Anime Review: Princess Mononoke (1997)

TL;DR – Forest gods and spirits wage war against Iron Town, a village that is mining the resources around it, creating weapons, and destroying nature. The fates of both sides hangs in the balance and will be determined through Ashitaka, a prince of the Emishi tribe, seeking to navigate a way to peace.

Review (warning: spoilers)

For all of its animated brilliance, what director and writer Hayao Miyazaki has done is create a world that is a testimony to fantasy story-telling and also raises the philosophical debate between humanity’s desire for technological advancement and its coexistence (or destruction) with the world we are meant to be caretakers of.

Themes around nature and technology run through practically every film Miyazaki has created and it is clear that he is passionate about sending a message on how we treat this little blue dot that we live in and the delicate balance that we hold in its future.

At the same time, his ability to tell such epic and sweeping fantasy and capture the imagination of the movie viewer is second to none. He is the benchmark of not only anime story telling but cinematic story telling in general.

When the Emishi tribe’s village comes under attack by a gigantic, raging demonic boar, Ashitaka intervenes seeking to defend his home and loved ones while also attempting to reason and usher the boar away. You are immediately drawn into his character as Ashitaka does not kill for killing’s sake. He is noble but not prideful. He values all life even one that has been corrupted by fear and hate. This opening scene is breath taking. Ashitaka riding Yakul, his loyal red elk, confronting the demonic boar that leaves a path of devastation and decay in its wake, and finally having no other choice but to use his bow and arrow to kill the boar lest it engulf the village. In the process, Ashitaka’s arm is infected by the curse that has engulfed the boar and later it is revealed that the boar was actually a forest god that received a wound from an iron bullet that slowly infected and poisoned him with hatred and malice and transforming him into a demon.

Thus Ashitaka undertakes a quest to uncover what evil is spreading toward the west. His journey makes him encounter two warring factions – Iron Town led by Lady Eboshi who wishes to usher in an industrial era and the forest gods led by the Wolf goddess, Moro, and a young human girl named San.

Princess Mononoke is nothing short of a masterpiece. At its heart, it speaks of how we destroy all things (including ourselves) when we hate. As Ashitaka seeks to reach a compromise between Iron Town and forest gods, it is clear that only an act of sacrifice will achieve any level of peace.

As an allegorical tale, Princess Mononoke speaks volumes of the issues we confront in society today. Whether it be carbon emissions, use of fossil fuels, global warming, climate change or the political / cultural / racial divide between people, there is much to ponder as to what the characters San, Moro, Lady Eboshi, Jigo (a monk Ashitaka encounters with his own agenda), and Ashitaka himself represents in the film and more broadly the ideas, principles and desires that drive them and how they reflect the real world.

As an epic fantasy, the glorious landscapes, the details of each character and the environments they explore, combined with the ephemeral music and the many layers of plot that explores beliefs, faith, power and human emotions, this movie is a must-see for everyone and not just anime fans.

Arguably, Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s magnum opus. It definitely cries out Miyazaki’s personal beliefs as if he is opening his heart to the masses and pleading for hatred and avarice not to overcome humanity. For me personally, I still think it is Tonari no Totoro but the two films are chalk and cheese in terms of comparison. Tonari no Totoro is a slice-of-life anime while Princess Mononoke is an epic fantasy tale. Many other people will argue other Miyazaki films deserve the title of magnum ops – Spirited Away, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, Arriety, Porco Rosso to name a few. Miyazaki’s canon of quality works is so varied and large that we are spoilt for choice.

Spoilt is the keyword here. Thank you Miyazaki for the dedication to your craft, your vision in animation, and your heart in storytelling. Thank you.

10 out of 10

Anime Review: Great Pretender (2020)

TL;DR – a group of con artists work together undertaking heists all around the world, and in the process, revealing pasts that seek to catch up with them.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Wit Studio is on a roll. One would think that being a relative newcomer on the anime scene (they were founded in 2012) they would need some time to build an audience. However, they have a significant leg up because they are actually a subsidiary of IG Port and producers from their other subsidiary anime studio, Production I.G, founded Wit Studio. Production I.G was founded in 1987 and has a long history of churning out quality anime series, OVAs, and films.

