Review: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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

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

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

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

An Introduction

Madoka Kaname had a weird dream last night.

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

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

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

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

The Plot and Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Atmosphere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Remarks / TL;DR

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

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

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

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

 

Review: Bakemonogatari

 

When I first got into anime, this is a show that seemed to be more on the fringe; some anime fans knew of its existence, but even fewer have actually seen it. (This is not so much the case nowadays, I feel.)

My first experience was actually when I was very heavily into Vocaloid (I was introduced to Vocaloid before anime). I came across a Vocaloid cover of one of this anime’s openings (Renai Circulation), and I had the hardest time remembering its name because it was so long and just sounded so odd.

Eventually, though, I sat down one day and simply decided to give it a try. And I must say, I’m glad I did.

An Introduction

Crab. Snail. Monkey. Snake. Cat.

Not too long after dealing with his own encounter of the supernatural kind, Koyomi Araragi finds himself running into new and different situations with various girls. All also of the supernatural kind.

All around us, and yet also nowhere at all, live these supernatural beings, these apparitions. Some are just lowly spirits, not intentionally causing harm, but the range goes up to demons, spiritual gods, and other scary forces to be reckoned with. And either by sheer unluckiness or his unceasing desire to help all those before him, Araragi finds himself tackling these problems, one by one.

These girls are Hitagi Senjyogahara, the weightless “tsundere”; Mayoi Hachikuji, the lost grade-schooler; Suruga Kanbaru, the raincoated athlete; Nadeko Sengoku, the cursed childhood friend; and Tsubasa Hanekawa, the class president among class presidents.

Although Araragi can certainly rely upon Hanekawa and Meme Oshino (a self-proclaimed apparition expert), and the lingering abilites from his time as a vampire, will that be enough for him to solve all of these problems and still keep his own life?

The Plot and Characters

These characters and the apparition-filled world they inhabit set up for a really interesting story to unfold that lasts well beyond these 15 episodes. I was captivated by the characters’ distinctly unique and memorable personalities and mannerisms, and by the world’s constant mysterious forces that meddle in affairs and make nothing straightforward.

The 15 episodes are divided into 5 arcs, each one dedicated to each girl and her affliction. After a girl has been saved, she winds up appearing in later arcs either to just hang around and cause more trouble for Araragi, or to begin actively helping him with later cases and to provide support. These arcs are, for the most part, formulaic: Araragi encounters the girl, she explains her problem to him, and they run off to Oshino who, usually by that very night, has her problem solved. However, the formula here doesn’t quite bother me as much; Bakemonogatari’s plot structure really isn’t what makes it interesting.

What’s really the most interesting is the show’s writing and the various conversations that are had. Each of these characters have their own quirks and styles of talking, and most have distinct catch phrases/running jokes. You can quite noticeably sense a difference between each of their tones, from Hitagi’s scaldingly vile insults, to Suruga’s kinkiness, to Hanekawa’s upstanding intelligent remarks. Araragi, for the most part, acts as the straight man, from grumpily responding to the insults casually flung at him, to yelling out loud retorts to the more ridiculous and off-topic statements. Every scene with these characters is just fun to watch, just to see these different personalities shine, even if Araragi bounces off each of them in a similar way.

Bakemonogatari’s characters and writing are relatively aware of the anime culture as well, using references to other shows and utilizing terms – sometimes with a twist – that fans themselves will use. They even go to approach topics of sexual acts and sexuality without fear or hesitation, unlike most other anime. However, like most things in this show, they’re not the most direct about it.

Bakemonogatari is called, jokingly and unjokingly, the “a lot of talking” anime. It can sometimes take a character up to a whole minute to reach the point they could easily say in just a few seconds, but this anime loves to indulge itself with word riddles, double meanings, and straightly-told puns. This whimsical, fascinating, and somewhat-rambling dialogue helps to give this show its charm, but the most impatient of anime fans may see themselves saying “what is the point of all of this?”

