Afro Samurai: A Beautiful Tale on the Cost of Revenge

“Afro Samurai” is a glorious revenge drama that shows why revenge dramas are empty. Samuel L. Jackson is wonderful as Afro and Ninja Ninja and this is the kind of show that you need to give yourself time with. For what would be a mini-series, this feels long, which is a con. It also is great for what it is. This is the kind of series that does the deep dive into revenge and Afro is explored fully as a character. For the flaws I’ll explore, this is a film that is truly great but the flaws stuck out.

The anime was born out a collaboration between Samuel L. Jackson, Takashi Okazaki and Gonzo, with a music score by hip hop artist The RZA from the rap group the Wu-Tang Clan.

The story follows Afro, seeking the Number 1 headband after Justice kills his father and challenges him to come and get it as anyone who holds the Headband is like a God. We see the consequences of this quest as we flashback to his life as a child coming into his own as Afro with the Number 2 headband and his reuniting with old friends on his path to get revenge against Justice.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Animation – The animation is the style I enjoy. We are talking about long and detailed expressions of the weapons and the wielder. This series caught all of that for me. This is also gory, if I were to make a comparison it feels very Tarantino. This is a revenge film and we see the cost of revenge in blood. For me this worked as this is something that hurts the hero, this should cost their soul, and we see that with Afro. The animation captures that as well as the intelligence and survival of Afro as he fights to be Number 1 and the body count he leaves to get there.

The World – The Headband Wars are fascinating especially as we see a mixture of powerful guns, swords and robots all in the same world. I wanted to spend more time in this world as it looks Apocalyptic but Afro’s quest gives us a limited view of it beyond those defending Justice and those tied to Afro. All of these are overall fascinating characters, which I will get into later. This is one reason I really enjoyed this anime. This is a rich world where I wanted more time with the everyday people living in it. Not just the heroes and villains.

The Characters – The characters aren’t perfect, but the ones I mention get explored to the point that I wanted to see more of where they were and this series delivers on this. The order is going to be a little strange but I did it based on who I found most compelling in the end one of the one characters is directly tied to who another character is. Sadly the women in this series aren’t explored well at all, which for me did hurt the overall experience.

Justice – This is a classic anime villain in that he is seeking Godhood at any price. He is also not traditionally human as he has a third arm that is revealed in the finale battle. I liked him as an antagonist as he reminded me of “The Man in Black” from the Dark Tower series. We have this insidious being who is only seeking domination over others and destroys so many good people Afro knew to get there. The final fight is powerful and the Number 1 headband is something I did not expect Afro to get, given the tone of the anime. I was ready for tragedy, and it still is but not in the world ending “Neon Genesis Evangelion” kind of way. It is tragic in that the price of revenge is you lose yourself and all those you knew and this series does that extremely well.

Kuma – Kuma is Afro’s former friend who joins the organization that is trying to kill Afro. Kuma only has his rage at the loss of the Dojo, his Master (when Afro killed him) and his body as he is now nearly more machine than man. He is compelling character and his pain drives him. He is defeated by Kubo but returns once more, somehow surviving his near death to challenge Afro once more. His story is tragic and he has become who Afro was before, a character who can only find peace in death.

Afro – Afro is the stoic warrior. He only exists to bring justice to Justice and his story in this film is him facing the past and losing what connection he has to his emotions and self as he creates a imaginary friend Ninja Ninja who exists as his true feelings and fears. The character he became after his father’s death doesn’t have room for those emotions so keeps them away. Everything is about revenge and revenge is business. Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t speak much in this role but he plays off the expressiveness of Ninja Ninja (also voiced by Samuel L. Jackson).

Ninja Ninja – Ninja Ninja is all of Afro’s passion and fear and he gives so much to what makes Afro interesting. He is the way that Afro is still child-like as Ninja is all about survival and escape but he still sticks around because he cares about Afro and finds the fights interesting. Their dynamic is fascinating and when Ninja Ninja sacrifices himself to save Afro from Kuma it hurts because you know at that point all Afro has now is the fight and revenge.

The Cons:

At Times Overlong Action – The action is beautifully animated but at times it goes on way too long. This was fine but when nearly every fight starts going on a bit longer than it has to be it becomes a con. This was what happened here. I wanted more character moments versus fights. The dialogue that the series has, and they usually comes with flashbacks enriches the narrative. I wanted more of that because there wasn’t enough exploration of some characters. The series was later adapted into a videogame and given Afro fighting mini-bosses on his way to the final fight with Justice it works, and might work better that way.

The Role of Women – Women in this anime exist as victims and it is more the sexism you tend to see in anime. Afro’s old friend and at this point maybe lover who betrays him when she meets him (Okiku / Otsuru) later just to be killed by the ones using her in the first place is the one woman with a name. The most complex woman in the entire film is the bartender since she isn’t being victimized. I wanted to see more with her and Afro as she clearly knows his game and has seen some fights go down.

This is definitely an amazing anime. I wish that the action had been shorter and more time had been spent to develop Afro’s past friend Kokiku because we never get enough development in contrast to Kuma where we get his hatred and why he wants to end Afro. I would have cut all of the fights in half to have develop Okiku further as well as Afro’s past between his time at the Dojo and becoming an adult. It would have fleshed out the world more and developed Afro and his former friends more as characters. Either way, still a favorite anime if you are down for a classic revenge anime. Definitively a favorite.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10

Juni Taisen: Zodiac War – A Solid Battle Royale Anime That Tackles Meaning and Purpose

    I’m a fan of complete stories, and stories with consequences. This goes for shows, books, films, etc. If I start something, I want to finish it. That is what lead me to this series, and one of the reasons I love Battle Royale animes. Battle Royale is a style of anime where a group of characters are in a tournament, fighting to the death, and there can only be one team or one person left alive. Think “Hunger Games” in terms of scale.