So, when Wit Studio, released their first anime series in 2013 and it turned out to be Attack on Titan, it should have been no surprise that the series was a local and international hit. In between generating the first three seasons of Attack on Titan they also released several other series including Vinland Saga and After the Rain.

In 2020, Wit Studio released two new anime series – GARUGAKU. Saint Girls Square Academy and Great Pretender. I have not seen GARUGAKU but from the limited reviews it appears to have rated poorly. It may be because the series is aimed at young children and each episode is only three minutes long.

On the other hand, Great Pretender has been a critical success and lauded for its animation style and music. But what about the plot?

The story revolves around a group of con artists and is broken up into four arcs:

  • Case 1 – Los Angeles Connection (episodes 1-5)
  • Case 2 – Singapore Sky (episodes 6-10)
  • Case 3 – Snow of London (episodes 11-14)
  • Case 4 – Wizard of Far East (episodes 15-23)

The four main characters are Makoto Edamura, Laurent Thierry, Abigail Jones, and Cynthia Moore. Edamua is a small-time Japanese con-man who gets roped into working with Laurent, a French con-man who masterminds the group’s heists. Abigail is Laurent’s right-hand, physically skilled and guarded about who she is. Cynthia was a stage actress and works in Laurent’s team using her feminine wiles and acting skills to win over and influence targets.

While the heists themselves are interesting and introduces a cast of colourful individuals ranging from a movie director who is actually a drug lord, to a pair of Arab oil-tycoon brothers who operate a rigged racing airplane tournament, to a dodgy English art appraiser, and finally a Shanghai mafia boss that are all targeted by Laurent, it is the four main characters that lift the story.

This is done cleverly by exploring the pasts of each one during each case. Case 1 focuses on Edamura, Case 2 on Abigail, Case 3 on Cynthia and Case 4 on Laurent (Case 4 also progresses Edamura’s story-line as it crosses over with Laurent’s).

It is this exploration that is fascinating and leads to an understanding for the viewer as to how each one came to be a con-artist. Tragedy, heartbreak, betrayal, and violence all feature to varying degrees, and it is their histories combined with the present day tie-in to the heist they deal with that makes Great Pretender a notch above other anime series.

Case 3 – Snow of London which focuses on Cynthia is a particular standout for me. I thoroughly enjoyed her character and her backstory is fascinating.

However, for all its strengths (i.e. music, character development, animation (the colours and artistic style are outstanding) and intriguing back stories) the series trips over at the end.

Yes, it is the final act surrounding Laurent where things unraveled for me. While the Edamura storyline concludes in a satisfying way, Laurent’s story (which arguably is the most intriguing) turns a bit silly. Each heist has a bit of twist. The final heist involves twists that turn into knots that ruin the sense of harmony and integrity of the group

Firstly, all the ‘villains’ in the previous cases end up assisting Laurent. In fact, we find them sitting on a luxury yacht (when they should all be serving time in prison) playing cards and drinking. These ‘villains’ now apparently helping the group of con-artists and are friends when logic dictates that each ‘villain’ would want revenge and has a serious vendetta against Laurent and his crew. This leap in the story was totally illogical to me.

Secondly, the final case involves staging a con that requires a fake building on a remote island that collapses when the con is revealed. Not so much far-fetched as it is less sophisticated than what the twists/reveals are in previous heists.

Lastly, it is revealed that a critical event in Laurent’s past is actually not completely true. This event is so pivotal that it is the sole reason why he is sent down the path he takes of being the ultimate con-artist. The event surrounds a woman named Dorothy, the woman responsible for teaching Laurent the skills to be a con-artist and who he falls in love with (they eventually get engaged). However, she gets killed during a con in front of Laurent driving him into depression with only the ring she wore around her neck to remember her by (the ring is a motif used periodically throughout the entire series).

Once the final case is over, Laurent throws the ring into the sea as a way of closure and satisfying himself that he has avenged Dorothy’s murder. However, in the epilogue it is revealed that Dorothy is alive, has amnesia, and finds the ring after it was swallowed by a fish and caught by fishermen. She then puts on the ring and the series ends.

