’t make things much better for her character. Mai is, frankly, an enigma, and can sometimes be on a level of comedy never before encountered; her actions don’t make much sense in the grand scheme of things, but she’s a lot of fun… even if sometimes her actions are counterproductive. However, of the three of them, we know the least about Mai, and she frankly feels the least like an actual person, and more like some weird caricature of comedy.

For the other three of the main cast – Nano, Hakase, and Sakamoto – they do feel like actual people, but still get stuck in their ruts. Nano and Hakase are both equal parts strange and fascinating; there’s a conflicting power structure as Nano acts as the mother figure, but yet 8-year-old Hakase is Nano’s creator and holds the keys. Hakase’s childish nature is portrayed pretty well in the show, even if it means her childishness sometimes leads to skits that all just feel the same as a result of her poorly-thought-through actions. The last addition, Sakamoto, is more like the outsider trying to wedge himself in as the top dog (err, cat) of this strange power dynamic, but is constantly being pulled down into the wackiness of the other two. Of the two main trios, this trio tends to be a bit less enjoyable to me, but I still get a lot of fun out of these three and it certainly doesn’t taint my experience with the show.

A lot of the sketches are pretty stand-alone affairs, and little context (beyond knowing who’s who and basic connections with each character) is needed to watch most any skit. There is an overarching story, told through the My Ordinary Life segments and some accompanying ones, but it’s pretty thin. All in all, this show is more about what’s happening in the moment.

Nichijou is commonly said to just throw out a bunch of humor styles and aim to please everyone, which I once believed to be true. However, to be honest, Nichijou’s bread and butter comes down to people dramatically overreacting to events, or people zigging when you expect them to zag (and then doubling-down on it). Nichijou tends to be downright absurd and over-the-top, and it revels in it. Things explode and litter the city in garbage, planets get destroyed, and there can be a lot of yelling. The absurdity is absolutely part of the fun of the show, and it’s present throughout. There are certainly the occasional sketch that’s truly different (such as My Ordinary Life Part 33 and Part 69, and the Helvetica Standard sketches), but if overdramatization and absurdness aren’t your cup of tea, the rare moments where they aren’t present won’t be enough for you to keep your interest in the show.

All in all, though, this show is a blast, and a lot of is pretty funny or at least highly entertaining. I had forgotten about a majority of this show in the many years between my first watchthrough and this recent one, and so it was almost like I discovered it all over again. Sometimes, I’ll admit, the overdramaticness and strangeness did sometimes start to drag on a bit, but Nichijou is generally written well enough to not let anything become too stale. At the end of the day, it was just great to be able to experience it all over again.

At the end, Nichijou left the same hole in my heart as the one I had when I first finished it years ago.

The Atmosphere

I’m going to try my best to not come across as a major Kyoto Animation fan that gives them too much credit, but we’ll see how that goes. While I’d say that not many studios would be able to execute Nichijou with such consistently high visual quality, I don’t want to say it’s a show only Kyoto Animation could’ve done.

For sure, though, the animation and visuals are certainly wonderful. Kyoto Animation’s photorealistic style was dialed back to only being used in transition scenes, but it allowed them to give 110% into fluidly giving life and style to the more-simply-drawn characters and backgrounds. It feels what would be the quality of your generic slice-of-life anime’s final episode is reached in Nichijou almost every single episode. The motion is just fluid, the colors are light and pastel, and they’ll play with colors and cinematography to help make scenes better as well.

That isn’t to say that every single scene is a truly arthouse masterpiece – there’s the quieter, simpler moments too – but I honestly can’t think of a single situation where Nichijou didn’t look at least “good”.

The character designs, in general, are pretty simple; you could probably assemble the looks of most of these characters while only using basic shapes, but the rounded corners, expressiveness, and eye design still made them pretty adorable and fun to watch. The design style fits into the colorful and light nature of the show, and surprisingly doesn’t feel out of place in the more intense, absurd moments either. That’s probably helped by the fact that characters don’t necessarily stay on-model, but this happens at carefully planned times to make sure the most impact is given to the script.