For those of you who do enjoy the metaphors and things having deeper meanings beyond what’s said and shown, though, Bakemonogatari will have you covered; people on the Internet have analyzed nearly every moment of this show, and it provides you quite a bit to look into. It doesn’t require you to get waist-deep into the analyzing scene, though, and you can still follow along the show fairly well as long as you just pay attention to the dialogue. There are a lot of interesting extra bits of information and such that can be discovered by discerning and quick eyes, but you can still get just as much enjoyment without doing any of that; the main plot is told right to you (albeit after some rambling). It appeals to both crowds in that way.

I’d say my biggest issue with this show is how little time we actually get to spend with these characters. While this issue can certainly be seen as a “always leave them begging for more” type of thing, I kind of see it a bit more as a flaw. If each character’s arc wasn’t just relegated to two or three episodes, we’d actually get to spend more time with them and grow to become more attached to them. These characters and their problems are resolved by just that day alone, and then we’re done with them. That’s it. I would also say this is kind of a flaw of Araragi, the sole narrator, as well – he seems more primarily interested in just helping people around him, rather than actually developing a true friendship with them. (In fact, to be fairly honest, Araragi is probably the least interesting character in this show, although it probably helps market the female characters.)

Tsubasa Cat, the final arc, is an exception, though. Not only do we get even more time with Tsubasa and Hitagi, which is well appreciated, but Araragi grows a little bit as well, becoming something more than just a rescuer that yells retorts. The episode that stands out the most is episode 12 – most Monogatari series fans will remember this episode. I won’t really say much about it, but it is really something special, and it still makes me tear up even after multiple viewings. At the risk of ruining its specialness, I do wish Bakemonogatari had more moments like this episode.

Ultimately, I know that for the Monogatari series, this is just the beginning. This anime (and the two book volumes that it’s based on) is the springboard for a franchise that continues even today, with over 60 episodes and 3 movies under its belt. However, when looking at Bakemonogatari on its own, it feels like it only gives you a small taste, rather than let you really devour this world and these characters.

The Atmosphere

I’ve heard others describe this show’s visuals as avant-garde, which doesn’t really describe much about it beyond simply using a fancy word that means “unique”. However, I also am having a hard time really finding a way to sum it up in just a few words.

Both visually and audibly, Bakemonogatari pulls from a thick book of art and cinematographic styles, although it uses some more than others. Its art style is most distinct with its handling of backgrounds and of extra characters. Backgrounds rely upon a small amount of colors, lines, and shapes (with some detailed objects put in to make a place distinct), creating scenes that aim to be more stylized rather than realistic. It’s really cool and does give this show a unique identity. It’s a bit hard to describe through words alone, but it is certainly something worth witnessing.

When it comes to the show’s animation… there honestly isn’t too much of it, in comparison to other anime series out there. Whenever the show does animate something, it certainly does it justice; from characters walking around a room to full-on gravity-defying battles, they’re all animated well and they also benefit from the show’s interesting art choices. But since a lot of time is spent talking or doing other things, there’s a lot of characters standing or sitting around; the show alleviates the stillness in movement by cutting to static objects (such as phone screens and backgrounds), using weird camera angles, or putting characters in weird positions. There’s always something on the screen to keep you interested.

Bakemonogatari’s background music equally relies upon piano, guitar, synthesizer, and drums, with sometimes other instruments like voice, other strings, and even xylophone being utilized as well. The composer Satoru Kosaki knows the right times to have the right instruments play in the right way to give scenes precisely what they need. The result is a soundtrack that fits its scenes really well (if not a tad on the dramatic side), while doing so in a distinctly Bakemonogatari way. Although not all of the songs on the soundtrack may be memorable, I’d bet that if you heard any of them on their own, you’d say “That sounds like a Monogatari soundtrack piece”.

Going beyond this is the five opening and one ending songs for this series. Each arc has its own opening song (in the Blu-Ray release), and I’d have to say I like all of them. I enjoy how each opening sounds different and unique and the opening animation for each of them is also quite unique and different as well. It’s all pretty cool. If I had to rank them by how much I liked them, though, I’d probably do: 1. Staple Stable 2. Sugar Sweet Nightmare 3. Renai Circulation 4. Ambivalent World 5. Kaerimichi. I enjoy the ending song, Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari, quite a bit as well (especially since it was written by the band Supercell), and the ending animation is also cool – I just wish that they used special character versions for all of the arcs rather than just the last 2. The art style used in the ending animation is cool looking and helps it stand out as its own thing, and this style will continue to be used for further Monogatari endings as well.