I have mixed feelings about this final reveal, on one hand it allows for a sequel to the Great Pretender to be developed. On the other hand, the story was far more effective and emotionally moving if Dorothy actually was killed.

Still, even with the flawed final act, the series is plentiful in many other ways that makes it a must-watch on your anime list.

8 out of 10

Anime Review: Jujutsu Kaisen Season 1 (2020)

TL;DR – fans of shounen series such as Naruto or Bleach will enjoy this too-cool-for-school anime. High school student Yuji Itadori discovers the world of Curses (creatures that come forth from people’s negative energy) and changes his life forever when he swallows the finger of a powerful Curse known as Ryomen Sukuna in order to save his friends from being killed.

Review (warning: spoilers)

In the world of Naruto, characters manipulate ‘chakra’ (a substance of lifeforms on other planets) with their own spiritual energy to perform powerful techniques or jutsu. In the world of Bleach, characters use ‘reiryoku’ (raw spiritual power a soul possesses) and manipulate it through ‘reiatsu’ to manifest physical pressure.

Generally there is a sense that both ‘chakra’ and ‘reiryoku’ are positive forms of energy. ‘Positive’ in the sense that when channeled properly, can assist/protect the individual utilising the energy.

In the world of Jujutsu Kaisen this is not necessarily the case. The anime spins the idea by focusing on energy generated from negative emotions. And it is a double-edged sword because for normal people who cannot control the flow of negative emotions, this leads to it manifesting in the form of Curses (i.e. spiritual monsters seeking to destroy humanity).

Certain individuals known as sorcerers can harness Cursed energy and perform techniques. This includes the ability to create a pocket dimension over a certain area that allows the sorcerer to amplify their attacks within that dimension.

This is the backdrop in which we follow Yuji Itadori, an athletic high schooler who is a bit of a loner and visits his grandfather on his deathbed. His grandfather’s final message involves the idea of helping others and being surrounded by loved ones when your life is near its end.

This has a profound effect on Yuji and when he encounters Megumi Fushiguro (a sorcerer) and is told that his friends are in danger because they have discovered a Cursed talisman that attracts Curses that start attacking the school, he is spurred into action to help.

The cursed talisman turns out to be the finger of Ryomen Sukuna, a Curse so powerful that it overwhelms Megumi and even other Curses fear him. With the lives of Megumi and his friends on the line, Yuji does the only thing he can think to help and swallows the finger becoming the host body of Ryomen.

Ryomen briefly takes over Yuji’s body and dispenses with the other Curses, but to his surprise, Yuji is able to regain control suppresses Ryomen.

Technically, it is every sorcerer’s mandate to exorcise Curses, which would mean Yuji would die in the process if Ryomen were exorcised. But Satoru Gojo, Megumi’s teacher, comes up with a plan to stay Yuji’s death by using him as the vessel to consume all of Ryomen’s fingers (once found) and then exorcise him in his entirety. Mind you this would still me Yuji dies… it would just be later.

There is enough background to entice anime fans to find out more as to the lore and world that has now unfolded in Jujutsu Kaisen. The characters are typical shounen characters and though their powers are interesting, I could not help laughing (unintentionally) at how similar they are to other anime/manga characters in this genre.

For example, Satoru is almost the spitting image of Kakashi in Naruto. Both are teachers, both have spiky white hair, both exhibit insane powers with their eyes and have them covered (Satoru wears a blindfold, don’t know how he sees anything, and Kakashi has one eye covered), both are extremely intelligent and only unleash their full power in dire need.

What also drew me to this anime was the idea of cursed energy and how it can be channeled and if left unchecked can unleash Curses that seek to devour humans. This led me to believe that sorcerers who are taught to use cursed energy can run the risk of some sort of corruption (e.g. they might get consumed and become Curses themselves). Having not read the manga, I do not know if this is the case or if there are any other consequences or repercussions to using cursed energy excessively. However, in season one, there does not appear to be any backlash to any of the sorcerers using cursed energy. This was a bit of a let down.