All in all, with the pastel colors and fun character designs, Nichijou has a fun, bright, positive look to it. It just looks inviting and playful, which matches perfectly with the writing’s tone.

While the visuals were fantastic though, the background music left a bit to be desired. I noticed a lot of the same tracks being repeated over and over; it’s to be expected in comedy/slice-of-life anime, sure, but it felt a bit much. A lot of the tracks rely upon wind instruments, such as the flute and trumpet, although a capella singing does make its appearances at times (and those times do help set the soundtrack apart). The tracks are pretty good, but a lot of them are reused so often, though, that it’s hard for me to really know what “feel” they’re going for… although I wouldn’t go as far as to say they fail at bringing anything to the table. I just wish there was a bit more variety.

The two opening themes were sung by Hyadain, and I do prefer the first one (Hyadain no Kakakata Kataomoi-C) a bit over the second, but they’re both energetic and upbeat and fun, and the opening animation matches that as well. When it comes to the ending themes, the song Zzz was used for the first 13 episodes, and then a unique song was used for the last 13. There were actually three renditions of Zzz: the original one, the a capella one, and the bossa nova one, and they switched between them throughout the 13 episodes. I rather like Zzz (although the a capella version wasn’t my favorite) and the ending animation was also cute. The last 13 episodes’ ending themes ranged in quality, but were generally pretty alright; the ending animation for them (they shared the same one) was a bit simplistic, though, but still not bad. It was kind of fun to try to identify everyone walking along in the animation, since some of the characters were super minor.

Funimation did not make a dub for the show when they brought it over to the US, which is kind of saddening, but with it coming out on Blu-Ray in the US 5 years after it aired, I’ll take whatever I can get. Either way, the Japanese voice actors did pretty well in their roles. I wouldn’t call the performances spotless (in regards to the female leads not sticking to their voices), but all in all, it’s pretty good. Major props to Yoshihisa Kawahara, voice actor for Kojiro Sasahara, who did a tremendous job.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

This is a sketch comedy anime that other sketch comedy anime should take notes from. Although a lot of its jokes relied upon just being overdramatic, Nichijou never failed to be a fun time and to bring a ton of variety and wackiness to the table. The writing was backed by an awesome presentation put on by Kyoto Animation, with truly quality animation from start to finish and wonderful opening and ending songs.

Nichijou was a cult hit for a long time, but it’s unavailability overseas (unless you were Australia) hampered its exposure in Western markets. Now that it’s out on Blu-Ray in the US, I’m excited to see what levels of popularity it can reach now. I highly recommend everyone give it a watch, you’ll know by the end of episode 1 if it’s for you.

Rating: Great
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ awesome comedy, animation is consistently good, ending song Zzz is awesome
— Hakase can sometimes be a bit much, soundtrack lacked variety, show’s treatment of Yukko

Review: Yuri!!! On Ice

 

I did it, everyone! I finally watched the one show that everyone and anyone around me has been telling me to watch! I’ve done it! … Can I go back to bed now?

As a LGBT person myself, one may have expected me to have immediately begun eating this anime wholesale the moment I heard that it had a gay romance. Honestly, though, although such a thing intrigued me, I was more worried than anything. Japan isn’t exactly as open about LGBT issues as we are in the West, and anime has been rather troubling about its handling of LGBT people in the past. While I expected Yuri On Ice (I’m not gonna type those exclamation marks every time) to be a positive step in the right direction, I was only expecting it to be a step, and not something too monumental.

The show exactly met these expectations.

An Introduction

Yuri Katsuki has been doing figure skating for years, and at one point, was at one of the world’s largest competitions, competing against his childhood idol, Victor Nikiforov. However, sadly, Yuri came in dead last place and was talked down to by his idol – demoralized, he found himself unable to win any other competitions, and resigned himself to taking a break from the sport while he tried to figure out his life.