There is no English dub for this show, so if you’re gonna watch it, it’ll have to be subtitles all the way. It’s not to say dubbing this show is really impossible, but the cost and effort needed to write such a dub probably was the dissuading factor. I do enjoy the Japanese voice acting, though, and each of the female characters’ voice actors, including the Koyomi sisters Karen and Tsuhiki, are all pretty dang good at delivering their lines. Hiroshi Kamiya doesn’t do a bad job as Koyomi Araragi, either, but you hear one loud Araragi retort, and you’ve heard them all.

There is some unfortunate news, however. If you’re going to be watching this online, most streaming services, including Crunchyroll, only have the first 12 episodes. The reason being is the last 3 didn’t air on TV; instead, they were released online so Studio Shaft could take its time to release them when they’re ready rather than sticking to a strict guideline (this, in the end, resulted in episode 15 releasing a full 9 months after episode 12 aired on TV).

If you’re going to watch the whole series, you’ll have to get a physical copy. In Europe and Australia, they run at an alright price. In the United States, however, it’s a bit of a different story. The series has only ever been released on “limited edition” Blu-Ray over here, and it is expensive! Annoyingly so, since the only special feature is character commentary – in which the characters themselves provide commentary on the episodes as you watch them (which is entertaining, by the way). It’s closer to the Blu-Ray prices in Japan, sure, but for the Western fan, it’s bothersome that paying this much is the only legal way to watch the last 3 episodes. If a friend or the local library has a copy of this show, I recommend just borrowing it from them instead, if you simply just want to get through the series. Personally, I bought the darn thing because I love the Monogatari series… so I suppose the price isn’t quite high enough to really be unjustifiable, but still…

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Bakemonogatari’s two most important things, in order, is its writing and its visuals. The visuals draw people into the show, and the writing and interesting characters get people to stay. Bakemonogatari is a treat to enjoy, and kickstarts the Monogatari anime franchise, as well as the original light novel kickstarting the Monogatari novel series, both of which are still continuing today. Through these 15 episodes, you’ll become interested and attached to (at least some of) these characters and the world they inhabit, and you’ll be wanting in no time to continue on to the later shows.

If you haven’t experienced Bakemonogatari, I suggest you go onto Crunchyroll or Hanabee and get a feel for the series. This is a very dialogue-heavy show, and although there’s almost always something on the screen to keep you interested, some of you may just not like a show with so little physical action. If you’re curious about something a bit more exceptional and breaking-the-norm, though, Bakemonogatari is a wonderful piece to watch. (Do note, however, that most online services will not have the last 3 episodes of the show, as I explain in the previous section.)

Rating: Near Perfect
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ fascinating characters and writing, unique and memorable visuals, great music
— only get a small taste of what all could be potentially offered, show is formulaic, lots of talking and not much action-ing

 

Review: Aldnoah.Zero

 

Hey, look at our totally awesome show that has all these famous names attached to it; it’s really not terrible at all! Yeah, I’m coming out of the gate swinging. This show was announced with Gen Urobuchi’s name (of Fate/Zero and Madoka Magicka fame) slapped in big letters right on top, and that it featured Kalafina and Hiroyuki Sawano (the composer from Attack on Titan), and so on and so on. So I, like a lot of people, thought, “hey, these big names working on a cool-sounding, emotional story involving mechas. This seems like a good show.”

Ooooooooohhhh man.

(Note: In my searches, most reviews of this show I’ve seen only talk about the first 12 episodes of the two-cour series. They took a six month break between airing episode 12 and episode 13, so I feel I’m in the minority by actually sharing my thoughts on the entire 24 episodes.

Also, fair warning: this is a long review.)

An Introduction

This show’s premise is one of those things that makes a lot of sense, but is really hard to put into words. I’ll try though:

So in an alternate universe, the Apollo 17 mission discovered some ancient Martian technology on the Moon that allowed people to travel to and colonize Mars. Some of these first colonists created an empire on Mars: the Vers Empire. Ever since this empire was created, the humans on the two planets have drifted further and further apart. This led up to a giant interplanetary war in 1999, where Vers tried to take over the Earth. They really only succeeded in blowing up half the moon though (in an event called “Heaven’s Fall”), leaving random Martian spaceships among all the space debris. Since then, there’s been an uneasy peace, although some in the Vers Empire secretly still want to show Earth what-for.