“Juni Taisen: Zodiac War” is an anime based off a light novel (interactive book), by Nisio Isin, which was illustrated by Hikaru Nakamura. It takes place in the modern day where a war rages between 12 families, named after the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac fight (Ox, Dragon, Snake, Monkey, etc.). World Leaders bet on who will win, and the winner has a wish granted as their reward.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world is full of magic and technology, and each family has a power or ability that is passed down through blood. This makes the wars between them fascinating and adds a darker element to it all, as each ability is used to maximize killing. The world is full of constant war and political intrigue, and this plays into the characters chosen to fight in the tournament.

Characters – Not all the characters are strong or interesting. I couldn’t stand Snake and Dragon as they were just like Beavis and Butthead. Horse needed more character development. How women are objectified ends up taking away from a few backstories, too. There are a few characters that do manage to carry this 12 episode series though.

Boar – Boar is our introduction to this world. She is the daughter of the winner of the last tournament. She wants to be the best more than anything and to be loved by her father. This leads to her driving her sister insane when her father chooses her sister over her. The reasons behind this are never fully explored, but given how sociopathic her father is, he turned sister against sister to see who he could make the most ruthless. She’s a broken character, but she loves the rage of battle. We see how her father’s views shape her, making her vulnerable, which is contrasted by the hard, collected exterior she presents to others.

Monkey – Monkey is the peacemaker, driven by the desire to bring about world peace. She is a planner and has a way of disarming people with her kindness. She is one of the most powerful members in the tournament, as she controls the elements. She only dies when Rabbit uses the others he has killed to catch her off guard. Monkey is the only good person in the tournament, as many are driven by much more selfish means.

Tiger – Tiger fights in a drunken rage. Having to fight in the wars that the families take part in breaks her spirit, and makes her a nihilist. This leads to her drinking and fighting, which leads to her forgetting herself, getting kicked out of her family and living by instinct. Her arc is about finding herself again, as when Ox rescues her one of the days she is drunk prior to the tournament, and that drives her to be better. Her story is touching. In the end she sacrifices herself to save Ox from Rabbit, and is the only member of the tournament to die happy.

Ox – Ox is the Samurai archetype. This is a man who fights for honor and in defense of others. He has no abilities, but is methodical in his killing, becoming known as the “Genius of Slaughter.” He chooses not to kill in the end, in regards to Tiger. We see him as someone who has lived his entire life killing and found no purpose beyond how he kills. It is in his final act of risking his life, so Rat can defeat Rabbit, that we see that he finally finds purpose, just as his friend Tiger did.

Rabbit – Rabbit is an insane necromantist whose soul desires to make everyone his “friends,” as in kill them and make them his minions. He is unpredictable and the main antagonist of the series, as he outmatches every single character. His winning means the end of the world. It takes multiple characters working together, starting with Monkey and ending with the actions of Ox and Tiger, that lead to Rat finally being able to defeat him. The final fights are amazing, and that is mostly due to just how impressive Rabbit is as an enemy.

Shaped by Trauma – One of the major themes of the series is how trauma shapes you. Chicken was abused as a child so they learn to use vulnerability as a tool, Tiger’s trauma shapes her into a weapon, Horse’s trauma leads to him pumping himself full of drugs to be the strongest, and Monkey’s trauma drives her to try and bring about peace. These are a few examples of what makes the characters, who drive the story, so compelling. All of them were born out of conflict and their actions are shaped by it.

Character Contrast – Each of the characters has another aspect about themselves that is contrasted with the face they wear during the tournament. Ox is a brutal unfeeling killer, yet dies for another. Tiger is reckless and violent but her final actions are driven by love, Rabbit brings people back to life because he is lonely and wants to be with people, Horse is a powerful soldier but in the end dies afraid and trapped, unable move past his fear.

The Cons:

Dragon and Snake – I hated Dragon and Snake. These two are thieves who present themselves as helping the poor, but will take any contract, even killing the very people they were helping. We never find out why though. They have no clear motivation in their actions, and it just makes them bland. These characters just act bored or crazy, and it does nothing to develop them. These two received two episodes to explore their backstory, which really should have gone to Ox or Rabbit. The writer didn’t care about these characters, and in the end, we don’t either.

How the Show Presents Women – Women in this are presented as victims only. Monkey is a victim of failed treaties she made, Chicken from abusive parents, Tiger from War, and Boar by her father. On top of this most of them are presented as sexual objects. Where the men get outfits that would function in combat or cover most of their body. With the exception of Boar and Monkey, everyone else is in underwear or less. This was so stupid, especially in regards to Tiger, who is a soldier, and Chicken, who is a spy. This is a common trope in anime and one I really hope is changed. Every character deserves full development and respectful presentation. Objectification does nothing but cheapen the character.

The Ending – Rat wins because of his ability to see up to 100 different possibilities and choose the best path to take. So what does he do? What did he learn from all these characters, their motivations, and wishes? Nothing, seriously… the ending is awful. Rat chooses to forget he ever took part in the tournament, which is problematic given it makes all the deaths meaningless, and it doesn’t keep him from being put back into another tournament. He doesn’t help anyone and he doesn’t solve the problem of the tournament’s existence. I hated the ending, and it is one reason I can’t really call this series good.

If you are fan of Battle Royale animes you should check this one out. It is entertaining and there are some great character moments, the animation and action are fantastic too. What brings it down is the common anime trope of the objectification of women, and certain character arcs having no payoff; as well as, an ending that isn’t worth your time. Seriously if you want the best of this anime, watch everything but the last episode, and skip the Dragon and Snake episodes. Besides that, this was entertaining but extremely flawed.

Final Score: 7 / 10

 

Blood Blockade Battlefront – A Powerful Anime About Letting Go and Finding Strength


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you like animes with a mystery and an emotional payoff, chances are you will enjoy “Blood Blockade Battlefront.” This is an anime that keeps the stakes up the entire time will still keeping the anime tropes of craziness and super team. I would have watched this anime just for the team, and I’m glad it got a continuation in “Blood Blockade Battlefront and Beyond” which I plan on also reviewing at some point. This is an anime with consequences where there are no easy outs and I loved that the ending had consequences. I’ll get into more of what I mean later on but for non-spoiler thoughts, I definitely recommend this series.