He returns to his hometown, meeting back up with his family and friends, including Yuko, the girl who encouraged him to start ice skating in the first place. At the local ice rink, he decides to show Yuko a surprise: he’s been practicing Victor’s competition-winning routine just to show it to her. However, as he was showing it to her, he was also showing it to a concealed camera… the video of him ended up becoming a viral hit online, even going so far to attract the attention of Victor himself.

The next day, Yuri finds himself face to face with his idol once again… with said idol standing buck naked before him. Proudly, Victor declared he’ll be taking a year off from figure skating himself to become Yuri’s coach and re-teach him the passion of figure skating… and the passion of having an unreserved ball of energy as his coach and mate.

The Plot and Characters

I wanted to go into Yuri on Ice really liking it. I really did. And I did definitely have a positive, fun experience out of this. It certainly was worth my time. … But it didn’t nearly come close to blowing me away as much as it was hyped up to do.

I think Yuri On Ice would’ve benefitted really well from being a 2-cour series, rather than just the 12 episodes we got. Especially in the latter half, I wish the scenes and pacing would just slow down. I wanted to feel the emotional impact of what was going on, I wanted to see these characters become fleshed out and have some actual depth, I wanted to just delve deeper into this world and into these people… but it just wasn’t there. This is an original anime series as well, so they could’ve done that too.

That being said, doubling the show’s length probably would’ve been a risky move, given the fact that it is an original anime, and that there is a notable focus on the relationship between Yuri and Victor. This show, I believe, has made more of an impact here in the West by having a canon gay relationship over being a figure skating anime. Let’s be honest, though, a lot of this relationship is rather subtextual. There’s the highly-debated kiss, but even when the show is yelling in your face about them being together, it doesn’t actually stick itself to it. It may push the needle a bit in the generally more-homophobic world of anime, and I certainly do applaud it for what it does (because it doesn’t do it badly), but it’s nowhere near the pinnacle of great LGBT representation.

I may be getting ahead of myself. But these first paragraphs are going to set the tone for the rest of my review.

My running complaint with pretty much all of the show’s characters is “they seem interesting, but I wish we got to learn more about them”. Not even the titular character himself, Yuri Katsuki, is immune to this; his life pre-episode 1 seems to be mostly forgotten excepting a few bits, leaving him to be seemingly only defined by professional figure skating and his relationship with Victor. Speaking of whom, on a positive note, Victor’s personality comes off really well, and he acts as a great foil for Yuri, adding spontaneity and confidence into the life of someone who needs these things. However, we also know nothing about his upbringing or really much anything else at all baring a few “character trait”-esque details.

However, my biggest complaint with Victor is more about the world around him rather than the man himself. I recognize that Victor is a very rash, shoot from the hip type of person, and I’m not questioning his decision to begin coaching Yuri… but I wish there was more of an emphasis on how this decision affected his colleagues and the figure skating world at large. He was at the top of the top, and so him making such a sudden move wouldn’t not have its consequences. There’s tidbits here and there, but generally, it feels like the whole world just got over it pretty immediately.

The Russian Yuri, Yuri P., Yurio… whatever, you know who I’m talking about. He’s pretty much set up as the usual rival character – the Bakugo to Deku, the Rin to Haru. He’s grumpy, he’s distant, he wants to be better than Yuri K., and although there’s certainly times he develops more, that’s still what he boils down to. He’s not a bad character, per say, but he doesn’t particularly stand out (although in the final episodes, a running gag with him and cats begins which does make him a bit more memorable).

For all the other side characters, from the fellow figure skaters to Yuri’s family and high school friends, that running complaint is strongest here. Each of them is given some time to gain our interest, and that’s about it. If a character’s lucky, they’ll become recurring comic relief for a few episodes. It’s sad, actually; some of them really do seem interesting and could create a great supporting cast, but Yuri on Ice’s 12-episode runtime prevents it from being able to effectively utilize them.

