Anime Review: Lycoris Recoil (2022)

TL;DR – to the maintain peace in Tokyo, elite assassins eliminate terrorist and criminal threats while the public are completely unaware. How do they accomplish this? By being teenagers dressed up in school uniforms, of course.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Why is that when a secret organisation trains assassins, said assassins are always viewed by the higher ups as robotic killers, devoid of emotions and feelings who aren’t allowed to think for themselves? Whether that organisation be governmental, criminal or other, the powers that be always treat these elite killers as mere chess pieces on a board, moving them around to take out the other side and be sacrificed as pawns if necessary.

There have been many examples of this including Jason Bourne, Black Widow, the Gray Man, and the Unsullied in Game of Thrones to name a few.

Ultimately, the greatest danger the assassin/soldier/killer faces is not the targets that they seek to take down but their own masters, who seem to have no qualms in disposing their elite killers the moment they start thinking for themselves.

Lycoris Recoil follows a similar path. When Takina Inoue, an elite assassin known as “Lycoris”, is on a mission with a group of other Lycoris assassins to prevent an illegal firearms deal, they are ordered to wait for reinforcements even though the bad dudes has one of the Lycoris hostage and is telling them all to drop their weapons or their colleague gets a bullet in the head. The Lycoris commander orders the team not to surrender but to bunker down, thus indicating that their Lycoris colleague is relegated to collateral damage. This triggers Takina to disobey her orders and take matters into her own hands. She gets her hands on a railgun and lets loose at the bad dudes, killing them all and saving her colleague.

Yes, she saved a life but can’t have her acting against orders and thinking for herself. The fallout of her disobedience is she gets thrown out of the academy and transferred to an undercover branch that operates as a café known as LycoReco. There she meets Chisato Nishikigi and from that moment on, Takina will come to realise that there is more to life than being an elite assassin.

Chisato is the highlight character of the series. Her presence raises the bar on what otherwise would have been a run-of-the-mill action series. We learn that Chisato is not only a Lycoris that is somewhat a black sheep of the academy, but she is also considered their most powerful agent. Chisato is not simply a pawn, but she has navigated the chessboard on her own terms, reached the other side and been crowned a queen.

Not only does she have the superhuman ability to dodge bullets (yes, even at point blank range), but she refuses to use live ammunition. Instead, she opts to use rubber bullets and when she takes on assignments to take down bad guys, she does so without killing them. She operates not as a killer but as a subduer who seeks to incur zero collateral damage at the risk of her own life because her targets are almost always armed and dangerous. This approach is nothing short of mind boggling to Takina who has been trained to kill or be killed.

The primary antagonist in the series is a man named Majima, who reminded me of Spike from Cowboy Bebop but with far less of a conscience. Majima believes it is unnatural that the people of Tokyo are unawares of these elite assassins and seeks to expose them through acts of terrorism. In this way, he believes he will restore balance.

Majima also has ties to Chisato in more ways than one. They both have ties to the Alan Institute; a mysterious organisation that assists gifted individuals who are prevented from reaching their true potential due to barriers such as poverty. Majima also has a unique ability like Chisato’s bullet dodging ability. And Majima holds to his own set of ideals as fiercely as Chisato holds her own.

What adds to the layers of this anime are the characters surrounding Majima, Chisato and Takina. People are much more complex than what they seem and they all hold secrets that when eventually revealed demonstrate the line between good and evil is blurred.

In its simplest form, this anime is about love and friendship between Chisato and Takina, and how that is the purest thing that they hold. On a more complex level, it is about differing and conflicting philosophies and ideologies between various characters and organisations.

The animation is top notch, especially the action sequences involving Chisato. The little details around her movements and how she holds her weapon are genuinely exciting.

I went into watching this anime, knowing nothing about its story, and I came out pleasantly surprised. We need more Chisatos in the world.