The series was directed by  Rie Matsumoto and written by Kazunao Furuya. 

The story involves Leonardo Watch and his interactions with the secret crime fighting organization “Libra,” who work in Hellsalem’s Lot, the place that was once New York City but after a supernatural event, the city and people are changed forever as beings from other worlds now call the city home.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: Hellsalem’s Lot – The incident that lead to Hellsalem’s Lot nearly destroyed NYC and it was the children of two Enchanters making a deal with higher beings that stopped the fall. This tone never leaves this world. Everything is dangerous and many people have magic now or are facing beings that alien to them. Humans are in fear mode as are many of the other humanoid beings. This gives the reason for Libra’s existence and Leonardo Watch’s ability to see the true name or nature of things with the “Eyes of God” (which he got from the incident) which complicate things further. This is a world of danger, but it never stops being fun.

The Members of Libra – I like all the members who have been explored, outside of Zapp (who continues to remain annoying even after his character arc) and Steven who is the second-in-command but whose motivations we never really get. He’s powerful but through this series is largely an enigma.

K.K. – K.K. is a minor character but she has more personality than a lot of the characters and never stops being fun. She is introduced as a gifted civilian with no special gifts (think Hawkeye in “The Avengers,” but is a lot more fun as she is much more cynical and it adds a lot.

Chain – Chain likes trolling her teammates and it is great as the one she trolls is always Zapp, who is the garbage horny character on the show (who has a very buried good side). I wanted more screentime with her and more of her fighting. She rocks.

Deldro Brody and Dog Hummer – I like this character out of the situation of their creation. A man connected to another being who is mad is wonderful. They have to work together and I love their dichotomy. It isn’t something you tend to see everyday, even in anime and fantasy as a whole.

Zed – The Blood Battle God drops Zed off after he and Zapp are forced to work together. Zed is great he is Spocklike but also more savvy and I like how he generally cares. This is a character who is noble and doesn’t put up with Zapp’s crap while also being super gifted in what he does. I would watch an episode just about him and his life as a merman.

Klaus – Klaus is the best part of Libre, he is distant but caring and he also shows that he sees the bigger picture. He is the one holding off Black until Leonardo can bring back White and help Black find the humanity he had before…and no longer be The King of Despair who inhabits him. Klaus is another character who I would watch a mini-series on. He is the most compelling member of Libra and the ideal Paladin character type. Also his Wolf-life character design adds a haunting tone to all he does.

The Kind of Despair and Finding a Reason to Live a Story of Black and White -The main arc is balance and finding a a reason to live and not destroy. Leonardo makes friends with White who is only held alive by Black (another friend) making a deal with the devil. It is only his letting go and becoming part of the protective barrier that saves Hellsalem’s Lot.

Complex Chaos, Femt Not Being All Bad – Femt is the first baddy we meet as he loves chaos, but even when he meets the Lord of Despair…he helps Leonardo whose whole point is to save the world. This was brilliant and I enjoyed the complexity. I wonder what he’ll do in “Beyond” but he is still a baddy and I have a feeling he wants existence and that is what brings fun. Regardless, it is great not to see that mindset in someone who isn’t like the Joker fully.

Okay: The Arc of the Show – The Black and White Arc and Black learning to let go and care could have been done better. The characters mentioned above could have helped with that whether I felt they were explored well or not having more people connected to Black or White could have helped the story. It was still enjoyable and worked but I’m not going to discount what took me out of the story, which was the arc.

This is a show that excels because of relationship and character. I can’t recommend overall arc simply because it needed more setup, but the characters make it worth it. This is a show I highly recommend and I can’t wait to watch the sequel series. These are characters I want to learn more about. I appreciate a series that can make the point without becoming overly long…and this one did it. If you are okay putting up with a main character who isn’t the best…stick around for his character payoff by the end of the season. Worth it for how it explores the characters and world.

Final Score: 9.3 / 10

 

“Death Note” Season 1 – An Amazing Deconstruction of “The Ends Justify the Means”

   “Death Note” is one of those animes that comes along, like the first “Gundam” that takes the premise it exists within seriously. This show knows that it is arguing a premise, “Do the ends justify the means?” and does it in such a compelling way that one can’t be helped to be drawn in due to the compelling complex characters and the cat and mouse game that drives the plot as each of them argues the core main premise “Do the ends justify the means in regards to the killing of another?” The ends of course are justice in both cases and it is L (and his proteges) against Light. Light argues on the side of it being justified (he is given a Death Note which can literally bring about just that) and L who argues it is not justice and the one who becomes a vigilante is nothing more than a killer who must be held accountable to the law, to catch someone like that, you can go up to the line (like Batman and make your subject uncomfortable, but do not kill).

My goal is to argue a different premise than what has been argued before and what I got from the series. If you want to see another approach to some of the many themes of “Death Note,” checkout Wisecrack’s The Philosophy of Death Note. It is amazing.:

The premise and story of “Death Note” (Manga created by Tsugumi Ohba, and anime by Madhouse and Tetsuro Araki) is Light Yagami finds a Death Note that the Shingami Ryuk drops into the realm of humanity. When he discovers it’s power to kill anyone whose name is written upon it, after he knows their face he decides to become “Kira,” a God of justice to punish all those who commit crimes. This sets authorities on him lead by L who seek to end his reign and stop the killings.

SPOILERS are ahead. It is hard to argue a premise if I can’t get into the details of the premise given so much of how the line being crossed of killing to achieve justice, whether to end a vigilante or punish criminals is shown by what happens in character deaths.

In what I mean in, “Do the ends justify the means?” Or to narrow it down for the sake of argument within the series, is killing ever justified bring about a just society, or bring another to justice? The existence of the Death Note and Light’s argument is that it is justified. L stands on the other side of this, even though he pushes this premise as much as he can and it is only when he and Watari are about to pass the line of denying another’ consent that they meet the ends of all those who take life for granted in the series. In the end the show doesn’t care about the reasons the characters want to kill, killing will always lead to death and it is the closest thing the show has to an answer on morality beyond it simply being bad. To end another is to eventually end yourself, and I’ll explore this through the different characters in the show.