Pacing issues aside, though, the show’s story is definitely set up rather decently. It does feel like I’m following the career of a pro figure skater on his last shot at reaching the top, and I wanted to see Yuri do well. To be honest, most of the time (especially in the latter half) is only focused on competitions though; there’s rarely much time spent on practice or training throughout the entire series – the show doing a bit of a disservice to itself, as seeing Yuri struggle would’ve really made resulting moments of success all the more worthwhile. However, the story still does fine enough without them.

Yuri on Ice doesn’t actually delve very deep into the sport, though, unfortunately. I definitely did learn from this show, of course, but it’d be comparable to day 1 of a Figure Skating 101 class. We learn a skating routine is made up of sections of step routines, jumps, and (seemingly) just faffing around, and we learn that quadruple spin jumps are harder than triple spin jumps… but that’s about it. I could’ve totally become engrossed in this entire sport, and while the show does give you more than nothing, it still feels like it fell short in this regard as well. What different kinds of jumps are there? What is a “good” step sequence? Why and how are routines put together this way? The show doesn’t even attempt to touch these questions.

All in all, Yuri On Ice feels like it’s trying to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to focus on the figure skating, the side characters, and the relationship between Yuri and Victor… but there just isn’t enough time here to do all of that. It becomes a show that’s good/decent at a number of things, but a master of none of them. I’m not the type of person to hate something because it’s popular, but I’m not about to blindly jump on the bandwagon either and give unwavering praise to a show that, ultimately, is only just okay.

The Atmosphere

Visually, Yuri on Ice is a fascinating series. Fascinating because of how absolutely wonderfully it can get some things right and do some things really well, but can also completely drop the ball in other areas – especially areas where you’d think it’d matter the most.

The character designs for this show took me a bit to get used to, but overall, I do like them. Without his glasses, though, Yuri K. is a bit harder to make distinguishable (Yuri P. and Victor, luckily, are quite distinguishable and unique looking in their own rights). These characters can be so expressive at times too, which I really enjoyed a lot. I like exaggerated expressions, and Yuri on Ice does wonderfully in that department. So much so that it feels like the people animating this show seemed more suited for a more slice-of-life or comedy show rather than a sports anime – which is important to mention because…

The biggest thing that disappointed me about this show’s visuals were the ice skating segments. It seems a bit surprising to me that this, which I would’ve guessed to be something extremely vital to this show, is something that they failed to animate and polish well. Free from any physical limitations, the camera is able to be anywhere on the ice rink to follow the characters around during their routines, and Yuri on Ice certainly takes advantage of that… but there are some problems.

Firstly, the background and the skating character don’t always sync up in movement. Sometimes a character will literally just move around the screen without actually moving (as in, animated to move), or the background won’t move at the same rate the character will, or just something else to that extent. Secondly, where there is a jump cut, sometimes the background behind the character just changes. It’ll look similar enough to not completely throw you, but it’s different enough to be noticeable: the positions/order of advertisements on the walls, the distance a character is from said walls, things like that. There was even a single instance of the background literally changing in the middle of a shot (in episode 6, around the 11:50 mark in Crunchyroll’s player)! Thirdly, sometimes the characters’ necks were just drawn super long – especially Yuri K’s. It looked weird, but I’ll concede this leans a bit more on the personal taste side.

Luckily, the animators mostly ironed out these problems in the latter half of the series (excepting the neck thing, that actually seemed to get worse in the latter half). All in all, though, I felt underwhelmed by the ice skating sections of the show. The movement felt shoddy for the reasons mentioned above, and it seemed hard to really get some emotional connection with these sections: the only thing that escalated these segments beyond just watching characters skate and wiggle their arms around was the commentary that gave context to what was going on. I’ll fully admit that I’m a total newbie when it comes to figure skating, so it’s possible that the segments were actually done with a lot of emotion interpreted in other ways, but I’m no newbie when it comes to animation, and especially to animation being able to impart an emotion to you when it really works to do so. I won’t go as far as to say they failed here, but, again, it felt very underwhelming.