The only real struggle is between Yuji and Ryomen internally as they battle for control, and when Ryomen comes into play it is always exicting to watch.

The action sequences are also adrenaline pumping and you get to see enough of what is happening behind the scenes with intelligent Curses that makes you want to keep watching. In season one, the target is not so much Yuji and unleashing Ryomen as it is taking Satoru out of play. The intelligent and high-powered Curses clearly have had previous experiences with Satoru and know what he is capable of. He is like the queen on a chess board, take the most powerful piece off the board and you’re chances of capturing the king (i.e. Yuji/Ryomen) multiply exponentially. I eagerly await for season two.

8 out of 10

Anime Review: Yuru Camp Season 1 (2018)

TL;DR – Rin Shima is slightly unusual for a girl her age. She likes going camping by herself and soaking up the tranquility at various camping sites near Mount Fuji. When a small group of girls set up a camping club at the school Rin attends, she unexpectedly receives attention in helping the club get off the ground and in the process creating new friendships.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Rin is a soft-spoken, quiet girl that loves camping out in winter at various grounds near the base of Mount Fuji. Along the way she meets other girls who become interested in camping also. That is pretty much the entire story, but the basic premise of slice-of-life animes is generally simple.

I have yet to figure out what makes a slice-of-life anime work over other slice-of-life animes. Personal taste obviously comes into play, but certain animes are more effective than others. What I found quite curious about Yuru Camp is that I am not a big camper myself. In fact, if I am on holiday, I much prefer the comforts of a rental house or a hotel than the idea of sleeping on the ground. But Yuru Camp somehow makes me want to buy a sleeping bag and tent and go find some isolated place in the woods or by a lake and be one with nature.

Elements that made this slice-of-life better than others include:

  • Camping locations are based on real ones in Japan
  • The scenery during the day and night is beautifully captured
  • They capture the joys of cooking in the great outdoors and make every meal look delicious
  • The characters are funny in their obsession to go camping and working part-time jobs to afford better equipment
  • It demonstrates the use of actual camping equipment and the many varieties

All of the above combined make for a series that had me smiling. More subtly, it shows how some of the greatest joys are the smallest ones. For example, cooking curry ramen over a campfire; staring as the sun rises over Mount Fuji; exploring new places; riding a scooter; soaking in a hot spring; the company of friends. It also contains the message that life should be savoured and there is nothing wrong with slowing down especially when we live in a world where it feels like we should be cramming in as much as possible.

Since the airing of season one, there has been an increase in tourism in the campgrounds depicted in the anime, this shows the positive influence Yuru Camp has had. There is a serenity in Yuru Camp that will lift your spirits. And that’s the most important element I could receive from a slice-of-life.

10 out of 10

Anime Review: Kill la Kill (2013)

TL;DR – Ryuko Matoi is hunting her father’s murderer. In the process, she discovers a uniform that has an alien sentient mind, which provides her with superhuman powers.. Together they undertake a journey to not only defeat her father’s murderer but save the world from parasitic aliens that also appear as clothing known as Life Fibres

Review (warning: spoilers)

In fantasy stories, the idea of an inanimate object having a magical persona is not uncommon. Usually, the magical object in question can influence its owner in some way (and not always for the better). A couple of famous examples of this is Excalibur, the magic sword from King Arthur tales, and the one ring from Lord of the Rings. Normally these magical objects are a weapon of some kind.

Kill la Kill takes this idea but applies it to clothing. In reality, they are actually aliens called Life Fibres but they appear as clothing and can be worn by humans giving them powers. It’s a unique take I haven’t seen before and cleverly done as this anime series has “clothing” related themes throughout. For example, the main character, Ryuko Matoi wields a sword that looks like one-half of a pair of scissors. Another example is the organisation seeking to stop the Life Fibres are known as ‘Nudist Beach’ (a clear message against those that wear the parasitic aliens as clothing, and the first time I’ve heard of a paramilitary organisation coined with such a name; a title that is both funny and meaningful).

The art is spectacular and creates a world that has a unique style in anime circles. It’s almost as if artist, Ryō Akizuki, combines traditional anime elements with Looney Tunes creating a funky hybrid that is appealing to the eye. Playful, comedic, complex, gripping, action-packed, sexy are all adjectives you could use to describe the art in Kill la Kill.