8.5 out of 10

Anime Review: Cyberpunk Edgerunners (2022)

TL;DR – chrome it up, become a cyberpunk and earn coin as a mercenary. Lucrative profession. Just don’t get killed or let the cybernetic implants drive you insane.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Another anime adaption on a hugely popular video game. Cyberpunk Edgerunners is based on the action role-playing game, Cyberpunk 2077, and there is plenty of material to tell a good dystopian yarn that mixes elements of “Sin City” with “Tron”.

The video game was lauded for its graphics and the anime lives up to the stylish sci-fi images and is a feast for the eyes. The story centres around a boy named David who attends an academy of elite students. Problem is you have to be rich and have all the latest gear to do the classes, and unfortunately David’s mother is barely making ends meet. She’s overworked and David resorts to using illegal mods to his tech to keep up in class.

When one particular class sees his modified technology cause all his fellow students’ headsets to explode, he becomes an outcast and is bullied. This leads to a series of tragedies including the death of his mother caught in a highway shootout and David’s eventual expulsion when he decides to chrome his body (i.e., have his spine operated on to install a cybernetic implant giving him superhuman speed) and taking out his anger and anguish on the bully at the academy.

He then joins a group of cyberpunk mercenaries known as edgerunners, who all have different abilities and have chromed up in different ways. As he rises up through the ranks, David becomes enamoured by Lucy, a netrunner with her own tragic past. She views Night City (the sprawling metropolis they live in) as a prison and dreams of one day flying to the moon.

While fulfilling a number of contracts that pay considerable coin, David becomes addicted with getting more cybernetic implants. This brings on the ever increasing risk of cyberpsychosis, a mental illness caused by the strain of having too many augmentations that results in psychotic breaks where the individual loses their sense of reality and become incredibly violent.

Combine this with corrupt megacorporations, organised crime, and gang violence, and you have the driving force behind the series. Will David survive and maintain his sanity, and will he end up with Lucy and escape Night City?

Between the chaos and brutality of the missions, there is a enough downtime, chemistry and emotional development between David and Lucy that you will care about their fates. This is crucial to ensure buy in, otherwise the whole thing is mindlessly violent and will feel pointless. While the animation is stunning, you still need characters you’ll invest in to get through the series and thankfully there is enough depth to our main duo that you will want to know what happens to them. David and Lucy are also supported well by Maine, an ex-military soldier who becomes a cyberpunk mercenary and leads the group initially before eventually succumbing to cyberpsychosis.

Arguably, it is a show that deserves repeat viewing but not for all the right reasons. One of the right reasons is that the animation scenes are complex and sumptuous, and they are worth watching again to pick up nuances that you will likely miss during the first viewing.

One of the wrong reasons for repeat viewing is that the subtitles are strangely displayed on screen so fast that you’ll need a cybernetic enhancement to read the dialogue and process it at lightning speed before the next bit of action occurs. I watch a lot of anime using subtitles (I don’t like dubbed versions) and I don’t usually struggle to keep up with the text but whoever did the subtitles in Cyberpunk Edgerunners needs to be fired. I frequently found myself having to rewind and pause so I could read the subtitles and figure out what was going on before hitting play again. An unfortunate glitch in an otherwise solid anime.

Thankfully, the final episode has minimal dialogue, and the climax combined with ripper soundtrack (especially “I really want to stay at your house” by Rosa Walton & Hallie Coggins) will elevate you to the moon even though your heart will be devastated by David’s final moments. Bittersweet but brilliant.

8.5 out of 10

Anime Review: Tekken Bloodline (2022)

TL;DR – the lore of video game Tekken brought to the anime screen.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Movie and TV series of video games are always fraught with danger. There is a market and audience for telling stories based on fans’ favourite video games. Yet, time and time again, the high expectations placed upon those adaptions are rarely met. Critics, who aren’t video game fanatics, usually end up rolling their eyes at the incoherent plot that is used as the foundation for the story telling. And fans generally find themselves preferring to play the video game rather than watch the characters act out on the screen.