It’s now 2014, 15 years later. The show starts off with Princess Asseylum of the Vers Empire arriving in Japan to try to negotiate a more solid peace between the two planets. But, as she’s being escorted in a limousine, a missile suddenly appears and “KA-BLAM!”; no more Asseylum. So, naturally, the Martians, upset by this sudden regicide, declare war against Earth. Martian ships and mechas rain from the sky, and suddenly Earth’s fight for survival begins!

Here, I’ll introduce one of our main characters. Inaho, one of those cold and calculating types, finds himself in the front lines when one of Vers’s first waves of attack appear in Japan: a giant, superpowered mecha. Through pure cunning, he manages to find a way to best it. Soon afterwards, Inaho, his high school friends, and a few others, arrive on a ship alongside some other “refugees”, trying to make their way to a global army headquarters to figure out where to go from there. And on this ship is someone that looks suspiciously Asseylum-like…

The other main character we have is Slaine. An Earth-born human that ends up on Mars after a crash landing, he became one of Asseylum’s closest friends, teaching her about the wonders of Earth. At the same time, the rest of the Martians treat him terribly, calling him names, pushing him around, whacking him with canes, and even worse. After the explosion and second Vers-Earth war began, Slaine enters the fray to find those responsible for Asseylum’s death.

The Plot and Characters

The fascinating thing about this story is just how much potential there is here, right from the get go. The first few episodes not only set up this really fascinating premise, but you also have: a main character (Inaho) that uses plausible science to back up the cool action stuff he does, a view into the complex political world of a war nation, a character (Slaine) dealing with and growing from his terrible treatment as a minority, and overall, we have this underdog story where everything’s on the line. There’s even a supporting character who’s a recovering alcoholic with PTSD, having been in the army during the Heaven’s Fall war 15 years prior, which is pretty cool.

The sad thing is, though, that these beginning few episodes (and a couple other cool points in the first half) are about as good as this show ever gets. As the story moves on, things become more contrived, unbelievable, and clichéd.

Inaho is completely emotionless, from the very start to the very end. His older sister seems to imply there is some reason for it, but if there is, we never see it (or at least, it isn’t made clear). I can understand a relatively silent character; they can be pretty cool. However, Inaho is darn-near robotic with his actions, forgoing absolutely everything for the sake of him kicking some Martian butt. (Why he gets himself so involved with this war, we also don’t really know. My guess is he just kind of went with the flow.) In fact, in the second half, one of his body parts gets replaced with some cybernetic technology. We’re supposed to feel sympathy and sorrow for him about that, but it did nothing. I couldn’t make myself care more about his situation than he does, which is not at all.

As well, Inaho, this empathy-lacking high school kid, ends up becoming “humanity’s only hope”, as Earth’s forces kept getting pushed more and more into a corner. He became the only one on Earth’s side that ever got to do anything cool, or he orchestrated it for others to look cool. It came to a point where I began rooting for the other Earth characters whenever a battle happened, hoping that they’d get to show off a bit on their own without Inaho being the only one worth the attention. The show relied too much upon Inaho when he wasn’t even a character we could relate with. He had no internal conflict that got us to really connect with him and sympathize with him, leaving him this cold shell.

Of course, there’s the flip side of the coin: the Vers Empire side.

Throughout each episode, Aldnoah.Zero splits up its time between Inaho and Earth’s forces, and Slaine and the politics of the top Martian generals. For the first half of the show, I actually enjoyed watching Earth’s side more as the adventures and drama of the characters upon the ship were actually rather riveting and fascinating. The Mars side was cool to watch too, with us witnessing all the scheming and treachery of the Vers Empire’s top leaders, and also seeing Slaine trying to reach his Asseylum-related goals, but it wasn’t quite as attention-grabbing.