Ryuko is hunting for her father’s killer and attends a high school that has a social hierarchical structure based on what ‘Goku uniforms’ (uniforms made of Life Fibres) are won by the students. Higher rank comes with more powerful Goku uniforms.

The story is somewhat convoluted as Ryuko initially believes that the person responsible for her father’s death is Satsuki Kiryuin (the president of the high school student council). She challenges Satsuki and enters a battle royale against various elite students (wearing more and more powerful Goku uniforms). So far so good.

But later it is revealed that it is actually Nui Harime (a member of a global corporation known as REVOCS seeking to take over the world with the parasitic aliens and destroy Nudist Beach) who killed Ryuko’s father. REVOCS also happens to be run by Satsuki’s mother, Ragyo. Ragyo is the true mastermind here, her mission to become one with the primordial Life Fibre and take over earth with all humans being consumed by the alien clothing.

It also happens that Satsuki has a vendetta against her mother and has been scheming for Ragyo’s downfall. The reason for this is that Satsuki knows that Ragyo experimented on her father and younger sister and wishes to avenge their deaths. Do you see the connection?

Yes, Ryuko is actually the younger sister that Satsuki believes to have died. Both realise their goals are one and the same. That is, avenge their father’s death at the hands of Nui Harime who was ordered to kill him by their mother, Ragyo. See, I told you it was convoluted.

The story, while complex, will still have you wanting to binge the next episode. The characters are all unique and colourful, the art is killer, and it all comes together in a final scene to stop Ragyo from causing humankind’s extinction. Crazy and fun.

8.5 out of 10

Anime Review: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

TL;DR – A coming-of-age story about a witch looking to find her place and purpose.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Kiki’s delivery service delivers more than mail and packages by broomstick. It brings a lot of heart and charm. In a world where people accept the existence of witches, not as terrifying or evil creatures but as human beings that can perform magical feats, Director Miyazaki demonstrates his full capabilities in telling an engaging story without the age-old trope of good versus evil. In the world of Kiki, there is no Voldemort, or Sauron, or Maleficent. The ability to conjure magic or fly a broomstick is to serve humanity.

Kiki’s mother is an alchemist who can create potions which can heal or cure illnesses. Kiki bumps into another budding witch who has become a fortune teller. They live among the rest of us non-magical folk and seek to find their purpose. In this way, Miyazaki tells a story that is more akin to Tonari no Totoro rather than Howl’s Moving Castle. He weaves a film that is utterly enjoyable in its simplicity.

When Kiki comes of age, she sets out with her black cat, Jiji and settles in a bustling town trying to plant her own roots and obtain her own identity. For a witch, she doesn’t seem to exhibit any special magical ability other than being able to fly a broomstick (not very well) and communicate to her cat who talks back to her and gives droll observations about her attempts to achieve independence.

Eventually, she sets up a postal delivery service in a bakery, delivers packages small and large, and along the way meets a variety of people young and old. One of the people she meets is a boy named Tombo, who has a fascination with flying and wants to one day fly as a pilot. Initially, Kiki is not all that drawn to him and acts aloof. But his persistence slowly pays off, and they become friends.

I expected that, by the end, their friendship would grow into a stronger attraction, but Miyazaki subverts this, and the film is all the better for it. Instead, the climatic scene is one driven by Kiki overcoming her own inadequacies (including the fear that she is losing her magical powers) to save Tombo out of the desire that it is the right thing to do, and he is her friend. Nothing more. Again, it is the power of simplicity in the storytelling. The distinct artistic style of Miyazaki’s films combined with a European setting creates an atmosphere that is both familiar and beautiful. It reminded me a lot of the backdrops and landscapes used in Porco Rosso, which was set in Italy.

One particular scene where Kiki is sitting on the back of Tombo’s bike, which has been modified to have an airplane propeller connected to the front and spun by using pedals is truly magical without having an ounce of witchcraft involved (at least, not until they almost crash). It is one of those scenes that reminds me of the creative and imaginative powers of the young, which should be encouraged rather than stamped out as immature. It is as if Miyazaki is saying that we should all dream, think outside of the box, and find what we are truly passionate about.