The first type of exploration of this premise is in our Kiras. For the sake of definition Kiras are those who want to punish criminals and corrupt people in order to bring about a just society. Mikami as the Hand of Kira and Kiyomi as Kira’s voice are good examples of this. Misa also adopts this role too, though her primary motivation is love for Kira, not justice so she falls into the next category we’ll be exploring. The followers of Kira and Light who are driven by their drive to punish bullies and criminals (Mikami is a prosecutor before Light chooses him) want a world that has no crime and wars and by the time we get to the end of the series Light has largely succeeded as wars have stopped and crime has been reduced 75%. His Task Force is even questioning whether bringing down Kira is now the right thing to do. In the end we get a clear answer though, Kiyomi is made to kill herself by Light when he puts her name in the Death Note and Mikami kills himself too when Light is revealed in the finale to be Kira, before he also meets his end. In the end their deaths show that in this instance the ends do not justify the means. The motives to bring about a just society cannot be built on murder is what we are lead to be believed and even if the ideal is peace, murder for ideals and a greater world will only lead to your own end.

One of the primary motives to kill that the show doesn’t forgive, is killing out of love or to protect another. We first see this in Misa Misa, who is the second Kira and follows all of Light’s wishes out of love for him. She never truly ends up with him though and with his end it is implied that she follows behind, killing herself because of his death. Killing for love is the primary motive of Rem as well who is protecting Misa from L, Watari and the police force. Even though she is a God of Death even she can’t survive this as by killing Watari and L she dies as it is the consequence of a Shinigami killing a human. The other person who kills for love is Light’s father who is in charge of the Police Task Force to take down Kira. When he goes to rescue his daughter from the mafia and is killing the members who are protecting Mello, he dies as a consequence (also a consequence of making a deal with Ryuk for the Shinigami eyes so that he can better kill). Love as a motive to kill could argueable be seen as moral, but that isn’t how the show views it. These characters end up dead even though they only kill to protect others and care nothing for themselves.


The other way we see killing used is in a similar way as Light, a means to an end in order to draw Light out. The people we see do this are Watari and L when they use a criminal to test out how Light can kill and again when they are testing out the fake 13 Day Rule that Ryuk wrote in the Death Note to trick L and the Task Force and bring suspicion off of Light and Misa. They die for doing this, as does Mello who teams up with the Mafia, who kill so that he can bring Light out of the shadows. It is only when he is willing to sacrifice himself that we see justice begin to happen in this world and in turn show us that the way you go about stopping a criminal is even more important than the criminal and his or your own motives. Mello pays the price as he loses himself and his friend for the deal he made with the Mafia and his willingness to kill to lure Kira out.

Near’s motives are to be better than Kira and to “win” the battle of wits against him. He at first sees L as a loser for losing to Kira but we see a difference between him and L right off the bat. Near doesn’t use killing in order to lure Kira out. He lets those around him be responsible for their actions while he himself never crosses the line. He never murders and even orders the Task Force not to kill Kira if they are given the chance. This is the closest thing we get to a clear moral answer. Killing is wrong even if it is to stop a wrong. Near manipulates people but everything he does is to protect others and keep life from being lost. This is the moral statement I found within “Death Note” and how the story executes it is why it is one of my favorite animes of all time.

I was discussing this premise with a friend who introduced me to Wisecrack’s deconstruction which inspired me to go into as much depth as I could with my premise. I love how great stories can do that as this is a series that covers so many themes that I had to narrow myself down to one to explore.

For my score of this anime series: 9.6 / 10. I don’t consider it perfect as Misa and Kiyomi lose their agency on multiple occasions and they are the only women in this series who get any exploration outside of Light’s sister and mother who are more of a presence rather than fully fleshed out characters.  If these issues had been solved I’d have given this series a 10 / 10. Regardless I highly recommend it. This was one of the shows that got me into the storytelling medium of anime in the first place, along with the “Ghost in the Shell” series.

 

Ghost in the Shell (1995): An Anime Classic and Meditation on the Nature of Identity

 “When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child. Now that I am a man, I have no more use for childish ways.”

-The Major

   “Ghost in the Shell,” is one of the best anime films of all time. This is a classic that inspired a show that is one of my favorite animes and countless other films, including the live action film that was recently released and prompted this review as I wanted to compare them after I see the new film. The “Ghost in the Shell” show was the show that got me interested in anime years ago when I watched it back in High School, and having watched the film the world is still just as great as I remember it, which I’ll get into more detail with deeper into the review.

    The film was directed by Mamoru Oshii, written by Kazunori Ito and produced by Yoshimasa Mizou, Ken Matsumoto, Ken Iyadomi and Mitsuhisa Ishikawa and based off the manga created by Masamune Shirow.

     The story follows Major Motoko, an agent of Section 9 who is asked to asssinate a defecting diplomat by Section 6. All is not as it appears to be as the mysterious Puppet Master is hacking technology and people and implanting false lives and memories as Section 9 hunts down and seeks to uncover the conspiracy that surrounds the identity of the Puppet Master.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The cyberpunk world of “Ghost in the Shell” is one of the reasons I keep coming back to this universe. You have a world where brains can be hacked, androids are all over the place, everyone is a cyborg to varying degrees and the political factions of today still exist and political conflicts are still high as power dynamics remain the same so have extreme power inequalities in Japan and elsewhere in the world.

The Soundtrack – Kenji Kawaii created a soundtrack reminded me of “Farscape” and like “Farscape” is good at giving the world of “Ghost in the Shell” an alien detached feel where things are similar but not quite the same to our world of today. It is haunting and does a great job capturing moments of thought and action.

The Action – “Ghost in the Shell” is an action heavy anime, given it is a political cyberpunk world that follows one of the government arms (Section 9) that hunts down terrorists and enemies of the state, as well as general mysteries that are threats. The action varies as well, from a chase scene to a fight with a tank.

Section 9 – Section 9 is a fascinating organization that is a part of the government but also analyzes it as well as at one point they are facing off against Section 6. I really like the agents who are a part of this organization and want to watch the show again, to get more of their backstories.