Nevertheless, studios continue to develop and release films and TV series based on video games because there’s an audience even if the work itself ends up royally panned.

Tekken is a side-view style fighting game where players get to choose one of the characters and then go head-to-head against an opponent.

This type of game is straight forward. You compete in a tournament and if you win all your rounds, you’re the champion. So, I was surprised to discover there is a significant amount of lore behind the video game, even if a lot of it is crazy. For example, one of the characters you can choose is a grizzly bear (yes, while most of the characters are human, there are animals and even robots, that you can choose, and they are just as good at martial arts as the human ones). The story behind the bear is that he was adopted by Heihachi Mashima (a supreme fighter and big bad boss in the video game). Heihachi raised the cub and taught it martial arts and how to communicate in Japanese. Silly but impressive right?

The richness of the lore is drawn out in varying degrees in Tekken Bloodline and delivers enough to satisfy fans but will likely fall flat with everyone else.

The animation is solid. With the best scenes and the most money poured into the fighting, the distinctive style of the video game is captured in all its glory in the TV series. Outside of the fighting, the animation is rudimentary and in some parts appear like filler rather than plot progression.

The story is about Jin Kazama, who is taught by his mother, Jun Kazama in the Kazama-style martial arts. Jun also teaches Jin to be a kind person and to use his abilities for good. Stock standard type of introduction to a character who secretly has great power (‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and all that jazz).

One day, when Jin fights back against bullies, he almost goes too far and is admonished by his mother for not controlling his anger. His blood lust triggering the appearance of the Ogre, a giant demon that wishes to acquire Jin’s power.

The Ogre is temporarily defeated by Jun, who sacrifices herself in order to save her son. Thus, Jin vows revenge on the demonic beast.

He ventures to meet his grandfather, Heihachi Mashima, who teaches Jin in the rutheless Mashima fighting style. Heihachi then tells Jin that in order to attract the Ogre, Jin must enter in the Iron Fist tournament, and if he becomes champion, the Ogre will surely appear to fight him.

While the Mashima training transforms Jin into a deadly martial arts fighter, the philosophy of Heihachi greatly contradicts all the lessons Jin’s mother taught him. This ends up being a continual source of internal conflict for Jin as he progresses through the tournament.

For those familiar with both the video game and the lore, it will come as no surprise that Heihachi is actually a very bad man who unleashed the Ogre in the first place. His goal is to harness the Ogre’s power by capturing it, and he uses Jin to accomplish this. However, Jin successfully kills the Ogre when it appears.

This causes a portal, which I assume is from hell, to open that sends out a second demon that is even more powerful than the Ogre. The demon is a Chimera type creature, and the only way that Jin is able to defeat it is to activate the “devil gene” (this is the great power contained within him).

Heihachi then shoots Jin, explaining that the “devil gene” would consume Jin into an evil being and needed to be stopped. However, Jin revives and transforms into a demon-like creature and beats Heihachi into a pulp. Giving in to the darkness, Jin lets go of his mother and all her teachings and flies away.

The series suffers from some glaring plot holes. The largest of which is at the beginning. When Jun is about to be killed by the Ogre, she tells her son to go to his grandfather Heihachi who will teach him. It does not make sense that Jun would send her son to Heihachi knowing how much of a bad person he really is. So, one can only assume Jun does not know Heihachi’s true nature, which is a stretch to say the least given how rich and infamous the man is. Someone as wise, compassionate and caring as Jun surely would know that Heihachi is not a good family influence. But with her dying breath, she instructs Jin to go to him anyway.

There is meat to the Tekken lore, but we only get the bare bones. Better to go off and play the video game rather than watch the anime.