Kiki’s Delivery Service delivers a heartfelt tale about perseverance and the transformative and challenging time of growing from child to adult. Watch it and be inspired.

9 out of 10

Anime Review: Chihayafuru Season 1 (2011)

TL;DR – a friendship triangle turns somewhat into a love triangle and examines three childhood friends who enter high school connected by a card game called karuta. This is one to watch.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Quick history lesson. Playing cards were first introduced into Japan by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. The first incarnation of karuta was at the end of that century and since then there have been various transformations and versions of the game.

The version that is central to this anime, I believe, is called ‘Uta-garuta’ and involves two decks of one hundred cards each. One deck (known as the ‘reading cards’) depicts a person, their name and a complete poem. The second deck (known as the ‘grabbing cards’) only have the finishing phrase of the poem on it.

The basic way to play involves two people facing each other, who shuffle and lay out the grabbing cards face up in front of them. A third person uses the reading cards and starts reading out loud the poem. The two competitors attempt to locate the card that matches the poem being read out loud as quickly as possible and grabs it (they only need to touch the card first even if it is only with their fingernail). The player that removes all the cards on their side first wins. There are other rules involved such as if you manage to take a card from your opponent’s side, you can then give one of your cards to them on your side (thus reducing the number you need to clear on your side).

The main protagonist is Chihaya Ayase, an athletic, pretty high school student seeking to form a karuta club. She is a bit ditzy, still charming, who has a karuta obsession. Her obsession came about when she met Arata Wataya in elementary school and discovered the shy boy is an expert at playing karuta and dreams of one day becoming a grandmaster. The third main character in this triangle is Taichi Mashima, a talented, smart, and good-looking boy who also knows Chihaya since elementary school. Events transpire during the elementary school years that places friendships in jeopardy and Taichi on the outside looking in at the bond Chihaya develops with Arata. This spurs him into becoming good at karuta also.

Season one surrounds Chihaya’s goal to form a karuta club and the connection between her, Arata and Taichi. Having never heard of karuta prior to watching this anime, I was surprised at how exciting, tense, and beautiful the game is. Initially, I expected it to be like chess. A mental sport requiring each player to think ahead and achieve checkmate. But karuta requires elements of physical skill and speed that needs to be seen in order to fully appreciate. The anime is accurate in its depictions of how competitive karuta is played in real life, and the methods and movements to secure cards as quickly as possible is spot on. The fact the game also centres on the reading out of poetry and understanding the various inflections of words and memorising as well as hearing those inflections in order to get an advantage over your opponent raises the game’s intensity. Understanding card placement (and memorising that placement) is one skill, listening for the syllables to keywords in the poem is another skill, and then combining them to have the ability to swipe your hand first over the correct card is far more gripping than a lot of other sports I have watched (yes, cricket I’m looking at you).

The anime is interesting enough around the game, but it is elevated due to the characters and their relationships with each other. It is clear early on that Taichi’s feelings for Chihaya is more than friendship, and his actions initially to push Arata away from Chihaya backfires and makes him realise he is being a coward. He then spends much of his time trying to do the right thing and even sacrificing his own emotions to make Chihaya happy.

Arata also goes through changes and struggles, even at one point wanting to sever any friendship he has with Chihaya and Taichi because he gives up on his dream and stops playing karuta.

It is Chihaya and their love for karuta that brings them together.

Season one of Chihayafuru is fascinating slice-of-life/sports hybrid that I devoured in record time. Creator Yuki Suetsugu has done something special here. You will not regret putting this at the top of your anime to watch list.

9 out of 10

Anime Review: Made in Abyss (2017)

TL;DR – Riko goes in search for her mother and the secrets behind the Abyss, a seemingly bottomless chasm where monsters lurk around every corner, and treasures can be found for those who dare to enter. With the help of an amnesiac robot boy, which Riko names Reg, they descend into the depths risking their lives.