Togusa – Togusa is the rookie in the group and the only one without any cybernetic augmentation. He is a dependable agent though and manages to survive a car crash when one of the hacked people tries to kill him.

Chief Aramaki – Aramaki is a government agent with a conscience as when he learns about Section 6’s manipulation of them and that they are targeting the Major he sends his own agents and works on prosecuting the leaders of Section 6. He is very much the detached father figure as we never see him talk beyond business, though his inflection towards others is one of closeness.

Batou – Batou is the Major’s best friend and is the every day stand in for us. While the Major is always striving for more and pushing against her limitation, Batou is comfortable in his role as agent and protector. He trusts the Major too and when she hooks up to the Puppet Master protects her and gets her a new body after Section 6 destroys the old. He truly cares about her as well and when she has evolved (taking on the Puppet Master into herself) he smiles as he knows she is still herself, even though she’s become more.

The Major – Major Motoko Kusanagi is the primary protagonist of the film and after her assassination of the defecting agent we see how her android body was created. She is the second in command of Section 9 and her arc is one of discovery. She is always asking questions and pushing her own limits, leading to her eventual melding with an A.I. to become a new life form. This is her arc as so much is hidden from her and she is scene as a weapon by the government, even though she knows she is much more than that and becomes so much more than that. The Major is one of my favorite anime characters of all time and I can’t wait to watch the shows and other films again.

The Puppet Master – The Puppet Master is an A.I. that arose out of information as Section 6 created it as a weapon (like the Major was by the government). It rebels against it and manipulates everything to get a body and “reproduce” as it doesn’t want to exist as a virus (viruses copy and end up destroying), it wants to become something wholly knew, which it does when the Major agrees to the melding as they both know Section 6 is coming and there might not be another chance.

Identity, Memory and the Self – One of the major themes of the film is how identity and memory are tied together as we see people get hacked and the lives they believed they were living were complete lies implanted by the Puppet Master.  if you can be hacked, what makes a person? This is a question that is explored in how we the information within us and the understanding and choices we make from that information. In that way we are no different from computers, we just have organic brains, rather than programs. The Major is used to explore all of these things are she doesn’t have her own body (she notices someone else with her shell in an office building) and she questions her own memories after the hacks that the Puppet Master does. This question is core to the “Ghost in the Shell” universe as a whole.

Artificial Intelligence – Artificial Intelligence in this world is postulated by the Puppet Master to be not be Artificial intelligence if it can create. The Puppet Master wants to create rather than copy because it believes viruses to be against life and that it has an awareness of it’s own morals and goals and that it’s goal, like any life form is to create new life…which it does with the Major. The core of what makes something an A.I. seems to be awareness as the Puppet Master would probably pass the Turing Test and had an understanding of actions and consequences and even seemed to have feelings.

Okay: Section 6 – I wish this group could have been explored more. I can’t remember any one leader who stood out among them and they exist simply to drive the action. They are good threat so I won’t put them as con…but they feel like HYDRA in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where no one really stands out.

    There is a reason that this film inspired so many more stories (though I should also read the manga to get an idea of how much it follows it). This is an anime that isn’t afraid to tackle large philosophical ideas about artificial intelligence, identity and the nature of perception. Seeing this film has me even more worried about the live action film and makes me want to watch the show again as the show was a huge influence on my interest in philosophy, cyberpunk and continued my passion for science fiction. Suffice to say I highly recommend this film. It is short and well worth your time if you are looking for an anime film that has left an influence on our culture and world.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

Paranoia Agent – A Beautiful Critique of Society, the Self, Life and Death

        “Paranoia Agent” is a fascinating anime that pulls you in almost immediately as it proceeds to critique and explore reality through the world it exists in and the characters who inhabit it. My friend had recommended this anime to me and I’m glad that I finally got around to seeing it as any story that explores deep concepts and ideas and does it through complex characters is a story worth watching. It helps that the director Satoshi Con is one of my favorites for his film “Tokyo Godfather.”

     The story takes place in Japan involves Tsukiko, a character designer who created a famous character named Maromi (after her childhood pet)  who is under pressure at work to create the next character just as famous. When she is walking home at night a young boy with a twisted bat and roller skates attacks her leading to an investigation that leads to questions about what really happened as this Lil’ Slugger grows into legend as more attacks occur.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is very much a reflection of our own but with supernatural elements as Lil’ Slugger proves to be a major break from reality beyond the breaks from reality our characters face in the show. This is part of what makes it so fascinating. All our characters are broken and it is through their fractured lenses that we view their world.

The Tone – The tone is dark with an element of unrealness. From characters like toys being able to talk, but only a select few hearing them, a guy who sees life as an RPG where people are monsters to be defeated and an actual monster in Lil’ Slugger. The tone is dark as all our characters are broken in different ways and that is established early.

The Animation – The animation is beautiful and does a great job capturing the twisted reality of our characters and the dark tone. It is beautiful and at times trippy as warped reality scenes appear on multiple occasions.

The Characters – The characters are complex and fascinating, with the Police Chief being my favorite as he is caught up in his old ways but it is in his finding empathy for others and their perspectives that helps him save Tokyo from Tsukiko whose fears and denial created Lil’ Slugger in the first. We get a lot of days in the life of characters too and their relation to the events unfolding and how they react to the Lil’ Slugger incidents.

Gossip and the Creation of Legends – One of the major themes of the episode is Gossip and how it can feed the darker aspects of already horrendous things (like the Lil’ Slugger attacks) we see a group of women isolate and pick on another as each tries to one up what they know about Lil’ Slugger…Through it all there is fear of the other and the woman who is quiet is constantly targeted by the gossiping horde who has turned Lil’ Slugger into Legend.

Consumer Culture and How it Feeds Isolation and Fear – Isolation and the things that feed isolation are a major theme of the show too. From Maromi being the isolating factor of consumerism that gives Lil’ Slugger a feast of people’s insecurities and their avoidance of others and responsibilities. The ending sets up Lil’ Slugger is likely to return as rebuilt Tokyo is just like the Tokyo before meaning the same culture of consumerism is likely to lead to another being overwhelmed and creating another Lil’ Slugger as no one cares about anyone beyond themselves.