The second half, the side I enjoyed completely switched. Earth’s side became almost cringe-inducingly hard to watch, with the Our-Only-Hope-Inaho-Fest turned up to 11. Luckily, the show seemed to focus more on Slaine’s side for the second half; Slaine, through a series of well-timed events, got himself into power as one of the counts/generals of the Vers Empire, and used his influence to rally the Martian side to continue the war against Earth. Slaine, with his newfound power, had begun to grow mad, and built up this corrupted system around him, even more so than the Vers generals he had overthrown. It was fascinating to see how far things could build up before the inevitable point where they’d all come crashing down around him.

However, I can’t really say the ending to the show was all that satisfying. I won’t even hint at what happened (partly because, frankly, it left me confused, and I can’t be bothered to attempt rationalizing it right now), but I had wished for something a bit more epic and grandiose than what we got. Of course, there was this big space battle beforehand between Inaho/Earth and Slaine/Vers that the show tried to build up, but it wasn’t much more than what we’ve already seen throughout most of this second half by this point. The end of episode 12 (the end of the first half) was more dramatic and tense than the actual end of the series was.

The secondary characters on Earth’s side were relatively flat, with small exceptions here and there when some did receive some development. For the most part though, they stuck to their tropes and one-line gags, disappointingly so. The character with PTSD, by far, had the most development, but the conclusion to his side plot seemed a bit rushed to me. On the Martian side, though, there were some interesting characters. The show tried to develop some of the Martian counts and a few of the others we see… although a number of them receive as much development as the Earthlings, but hey, at least there’s something. On both sides though, even if there wasn’t the most development, a number of the supporting characters were certainly memorable in their own right, which is a plus.

Worldbuilding in this show also wasn’t particularly great. I wish we got to see more of the impact this Heaven’s Fall war left behind (all the main Earth characters look at some meteor or something in the first episode as their bus rolls by it, but we never see it), beyond the PTSD character. There was a hearty attempt on the Martian side to build how the Vers empire worked and to a decent extent, it’s definitely well appreciated. At the same time, though, we really never got a good look at what Mars itself actually was like (the most we ever see of that world is the inside of the royal palace).

All in all, though, the show’s story felt poorly done. They had this excellent start, and built it fairly nicely in the beginning (probably because of Gen Urobuchi’s help), but someone dropped the ball somewhere after that. Aldnoah.Zero started off as “great” and “attention-grabbing”, and it became barely tolerable at the end. I can’t feel anything but disappointed, because it could’ve given us something so much better than what we got. But yet, no matter how crummy the plot got, the show still treated itself super-seriously, sometimes to the point where it was a bit overboard and pretentious.

The Atmosphere

The production value of the show is where things really shine with this show. While the story had a one-way ticket to Suck-burg, at least the train ride was a very pretty one.

Aldnoah.Zero’s background work looks really cool, especially the designs (inside and out) of the giant Martian spaceships. I can’t say it’s the best art work I’ve ever seen, but gosh darn it, that doesn’t stop me from appreciating how cool some of these places looked. If there was anywhere needing improvement, I would say the ship(s) that the Earth side usually resided upon – they looked drab and boring.

A dynamic color scheme, with the darkest of darks and the lightest of lights, was used throughout (although more on the dark side), which I don’t think hindered its presentation, but it didn’t make it better either.

The character designs are also really good. They’re clean and smooth, and each character stands out enough and looks unique in their own right. If I were to complain, it’d be Asseylum’s design, but otherwise, I like it. I was especially intrigued by the visible difference between the Earthlings and Martians. There is the usage of CG with the mechas, but it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen (although that’s not really saying something, because I’ve seen some pretty bad stuff). I wouldn’t know if it’d qualify as the best CG ever, but I found it to not be too much of a distraction. Either way, the mecha designs, at least on the Martian side, look rather good.

The music for the show is also really great. Like I said, they had the music composer from Attack on Titan on this show, and it sounds great. The music here is so memorable and unique, I’ve actually considered buying a copy of the soundtrack. However, I even have a complaint here: the show replays so many of the tracks that the feeling of the great-sounding tracks start to lessen. It’s disappointing, because I do really like the music. The opening and ending songs also sound really cool for this series, although the ending animations tend to not be too flashy.