The show’s backgrounds, excepting the movement issues mentioned above, are pretty dang well done. There are some very pretty sights to see here, especially in the segments where the characters explore the cities they’ve traveled to. I also particularly love the things like the TV announcer segments and the on-screen score displays and such that they did for this show. It felt like an actual professional sport performance, and did really well to immerse me into this world.

Yuri on Ice’s opening theme, History Maker, by Dean Fujioka, is a great-sounding song, and the opening animation to accompany it was equally as wonderful. I wish the show’s actual figure skating segments looked more like the opening animation. I have nothing but praise for the opening credits. The ending song and animation are also pretty dang good, although they pale in comparison to the opening in my mind.

Having mentioned Crunchyroll earlier in this section, it’s safe to assume that I watched this show there, with subtitles. I think Toshiyuki Toyonaga did a pretty well job as Yuri K., and likewise with Koki Uchiyama as Yuri P., but I have to give praise to Junichi Suwabe for his performance as Victor. I think he played the character really well. Also, special mentions to Mamoru Miyano as JJ Leroy, he did a great job with that, and Kensho Ono as Phichit Chulanont. I seeked out some bits of Funimation’s English dub, and I felt a tad disappointed. It may be that I’m more used to the Japanese voice actors and how they sound, but I felt like the voice actors for Yuri K. and Victor just… didn’t sound as great. However, I think Micah Solusod makes for a great Yuri P. I do enjoy how they gave Victor and Yuri P. Russian accents, though; it seemed corny and it amused me, even though it probably does sound a tad more realistic that way.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

When there is a show or video game or whatever with a lot of hype surrounding it, it’s more common than not that the object in question probably won’t live up to it. That is, unfortunately, the case here. Although Yuri on Ice has a strong fanbase and it’d received a lot of praise for some of the things it did, I walked away from this feeling like there was something missing. This show tried to pull itself in a lot of directions, and it wasn’t able to fully commit to any one of them. Compounded on top of that is its underwhelming figure skating sequences and I could start to build a case for riling against this show.

But I did have fun with it. I enjoyed myself watching this. Yuri on Ice won’t end up on any top 10 list of mine at all, but a show doesn’t have to win gold medals to still be worth the time I put into it. And ultimately, that’s all it was: worth the time I put in. Yuri on Ice is pretty decent, and really makes you feel connected to its characters and the journey they’re on. It also has some great opening and ending songs. Give it a fair shake and see if it’s up your alley.

Rating: Good
Recommendation: Give It a Shot
+++ really felt like I was part of this journey, great opening and ending theme songs, Victor
— wish we delved deeper with these characters – all of them, figure skating segments had bad motion, felt stretched in multiple directions and failed to deliver on all of them

 

Review: Pop Team Epic

I wouldn’t call Pop Team Epic a truly unique show, but it is definitely one of an incredibly rare breed: a referential sketch comedy anime. While a decent amount of anime do at least make one reference to another show (whether it’s direct or not), few anime are actually built up around the idea of making a bunch of references in a variety of situations.

The Pop Team Epic manga had some fans here in the West before the anime began airing, but its popularity exploded after the first episode. There’s just something about those simply drawn, cute-looking characters walking around and flashing you a hyper-realistic middle finger.

An Introduction

This show centers around a guy named Daichi Taira. His family is leaving for a vacation (which Daichi decided to not go on), and his mom reminds him to take care of Sosogu while they’re gone. … Wait, who’s Sosogu?

As it turns out, Sosogu is part of an “epic” pop idol group called Drop Stars, but was also a childhood friend of Daichi’s! It’s been years since Daichi has seen Sosogu, and unfortunately he doesn’t remember her at all. But she’s moved into the Taira house and has begun going to the same school together, so the new housemates and classmates will have a lot of time to reconnect. … Well, maybe not a lot of time, the idol business is a constantly active one. But that’s not all!

The real twist is… none of that is true!

The Plot and Characters

Pop Team Epic is a sketch comedy show, which differentiates itself from its peers through the sheer variety of subjects it will parody or reference in its sketches.