5 out of 10

Anime Review: Kujira no Kora wa Sajou ni Utau (2017)

TL;DR – a frustratingly pointless examination into the lives of children cursed by their ancestors.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Kujira no Kora wa Sajou ni Utau (aka Children of the Whales as released on Netflix in 2018) is beautiful to look at and has an interesting premise but overall is odd. I’ve watched a lot of anime that is strange and unusual, but this is probably one of the first animes that left me disappointed in an odd way.

We have the Mud Whale, a giant floating island in the shape of a ship that traverses an endless sea of sand. On this island are two groups of people – the marked and unmarked. The marked are able to utilise a magic called “thymia” to manipulate objects, while the unmarked can’t. The trade off, however, is that the marked have a shortened life span and rarely live past their 30s.

The Mud Whale is ruled by two positions of power – the Committee of Elders and the mayor. The mayor moves around the island and reports to the committee and is more a figurehead than ruler. The committee is comprised of unmarked elderly individuals (you can’t get into the committee if you’re marked because of your short lifespan) and they stay holed up in a room overlooking the island. The committee are the ones that decide what largely happens to the inhabitants on the Mud Whale.

There is this weird rule that you can’t show emotions especially sadness. When people die on the Mud Whale, a funeral is held but it is said if you cry then your life is cut shorter. This raised a red flag for me immediately. The suppression (and in other ways, removal) of emotions is a central theme in this series and is a key oddity that I felt doesn’t always work in the story.

The Mud Whale comes from the Allied Empire that also has similar island ships. Within each ship (including the Mud Whale) is a “nous”, which is a weird alien-like organ that acts as the heart of the ship. A nous can take away the emotions of people, and if the nous is destroyed then the island ship sinks into the sea of sand. However, an important point to note, the Mud Whale’s nous does not take away the emotions of people. Instead, we learn later that it takes the life force of the marked and this is why their lives are shortened.

As the series progresses, we learn that the inhabitants of the Mud Whale are descendants of criminals and have been exiled. As the viewer, when we are introduced to the Mud Whale, the inhabitants have been exiled for nearly 100 years.

Outsiders from the Allied Empire arrive and proceed to execute the Mud Whale people. The attackers pause only when they learn that Lykos, a girl from another (abandoned) island ship and rescued by Chakuro (a marked resident of the Mud Whale), is the younger sister of one of the commander in chiefs of the Allied Empire.

When Lykos refuses to go home, preferring to stay on the Mud Whale, the attackers return to their ship and use Lykos as an experiment to show what happens when you become tainted on the Mud Whale and emotions overcome you.

This leads to the Community of Elders deciding it would be better to commit mass suicide by killing the nous and sinking the Mud Whale rather than have the Allied Empire return to execute the rest of them later. The elders are prevented from this madness by Chakuro and others who are marked.

The series attempts to examine the impacts of violence and the idea of suppressing one’s emotions. There are a number of points which I struggled with:

  • The knowledge of why the people of Mud Whale were exiled and why they were declared criminals is never revealed. This is a fundamental point that is kept hidden from the viewer in the entire series which indicates that potentially a second series might be developed. But by keeping this information from the viewer, it makes all the violence largely senseless and frustrating.
  • To make matters worse, the people of Mud Whale (especially the marked children) do not know themselves why they have been exiled. The only ones who do know the true reasons are the Committee of Elders, and they don’t share this information, which is also a bit silly. Withholding information is also a fundamental trigger to all the death that occurs.
  • When the Allied Empire ship comes and starts their massacre of the now largely pacifist residents of Mud Whale, it’s a painful sequence of events. The soldiers of the Allied Empire have supposedly removed their emotions from the nous on their ship, yet there are some particular soldiers who delight in the violence (so I guess sad emotions are removed but they can still feel bloody glee for killing unarmed children).
  • This segues into another problem I have. Most, if not all, of the original people who were condemned as criminals have died. It’s been 100 years of exile after all. So, these subsequent generations are now being branded by whatever sin their ancestors have made when clearly they are good people. The fact the Allied Empire are unable to see this (or don’t care) is difficult to swallow. It was vexing to see that no one dared to ask, “Should we be killing these unarmed men, women and children when they don’t seem like bad people?”