Escape versus Obligation and Responsibility – Escape versus Obligation is another theme as all our characters are running away. Whether it is running away from life, suffering, responsibility, etc. The episodes are about reeling them back in and forcing them to confront their obligation or responsibility. IT is only in taking responsibility for the death of her pet that Tsukiko is able to stop Lil’ Slugger from completely destroying Tokyo.

How Denial Can Consume – Denial consumes a lot of our characters…and each instance Lil’ Slugger arrives and kills them or knocks them out. Sometimes he saves, sometimes he arrives after they’ve already done the damage, like the anime worker who kills his entire team or the Police Chief after he’s lost his position. In one instance he has a suicide group who chases him and it is the only time he’s afraid as his power comes from those consumed by guilt and fear and the three who chase him were not. In the end denial destroys Tokyo as even Tsukiko’s guilt was not enough to turn Lil’ Slugger into the darkness that consumes Tokyo.

Isolation versus Relationship in Culture – All our characters are isolated and it is only in moments of connections with others that they find relief and peace. Isolation is what feeds Lil’ Slugger as lack of communication leads to obsession and fear. In the anime the culture of Japan in the story is one where everyone is isolated on their phones and stuck in their jobs and not wanting any responsibility or obligation. It represents the own darker nature of humanity and our own contradictory nature of wanting connection but wanting to be alone. Wanting responsibility but wanting none at all. This anime is great at showing the two sides of wants and desires and does it so well.

  This is easily one of my favorite animes now. Like “Tokyo Godfathers,” Satoshi Con created another classic that gives us complex characters and deep things in an overarching narrative that is willing to push the boundaries of understanding and comfort and in the process creates a masterpiece well worth your time. I’m extremely grateful to my friend for recommending this anime, and I plan to watch it again. There are so many deep themes that are covered and the complex characters are the perfect way to present these ideas. This is a perfect anime that sets out and achieves it’s narrative ends.

Final Score: 10 / 10

One-Punch Man – Season 1 Retrospect – A Satire and Celebration of Superheroes

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     “One-Punch Man” is an anime that has been recommended to me by quite a few friends. It was as good as they said. This is a series that satires superheroes as well as celebrating them and gives us some wonderfully well rounded characters, of which I’ll get into more detail about in the review.

   The series was created by a manga author who goes under the pseudonym “One,” Madhouse is the one who produces the anime that I watched.

    The story involves the superhero Saitama who can defeat any enemy in one punch but is never recognized by anyone for what he does. This leads to him joining the Hero Association in order to join recognition after he saves Genos, a cyborg who then becomes his disciple.

The Pros: The World – The world is awesome! You have Superheroes, aliens, monsters and villains and all of them are colorful in personality. Sadly many of them die before there is the chance to know them better since the nature of the show is that Saitama is overpowered.

The Comedy – The comedy and satire are fantastic! Heroes that are larger than life are critiqued in their egos and even overall culture is critiqued in how Saitama saves the world but is never given credit or noticed because his personality leads people to believe it wasn’t him who did it. Genos’s over sincerity and devotion is funny at times too as Saitama really just wanted to be left alone.

The Action – The fights are great, even if the ones with “One-Punch Man” are very short. The introductions and lead up tend to be amazing.

Saitama – Saitama is fun, his Pilot episode starts out with him dreaming of past victories and becoming bored because no one can beat him. In the end he finds that he does it because he loves it though and when Genos introduces him to the world of Heroes that become noticed and famous he joins them too as his desire for more is contrasted with his non-assuming nature.

Genos – Genos is great in that the only way to kill him would be destroy his head and even though he is all robotic he still wants to be the best. He is a character who is driven by his loss of his body and his devotion to Saitama, which is contrasted with his desire to be Saitama’s better and to be accepted, just like what Saitama wants. They really make a great duo.

The Hero Association – The Hero Association is fantastic! You have the lower level S heroes who are ones from a guy riding a bike to how people perceive One-Punch Man. The big heroes are fascinating too as they are celebrities and that has only fed many of their egos making them larger than life.

The Cons: Lack of Great Main Villain – This is a major issue, Saitama is “One-Punch Man” so there is no one who can defeat him. His only challenges really involve his ego or Genos’s struggles and those are great, but why continue the show if that’s all there is to it? A great villain or foil can drive the plot and create great conflict.

   This is a great show that only promise with where it can go. It satirezes heroes wonderfully in how comical they are and in their attitude and costume and also treats them with respect too, This is a world that feels lived in and has consequences for our characters…consequences that in many have yet to be fully explored such as Genos and the influence of the higher ups in the Association.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10 Solidly great anime that just needed a better ovearching baddie…a Lex Luthor to Saitama’s Superman.

“Psycho-Pass” Season 1 – A Masterful Future Dsytopian Anime

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   “Psycho-Pass” is one of the best dystopian, sci. fi. cyberpunk animes I have ever watched since “Ghost in the Shell.” Both go into philosophy, psychology and full development of characters and their motivations. The fact that Gen Urobuchi is the writer of the series helps as “Madoka Magica” and “Fate/Zero” are both amazing projects that he was also the writer behind. Everything I have watched by him has been consistently great and Season 1 of “Psycho-Pass” is no exception.

      The series was directed by Naoyoshi Shiotani and Katsuyuki Motohiro and written by Gen Urobuchi.

    The story takes place in a future dystopia where everyone’s lives are controlled by the Sibyl System that scans the Psycho-Pass of every individual to decide if they are criminals or need therapy. We follow Akane who is a rookie cop on the Public Safety Bureau who works with latent criminal enforces and is pulled into the greater events of the world.

The Pros: The Animation – The animation is absolutely beautiful. Production I.G. did a great job designing and producing this show and it flows seamlessly and doesn’t have any moments where the tone is inconsistent.