Review (warning: spoilers)

The Abyss is a giant hole in the earth, its origins a mystery. For a normal human being, the deeper they go into the Abyss, the more dangers they will encounter and the less likely they will get out alive. Even without the monsters, the levels cause all manner of bad things to happen to the human body. Known as the ‘Curse of the Abyss’, it is actually the ascent from the depths that causes physical symptoms. For example, ascending from the highest level, you will feel dizziness and nausea. Ascending from the fourth level, you experience pain and bleeding from every orifice. Manage to get to the fifth level and you want to head back up will cause sensory deprivation and self-harm. It’s basically a one-way ticket; the Abyss is happy for you to journey down but if you want to go back up, you’re going to have to pay a price, and it could be your life. .

Divers will risk this, however, for the many treasures and artifacts buried in the Abyss. The town of Orth surrounds the giant hole and divers are trained from a young age to go in and raid. Divers are ranked by the colour of their whistle. Rookies are red whistles and can only explore the highest level. Blue whistles can go down to the second level, Moon whistles the third and fourth levels, Black whistles can journey to the fourth and fifth levels, and White Whistles are the legends that have managed to go deeper than any other diver.

What starts off as a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda turns pretty dark and morphs into a fantasy horror with deeper psychological questions (most of which are left unanswered in this first season).

What sticks out the most about this anime series is the character art. Depending on your point of view, some will think it is one of the show’s strengths, others will argue otherwise. The artistic style reminded me of the cute characters in Zelda. The two main characters, Riko and Reg, are adorable to the point of being too cute. It is an interesting choice by writer and illustrator Akihito Tsukushi because it contrasts starkly against the monsters and violence they confront. Combine this with a story that has dark psychological elements and it creates a weird shock factor seeing such cute child-like characters experiencing the horrors of the Abyss.

The central plot to the series is when Riko’s mother, Lyza (a legendary white whistle diver), delivers a message saying she is waiting for Riko at the bottom of the Abyss. The message also contains a drawing of a boy that looks very similar to Reg, an amnesiac boy robot that Riko discovers on the highest level of the Abyss. Together the pair set off through the levels in search of Riko’s mother.

Along the way, other sub-plots are revealed that demonstrate that monsters come in many forms and those that look like monsters may not actually be monsters on the inside and vice versa. An example of this is the white whistle diver, Bondrewd, who took a bunch of children down to the sixth level to experiment on them to find a way to counter the curse. Many of the children died and those that manage to survive are transformed into grotesque creatures that have lost their minds. Bondrewd is a monster on the inside even though he may appear normal on the outside, likewise Mitty (one of the children that survives the experiment) looks like a monster on the outside but is actually innocent on the inside.

At the time of writing this review, season 2 of Made in Abyss is slated for a release in 2022. Lots of mysteries are yet to be resolved, so don’t expect season 1 to give you answers. It sets up the series well and the story is intriguing. As for where I am with regard to the character art, I would have to say it doesn’t quite work for me. I’m not against cutesy characters, but it does not do anything for me to see them get bloody and bruised. I almost think creator Akihito Tsukushi did this on purpose just for the shock factor.

7.5 out of 10

Anime Review: Koe no Katachi (2017)

TL;DR – an anime about the emotional scars from bullying, and the ramifications that occur on a group of kids trying to survive middle and high school.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Shoya Ishida is a joker and bully in middle school. His target of choice is a deaf girl named Shoko Nishimiya and leads to an altercation where the poor girl is physically hurt. This leads to her being transferred to another school and ironically, Shoya becoming the target of bullying by his classmates.

The bullying turns Shoya from an extrovert into an isolated loner, and he experiences depression when he gets into high school. The movie opens with him deciding to tie up loose ends before committing suicide. This includes going to the sign language centre where Shoko attends and apologising to her. However, his attempt at apology turns into asking whether they can become friends, and to Shoya’s surprise, Shoko agrees.

Koe no Katachi (translates to “A Silent Voice”) tackles themes and subjects that are incredibly difficult, but the film does so in a way that is meaningful and sensitive without sugar coating. For example, bullying in anime tends to be one-dimensional and revenge driven; one person bullies another to be vindictive and the other seeks to deliver some sort of retribution usually in the form of violence. In Koe no Katachi, Shoya’s bullying is more to get attention and when he hurts Shoko, he realises he has gone too far and regrets his actions.