I haven’t seen this show dubbed. Watching it subbed, the voices of Inaho and Slaine sometimes sounded a bit too close to one another, but it generally wasn’t too much of an issue. I really enjoyed the voice of Eddelrittuo a lot.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

If you looked up “wasted potential” in the dictionary, you’d find an image of Aldnoah.Zero there. (You’d also see a picture of my face, but that’s a different thing altogether.) This show had such a great start, with so many things going right, but it just couldn’t stay at its high. Even if I’ve heard praise for the show after the end of the first half, there was absolutely nothing by the end of the second half. While the show looks cool and sounds awesome, the story falling on its own face keeps Aldnoah.Zero from being anything good.

Let’s get down to it: I don’t recommend this show to really anyone. This show sounds and looks cool, yes, but unfortunately, that’s only a façade. If you were to watch all 24 episodes, I’m confident you’d see where my issues with this appear. We’d all appreciate an emotional mecha story, but Aldnoah.Zero isn’t where to look.

Rating: Bad
Recommendation: Don’t Watch
+++ great premise, awesome music, Slaine
— story goes way downhill, awesome music gets replayed too much, Inaho… just Inaho

Review: Mushi-shi

I can sit here and say that Mushi-Shi is like a cross between X show and Y show, or two other shows, or something, but I feel that no matter how many comparisons I try to make, none of them will really explain or show what Mushi-Shi actually is. This show can really only be explained by explaining it itself; no comparisons will really help that much.

This show never really caught my interest when it was airing. It seemed okay, maybe a bit intriguing, but not something I wanted to sit down to really look at. However, a few friends of mine saw the show and loved it, and, with a certain amount of pushing, got me to sit down and try it too.

An Introduction

In 1800’s Japan, our main character, Ginko, travels around the country, offering to help people, families, and even entire villages, as they face problems with a certain kind of supernatural being.

These beings are “mushi”, small spirits that are life in its most basic essence. They come in varying shapes and sizes (although most are relatively small), and they tend to keep themselves separate from humanity, but not always. And when the mushi do get involved with humankind, it usually isn’t in the human’s favor. It’s not that mushi are intentionally harmful creatures (most of the time); they simply have supernatural abilities or properties that tend to interfere with a human’s ability to have a normal life when the two come into contact.

Each episode features Ginko traveling to a new location. Ginko is a white-haired, middle-aged man with an eye missing (not that you can usually notice, though) and a proclaimed “mushi master”. He generally tries to be helpful (he’s also relatively forward), but he tends to like his privacy and isolated-ness as well. Ginko doesn’t have a place to call home, and he just continues to travel, with every new place and every new person he meets providing him a chance to interact with a new type of mushi.

Some of the mushi he ends up meeting include mushi that consume sound (quite literally), a living and traveling swamp mushi, and mushi that live within the writings in paper. There’s even one that is basically a physical rainbow. In any case, every new episode features a new mushi to talk about, and a new adventure to be had.

The Plot and Characters

Mushi-shi is very episodic; the events in every individual episode never overlap, and in general, it tends to work in the show’s favor, allowing them to show you a wide variety of situations with a wide variety of mushi. This does mean that the characters we meet in one episode are never seen (or mentioned) ever again though. In some cases, it kind of stinks, because I’d like to see more of these characters, but at the same time, the episodic nature keeps things new and fresh.

However, the show’s episodic storytelling also leads to it being annoyingly inconsistent, from a worldbuilding perspective (which is something I really focus on). There is an archive of tales from mushi masters all over Japan, for example, that’s never mentioned prior or after that episode. And while this series writes off many of the mushi we see as “rare” or “only lives in a specific place”, there are some that you’d expect to be more present in multiple episodes. While the lack of a consistent world doesn’t hinder you from enjoying what Mushi-shi has to offer, it makes it hard to wrap your head around the lore that the show presents to us.

This show has only one recurring character (well, two, but we only see the other character, like, two or three times), and that is Ginko. Ginko tends to be pretty helpful and kind person, but he has a consistently stoic face. He never displays extreme emotion, in one way or another; I suppose his mellow and calm nature tends to make him more helpful in dire situations and keep others grounded, but it’d also be nice to see the guy get a bit agitated or something at times. His backstory is feebly explained in two different episodes, but it didn’t really do too much. All in all, he’s not a bad character, but there’s not really anything to him that really grabs me and attaches me to him. For him being the protagonist we follow around every episode, that is perhaps a tad disappointing.