From strange romance anime tropes (akin to Citrus which also ran in the same season), to The Shining, to Undertale, to the band Earth Wind and Fire, and to highlighting French stereotypes of foreign tourists… this anime touches on so many things, it may be easier to say that no topic is safe from the fingers of the creators behind the show and manga. The extensiveness and depth of these references generally aren’t too deep, ranging from an aspect of the media in question being totally recreated in the show’s format, to Pop Team Epics’s main characters simply being silent witnesses to the parody being written around them.

Despite the various references and parodies that the show makes though, there’s a decent amount of original jokes and skits as well, such as the “Eisai Haramasukoi dance” and “Hellshake Yano” being some of the more elaborate ones. Unfortunately, these original skits tend to be less funny and more “what the hell am I watching”.

In fact, to be fairly honest, the biggest things that got me to laugh were the moments when the show genuinely managed to catch me off-guard, such as putting in a reference I didn’t even think to expect. A large majority of the show more left me simultaneously amused and bemused. This is a sketch comedy show, but Pop Team Epic seems more primarily concerned in attempting to do something weird or unexpected rather than actually develop and execute jokes. Unfortunately, a lot of its weirdness becomes expected and the new norm for this show – the main characters never take the straight answer out of a situation – and once you realize this, a lot of this show’s magic is ruined for you.

Each episode features a large primary skit surrounded by multiple smaller skits and recurring segments. The large primary skit is the longest skit of each episode, and is usually the most narratively complex and visually involved one as well; generally, it’s a long, elaborate reference or parody to one specific thing, such as the above examples of The Shining or romance tropes. The smaller skits last anywhere between a handful of seconds and two minutes, and will be the abovementioned original skits, various smaller/less elaborate references, or are just sheer randomness. The recurring segments include Bob Epic Team (featuring more skits but poorly drawn), Japon Mignon (short skits about France, made by a French person, all done in French), and Pop Team Cooking (which parodies cooking shows).

The only recurring characters throughout the entire series are Pipimi and Popuko, the blue and yellow haired cute-looking girls. Every single skit features them, and for a lot of the smaller ones they’re the only two characters. When additional characters are required though, brand new ones will be created specifically to fill whatever role is needed. Although Pipimi and Popuko’s personalities are left pretty vague to fit whatever the current skit needs, they’re generally seen as surprisingly brash, violent, and impure, with a decent knowledge of anime subculture layered on top.

However, all of this happens within the first half of the episode. After it all finishes, the same half is repeated, but swaps out the female voice actors for Popuko and Pipimi with male ones. Depending upon the episode, they write in some differences in the script (and sometimes visuals) to make the two stand apart, but in general, you’re just watching the same exact episode twice in a row. The joke was a funny thing to do for the premiere episode, as it was unexpected and strange… but for them to go and repeat it for the rest of the series ends up with killing the race horse in episode 2 and proceeding to beat it every single episode from there afterward. The joke gets old really quickly and the differences between the two sections are usually so minimal, it doesn’t even feel worth watching the second half.

All in all, it’s still an enjoyable experience. I think Pop Team Epic’s referential nature and the strange direction its comedy goes in makes it a fun time for a lot of people, but I highly wonder how many will really want to sit through multiple watchthroughs of this. Pop Team Epic’s humor relies upon being able to catch you off guard will only work on your 1st (and maybe 2nd) watchthrough; after that point, you know what’s coming – the “run the same episode twice with different voice actors” shtick is something that’ll probably get old too.

The Atmosphere

Visually, Pop Team Epic doesn’t exactly push the envelope in any sort of way. In fact, if you just look at a randomized selection of still shots from the show, you may even say it’s not all that impressive at all.