Guilt, bullying, teenage suicide, depression, isolation, exclusion and jealousy are all examined in this beautifully animated, emotionally moving film that has won numerous awards including Anime of the Year (movie) and Best Screenplay/Original Story at the 2017 Tokyo Anime Award Festival.

You would think that these topics would result in a depressing, tragic film, but it delivers on the most crucial elements that the story seeks to show (and teach) the audience – forgiveness and redemption.

The fact that Shoko is the victim but feels sorry for Shoya demonstrates layers of human emotion you would be hard pressed to find in real life drama films. The supporting cast around the pair all have their own idiosyncrasies and emotional issues/baggage. One particular character, Naoka Ueno, I found particularly interesting.

Naoka was Shoya’s closest female friend in middle school and joined in the bullying of Shoko. But when Shoya gets in trouble, Naoka denies any involvement. When she gets older and she sees Shoya trying to make amends with Shoko, she is driven by a multitude of emotions that aren’t always explicit in the film. You see anger and jealousy depicted in her verbal and physical abuse of Shoko, but you also sense a hatred towards herself, a guilt that she keeps at bay by stubbornly refusing to admit her transgressions. This subtly changes throughout the film and demonstrates how living a life without regrets is impossible (you just end up regretting more due to your own pride or foolishness). Naoka has to learn the most important lesson along with all the others and that is to have the ability to forgive yourself.

The climax of the film between Shoya and Shoko is nothing short of brilliant. It is animated in a way that will have you on the edge of your seat. A moment where you have no idea what will happen. You are a mere witness to the events and you want both to come out the end unscathed, but will they?

You will just have to watch the movie and find out. Highly recommend this film as an example of what it truly means to be human and how we can rise above our own insecurities and failings.

9 out of 10

Anime Review: Cowboy Bebop (1998)

TL;DR – The ultimate sci-fi neo-noir spaghetti western anime, and THE anime by which all other anime series should measures themselves against. There are very few series that set the standard as high as this one.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Characters, story, and soundtrack. It’s a simple formula but can be delivered with varying quality. I have read in an interview that Director Shinichiro Watanabe wanted to create an anime series where each individual episode is like a movie. Cowboy Bebop is that series and much more.

The underlying story centres on Spike Spiegel, a hitman of the Red Dragon syndicate. His partner is Vicious, a cold-blooded, power-hungry killer who eventually stages a coup d’état and becomes the Red Dragon syndicate boss. Spike falls in love with Julia, who at the time was Vicious’s girlfriend. As you can imagine, when Vicious finds out he wants Spike’s head on a stick. So much for brother-in-arms.

Fast forward and Spike has managed to escape the syndicate and is now working on the spaceship Bebop as a bounty hunter with Jet Black, a former ISSP (Inter Solar System Police) officer. Together they go around capturing criminals to get the bounty rewards, and along the way their crew expands to include Faye Valentine (a con artist), Ed (a skilled hacker) and Ein (a genetically engineered Welsh Corgi). All of them have their own backstories and skeletons in the closet (except maybe the dog), which are revealed slowly throughout this gripping 26 episode series.

The criminals they encounter are all unique and have different motives, and each episode is self-contained while also progressing the underlying story arc of Spike, Vicious and Julia . Along the way you learn more about the galaxy they live in, and the histories of the rest of the Bebop crew (for example, the Earth has largely become uninhabitable due to a hyperspace gateway disaster, humanity has colonised other planets, and Faye was cryogenically frozen to save her life).

Combine the multi-layered story and brilliant characters with a killer soundtrack that is a mix of blues, jazz and opera (composed by Yoko Kanno) and you have what amounts to a masterpiece.

If you aren’t moved with the scene where Spike and Vicious face off inside a cathedral, this giant stained glass window in the background, and the song “Green Bird” by Gabriela Robin playing in the background then anime is not for you.

Do yourself a favour, binge this series now before it’s too late. See you space cowboy.

10 out of 10