When it comes to the show’s pacing, it’s pretty slow. And this isn’t really a bad thing. I feel a lot of today’s shows have grown too fast, so it’s nice to see a slower-going one become a bit more popular. The slow pacing is rather relaxing, and it gives you enough time to really ingest the atmosphere and feelings.

That being said, there are definitely episodes where Mushi-shi lost my attention for a short while because things grew too slow. It generally doesn’t fail in grabbing my interest later in the episode though. I could play this on my TV and have Minecraft running on my laptop and enjoy the both just fine.

The Atmosphere

If there’s one thing I really do have to praise Mushi-shi for, it’s its visuals. I watched this show in late 2015, and I thought it had pretty decent visuals. And then I learn that this show actually came out in 2006 (9 years prior!), and I was flabbergasted. This 2006 show’s art and animation directly competes with the art and animation of shows coming out a number of years later! If you had asked me, I would’ve said it came out in 2011 or 2012, not as far back as 2006. That’s just impressive. This show seriously has not aged.

However, despite how impressed I was with the quality of the visuals, I can’t really say the art is “beautiful” (which is a word I’ve heard a number of people use to describe it). I think, however, this more stems down to what I perceive as “beautiful”, which is usually expansive shots and bright, vibrant colors. In comparison, this show used nearly exclusively muted colors, a choice that does fit the more natural, spirit-y tone of this show. It does have some pretty great looking shots, though; It’s certainly pretty good looking, no matter how you put it.

The show’s background music works pretty well for the show. It generally has this more natural, traditional Japanese sound to it, really fitting the feel of the entire show, as well as blending in with the scenes itself. It is pretty good, but I wouldn’t listen to the soundtrack on its own. The opening song is not something you’d generally hear in anime nowadays, and its relaxed tone sounds good, but I don’t necessarily think the song is that memorable. The opening animation is rather short, and simplistic. It is pretty looking, and fits the show.

In fact, returning to the visuals again, I actually like Mushi-shi’s simplistic take on the common aspects of a TV episode: the opening credits/animation, the ending credits, and showing the episode title. The opening animation is nothing more than a bunch of images of nature, and the ending credits is just white text on a black screen while music from the episode continues through. The episode title is displayed in a colored rectangle that appears within the first few minutes of the episode, usually during an establishing shot. Again, I like the simplistic approach they took here, and I think it really helped with the atmosphere. Anything flashy would be unsettling for this series.

I watched this show in English, and here I present my gripes with Ginko again: I don’t necessarily like Funimation’s casting of Travis Willingham as Ginko. I’m not quite sure if it’s this casting that made me like Ginko less, or if there’s something about Ginko that just caused me to be upset about the casting (although I think it’s the former). It’s not like he did Ginko or this show injustice, but I just wish they had chosen someone else to be him. If I were to watch this show again, it’d be in Japanese.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

I think that throughout the writing of this review, I convinced myself to like this show. When I walked away after finishing the last episode, I thought to myself, “well, that was alright, I guess”, but as I write this now, I find myself saying, “Mushi-shi is pretty good”. The relaxed, simplistic tone and atmosphere of this show really helped keep focus on the various adventures and stories we get to experience in each episode. I still can’t help but be amazed by the fact that the show still looks like it’s barely aged since its airing in 2006. My biggest gripe would be the English casting of Ginko, but if that’s the biggest problem here, that’s saying something.

That being said, though, I have a bit of a hard time making a recommendation for Mushi-shi. I certainly wouldn’t say this show isn’t worth your time if you can give it. However, I wouldn’t imagine this show being the most enjoyable to watch by yourself. I’d suggest you get a group of friends together, pull the first episode up, and go from there. Of course, you and your friends will have to be interested in a show that tends to take things at a slow, more natural pace.

Rating: Good

Recommendation: Give It a Shot

+++ relaxed pace and atmosphere, visuals barely look aged, episodic stories keep things fresh

— something about Ginko irks me (perhaps casting), slow pacing may sometimes lose your attention, inconsistent (or complicatedly expansive?) lore