But the show is extremely clean (art-wise), the colors are all bright, and the animation is smooth like butter. Popuko and Pipimi both look scientifically engineered to look as cute as possible, and for the most part, they succeed. This is, of course, intentionally offset by their surprisingly realistic (and veiny) hands, as well as the more standard (albeit low-standard) appearance most other characters in their primary skits have. All in all, it’s a style and juxtaposition that fits this show – it won’t win any awards, but it’s good enough to do the job for this comedy show.

Of course, there are also segments that are intentionally poorly-made, the above-mentioned Bob Epic Team segments. It honestly surprises me, but they just look uglier and uglier with every episode.

The show goes for a majority of the time without a soundtrack. Most skits are short enough to not even warrant creating background music, and most other skits just don’t have any to let the joke take the entire audial attention. When songs are introduced though, they’re either in the style of the media they’re referencing, or they’re synth/electronic sounding if there isn’t anything being referenced at the time. You don’t really notice the lack of a soundtrack.

The opening theme “Pop Team Epic” is infectiously good. I love the opening theme and the opening animation is also really good. It’s a high-intensity electronic opening theme, and I’m a big sucker for electronic. Unfortunately, listening to it around 20 times (twice per episode, most episodes) starts to make it sound a bit old after a while. The ending theme is “Poppy Pappy Days”, and the show actually uses multiple versions of it throughout the show. Generally, the only difference is who’s singing it; all in all, the song is pretty decent and relaxing, as expected for an ending theme. The animation is also nice.

For the voice acting, new voice actors are brought in to voice Popuko and Pipimi every episode (on both the male and female side). It does surprise me that, despite that fact, Popuko and Pipimi sound pretty nearly the same each episode – one would think that since they switch it up each episode, perhaps they’d have the voice actors leave a more unique mark in their playing of the role. Beyond the meta knowledge of “hey, this voice actor also played this character that they parodied here”, I don’t particularly see the point of bothering to do it. I guess I won’t complain though, it’s kind of an ambitious idea.

I haven’t experienced the English voice acting for this show, so I don’t particularly know what to expect in that regard.

I think the Western licensing for this show is fascinating, though – most shows have exclusivity contracts: when you license a show, you alone have the rights to air it/stream it/release it, whatever (it’s not quite that simple, but you get the idea). Thus, when Funimation licenses a show, it appears on Funimation’s website and services (and Crunchyroll), and not on Sentai’s Hi-Dive service. However, Pop Team Epic is unique in that there was no exclusivity clause: both Funimation and Sentai were able to get the license to stream the show, and the reaction to this online amused me. Time will tell to see who gets the honors of making that Blu-Ray box version of the show, though.

Lastly, speaking of English voice acting, I should probably mention the YouTuber “The Anime Man”, who through some lucky connections, was able to voice a few roles in Pop Team Epic, episode 9. Although not the first time a YouTuber has entered into the world of anime dubbing, The Anime Man’s case is particularly rare in that his voice acting was for the Japanese version. It’s a weird and funny opportunity, but a really cool one nonetheless. Many people, I’m sure, are jealous.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Pop Team Epic, the referential comedy anime, relies upon its references and non-sequitur for its comedy. This will work out well enough for the first watchthrough, but it comes at the cost of subsequent watchthroughs being less enjoyable: you already know what the joke’s going to be. The recurring joke to run each episode twice, with female and then male voice actors, ultimately ends up being to the show’s detriment as well.

However, that isn’t to say the show isn’t even trying. The media you’ll find in the show reaches across generations and cultures, and the decisions in and of themselves to have various voice actors for the two leads every single episode, along with the implementation of segments like Bob Epic Team and Japon Mignon, all make for a show that is almost certainly a one-of-a-kind experience.

It’s reliance upon trying to do random unexpected things for laughs have certainly made the show divisive already, but I would suggest that you haven’t seen it, at least give it a shot. It’ll either be an extremely fun ride or an utter waste of time, but either way, you can at least say you’ve watched it.

Rating: Good
Recommendation: Give It a Shot
+++ the more out-there references and jokes, overall visual design, opening theme song
— relies too much on trying to be unexpected, running each episode twice, references generally aren’t deep