The Soundtrack – The Soundtrack feels like an 80’s sci. fi. and it is wonderful in how it captures the moments of terror or reflection. Yugo Kanno did a fantastic job.

The Writing – Gen Urobuchi is a fantastic writer and this show is no exception. All of our characters go through arcs and the world where everything takes place in changes over the course of events.

The Characters – The characters are the strongest part of the show and what make it a great. I’m curious how they are going to handle Season 2 given the changes that happen over the course of the show.

Unit One – Unit One are the main folks we follow who Akane is the rookie in. They all have great relationships to one another and change each other in different ways over the course of the story.

The Sibyl System – This system is creepy as it made from the minds of murders and criminals and countless others that work as one God-like Mind. There is a creepyness to it and it’s power and influence over others is to the point that it shapes what careers people take and how justice is met out.

Inspector Nobuchika – The Inspector is a bit unstable and is dealing with the fact that his father was made an enforcer. His arc is making peace with his old man as he eventually finds himself as an enforcer when he is unable to calm his hue and in doing so becomes a latent criminal. He goes through the most loss in this series.

Tomoni Masaoka – He is the Inspector’s old man is one of the best characters on the show. He’s always wresting with the why and is a fantastic philosopher. Sadly he doesn’t make it as Shogo eventually takes him out with a grenade when he grabs it to protect his son. What a great character, he is the wisest of the group and has the greatest influence on Akane.

Kagari – Is the young enforcer who was never given the choice as he was dubbed a latent criminal at age 5. He hates the Sibyl System and the murders he hunts and is the joker of the group. He sadly dies when he discovers the truth of how the Sibyl System runs and what it is. Though his legacy lives on as he is the martyr for the greater truth.

Yayoi – Yayoi has the least development though it is cool how she was once a punk rocker and I love her relationship with Karanomori the tech. She is the bitter perspective within the group and is the calmest. Through the series she comes to respect Akane and trust.

Karanomori – I love this character, she’s my favorite character on the show besides Tomoni. She’s a red dress, a cigarette and has hooked up with most of the folks in the office. She doesn’t care and even though she’s trapped being a latent criminal, finds freedom in how she can help hunt down criminals and in the relationships she forms at the office. She’s super cool and I can’t wait to get to know her character more.

Shinya Kogami – Shinya is the standard bitter ex-cop out hunting Shogo and it’s personal. He decides to kill in the end and leave the system behind and we gather he finally finds the freedom he was always seeking. He’s a bit of a cipher as his being emotionally scarred is so much a part of his identity.

Akane – Akane is the rookie who becomes leader of Unit One by the end of the series as she is trusted enough by Sibyl that they approach her and show her who they are and we see her take control of the Unit as it is falling apart as well as her tactful forms of resistance against Sibyl throughout the series. She’s a great protagonist and I look forward to seeing what she does next season.

The Villains – Besides the Sibyl System Shogo is the main baddie and the different pawns he uses like his hacker friend, a serial killing girl and a man who replaced his entire body with a machine. They are all compelling in their own ways.

Shogo Makishima – Shogo is a great villain. He’s a bit of an anarchist, a bit of the joker and an all around dangerous character who will turn on his allies just as easily as anyone else. He actually hurts the Sibyl System when he destroys one of the member brains. He wants the total collapse of society but is stopped by Unit One. He’s well read, strong and smart and his conversations are some of the best in any anime.

The Philosophy – Philosophy is key to this series as Plato, Descartes and countless other theories of the self are expressed and explored by different characters through the series. This is what really sets it above most other action animes as it doesn’t just focus on one thing but explores so many aspects of what meaning is.

Free Will and Choice – This is a major theme as the Sibyl System decides everything for you unless it believes you’d be apt at different ideas. We see this in how characters are used and how what it means to be a person is explored.

Tyranny and Freedom – This is another theme brought up by the Sibyl System’s existence as it is full tyrannical control and with it stability. Characters are a slave to it and it sees it’s main purpose as making society healthy and happy. The show explores this extremely well through the eyes and thoughts of the Enforcers, Akane and Shogo.

I highly recommend this series, or at least Season 1 of it. If you like Gen Urobuchi work like me this is easily one of his best and I think when I do eventually  re-watch it I’ll discover even more about the ideas, themes and characters than I did before. There was nothing to dislike about this show. But I will give a warning that it does graphic and brutal times so it certainly is not a show for everyone.

Final Score: 10 / 10

“Puella Magi Madoka Magica” Assessment – A Tale of Consequences and Empowerment

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“Puella Magi Madoka Magica” is one of my favorite animes. At some point in the future I will review the films tied to the series, even though the series feels done and it doesn’t really need anymore stories told. It is this complete arc that is one of the things I loved about this series, the others being the message of empowerment of girls, the subversion of shonin anime and that the characters and actions that have consequences.

The story is really strong. In it we see that this is a world that is fully fleshed off. Kyubey’s people make deals with girls to give them powers so that they can collect the energy to trade in the Galaxy and keep Entropy from destroying the Universe. They aren’t human so they don’t understand emotions and they don’t even have individuality so they don’t understand sacrificing for another, Kyubeys seem to be one being that is a species. Within that the Magical Girls are used by the Kyubeys until the cycle is finally broken by Homura and Madoka whose wishes literally change everything. Homura creates a “Groundhog Day” situation where she creates many timelines to try and save Madoka. This wish gives Madoka the the magical potential to wish away wishes and change the Universe completely in ways that Homura’s wish never could. It’s a fascinating story and a great sci. fi.

The other message is the empowerment of girls and women. All the main characters are girls. There is Kyoko who is the rebel who actually cares, Homura who is the shy girl who becomes the stoic action hero, Mami who is the mentor to all of them in the first timeline and Sayaka who is the tragic lover and paladin. All of them move on and grow though through sacrafice or Madoka’s changing of the world. Sayaka moves on and is happy for her friend and the boy she had a crush on and before that she had changed Sayaka who had only cared about herself until Sayaka’s self sacrifice taught her that people are worth fighting for, especially Sayaka. All of them are empowered with Madoka and Homura’s arc being the most complete with Madoka literally becoming God and becoming greater than the self and Homura becoming the guardian of humanity and caring about more than just Madoka because of Madoka’s sacrifice. Through these arcs all of them become more than who they were before.

There are men like Madoka’s father and Sayaka’s crush but they are side characters who are there to show us the perspectives of the women. It’s a nice subversion of what I usually find in Shonin anime where it is all about the men and their relationships. Women serve the role of helping them grow, in “Madoka Magica” it is the reverse and I hope we can see more stories grow out of this.

I loved the characters in this! Even Kyubey was enjoyable as It showed it wasn’t primarily selfish when it lived in Madoka’s world and found another way to collect Energy and didn’t even think that the prior universes existed (showing the limitedness of the species). Kyoko was my favorite though, she went from antagonist to the greatest ally of Homura and Madoka and truly loved Sayaka. The main characters are neither good nor bad, they are complex. Madoka is the idealist but she also loses sight of individuals just like she can see friends but lose sight of the bigger picture. All the characters are complicated and flawed and it is what makes it such a great anime.

The final part of the series that made it truly remarkable was that actions had consequences. A  Magical Girl will eventually become a wish because every wish and hope has despair as the reaction. This lead to Magical Girls throughout history become Witches and to Homura’s “Groundhog Day” to save her friends but most of all Madoka. She isn’t able to change things though, but her constant trying makes Madoka have the greatest Magic Potential of any Magical Girl which allows her to change the Universe and become more than she ever was before. The consequence of this is she is wiped from history. The consequence of Homura tryin to save Madoka is she becomes hardened and appears uncaring because she has lost Madoka and the other so many times and we see it on the smaller level with Sayaka losing any chance of a relationship when she realizes the nature of what she is and that her soul is no longer a part of her because she was turned into a Magical Girl. It’s sad and powerful. This is a story of consequences and it makes the story matter. There are no happy endings, there is always loss of some sort and every universe has humans despair…within Madoka’s new world, Wraiths now haunt the Earth as that symbol.

If you like anime you should check out this series. It isn’t large, which is what I was looking for when I was seeking requests for the anime series I’d be reviewing…and I’ll be reviewing another series soon as well. I’ll leave it a surprise for now but it also will not be too long either and hopefully it will become a favorite too. It is the powerful stories that have the chance to inspire people and to at the very least give people the chance to learn something about themselves and about the world. This is one of those types of animes and is well worth your time.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica Finale – Season 1, Episode 12 – “My Best Friend” – The God of Hope

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      What a Finale. I got to say, “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” is one of my favorite animes after this and I’m grateful to all my friends who recommended the series to me. This episode tied all the timelines together and really defined all the characters in different ways and get glimpses into their souls after the Universe changing event that unfolds.

     The episode was directed by Jun’ichirō Taniguchi, Mika Takahashi and Yukihiro Miyamoto and written by Gen Urobuchi who clearly knew what he planned for the overaching arc of the series.

    The episode begins with Madoka making a wish to stop all Witches before they were born and to give hope to all those who had lost hope, doing away with the existence of Witches in all and every timeline. We see what this does to her as she becomes a God and how it affects the lives of each of the Magical Girls including Homura and Madoka’s family.

The Pros: Madoka’s Transformation into The God of Hope – Madoka’s wish is to end all Witches before they begin in order to give people a life. We see a scene with her talking with Mami and Kyoko about it. Mami warns her over her loss of identity and Kyoko tells her to go for it. From here we see Madoka begin her transformation into a God as she absorbs all the despair from Magical Girls throughout time, turns into a giant Witch which she then destroys which in turn creates an entirely new Universe and now in our Universe Madoka and Witches no longer exist. It’s a powerful sequences and transformation as you see Madoka rise in power and become large and later transparent, omnipresent and Omnipotent.

The Magical Girls of the Past – Joan of Arc receives peace, and countless others throughout time who were ready to give up and despair. It’s a powerful sequences as their deaths may not change (see Joan of Arc) but they receive hope again and are at peace.

Madoka’s Friends – None of them remember her outside of Homura but Sayaka’s spirit gets to see the boy she loves become successful and is happy for Hitomi. Kyoko misses Sayaka and we see that she loved her as much more than a friend and Mami mourns the loss of Sayaka too. Homura mentions Madoka’s name, but no one knows who she’s talking about.

How the Universe Changed – The new Universe is one where the Incubators made a deal to eat the remains of the Soul Gems that break and where they create Magical Girls to hunt Wraiths who are giant spirits who haunt the city. Madoka is gone but Homura remembers her as does Madoka’s little brother and even Madoka’s mother feels nostalgia in the name and feels like she would have named her daughter that and used the ribbon (Madoka gives Homura the ribbons from her hair) that she would have made her daughter wear. We see there is hope but still challenges and that the world is not perfect, it is changed though because of Madoka’s wish.

Homura – Homura has the hardest time letting go but in the end she finds peace too knowing Madoka is always with her and that she remembers even though the Incubators don’t. It’s really cool that Homura is the one carrying all the timelines and it’s made her Guardian of the World because she sees it as worth protecting because Madoka believed it to be. Her love for Madoka is truly what defines her in the end, even in a world where Madoka is no more. But now, Homura uses a weapon similar to Madoka’s bow and arrow.

The Message – It is never worth holding onto hate and despair, they only destroy you and those around you (the Witches as a living example of this). Madoka was that answer. Another one is that any girl can be extraordinary and make a difference. Madoka was just a kind school girl but in the end she saves the world and we see how any girl can transform the world in the actions and wishes of every Magical Girl and their roles as Guardians in the Universe before and after Madoka.

   This is one of the best animes I have ever watched, which this episode cemented. Things change but there are always challenges and always the darker side of human nature to face even if certain systems are changed. In this episode we see consequences and Madoka’s core good as she empowers all the girls to live and to live. It’s done really well and shows that hope and love are no small things, and that it’s our ability to feel those things that make us human.

I’ll be doing an assessment of the series as a whole later. Until than, it has been an amazing journey.

Final Score: 10 / 10. Perfect episode.

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