As a viewer, it’s difficult to accept what happens because we are kept in the dark for too long. There’s a lot death, a lot of pent up emotions (that are considered “bad” when really the bottling of emotions is what is truly problematic) and a lot of idiotic people withholding information from others who really need to know the truth.

It’s an examination into the ephemeral and impermanent nature of life but presented in a way that makes little sense (or hope for that matter). Not enough was given to me as the viewer, so the series became a struggle. I now doubt that if a second season is released that I’ll watch it.

4 out of 10

Anime Review: Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai: Tensai-tachi no Renai Zunousen (2019)

TL;DR – battle of the sexes comedy set in a prestigious school where love is war.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai: Tensai-tachi no Renai Zunousen (aka Kaguya-sama wa Kokuraetai: Love is War) is a hilarious anime that posits the theory that love is a power struggle and the first to confess and fall in love loses. On a deeper level, it demonstrates how not to love because this show examines all the manipulations and mind games that are played between the two main protagonists – Miyuki and Kaguya.

Miyuki is the president and Kaguya is vice-president of the student council at Shuchiin Academy (an elite school for the brightest and wealthiest students). Miyuki and Kaguya are multi-talented, highly intelligent, and are the gossip of the Academy as to whether they are dating or not. In reality, they’ve never been in a serious relationship, don’t have the first clue of what it means to commit to a relationship and view dating as simply a game where they attempt to get the other to confess. There is a genuine attraction and interest displayed by the pair, but they go about manipulating each other in a battle of wills and sexes that overrides any ability to properly connect.

The fact that Miyuki and Kaguya take it so seriously is what makes it funny. Whether it’s taking a psychological relationship quiz from a magazine that reveals sub-consciously what you’re really like and who you like, to other students coming to Miyuki for relationship advice (even though he has no clue what to do), the arena that is the student council room leads to comic misunderstandings and a total failure to communicate feelings properly.

In one episode, a male student comes to Miyuki seeking advice on how he can hold hands with the girl he likes on a date. Miyuki goes to great lengths to map out all the steps which involves getting a job and earning enough money to pay for surgery so the boy’s hands won’t be sweaty when he attempts to hold the girl’s hand. It’s this type of absurdity that makes you laugh because it’s so ridiculous.

Joining our two main characters are Chika (the student council secretary) and Yuu (the student council treasurer). Chika is largely clueless about what is happening around her, yet somehow she comes off as more emotionally mature than Miyuki and Kaguya. Yuu is an introverted student who believes he can read 5% to 6% of what a person is thinking by the expression in their eyes (he places too much weight in this 5-6%). Yuu thinks that Kaguya is capable of killing people if she doesn’t get her way, which leads to some funny situations. He’s a fatalistic character who struggles to connect with the fairer sex and harbours a strong hatred toward guys who have girlfriends but don’t treat their girlfriends first.

The attempts at depth are often short lived in this show, and it aims squarely at the laughs to carry through the series. In this sense, it succeeds as a light and airy affair that serves its purpose as a comedy but is largely forgetful once you’ve watched it.

However, one episode did stick in my mind. Episode nine has three parts that all connect (previous episodes also have three parts but they are all distinct snippets). Part one sees a typhoon hitting the area. Kaguya tries to get Miyuki to ask her for a lift to his work because the trains have stopped due to the bad weather. Kaguya refuses to offer the lift because she thinks if she does this (instead of him asking her) then it’ll be a “car date” and she will have essentially confessed her attraction to him. And though she want to help and would love to spend time in the chauffeured car with him, she can’t bring herself to do the asking. Her manipulations fail as Miyuki ends up daring the storm on his bicycle leaving Kaguya standing outside in the rain waiting for her limo.

Part two is the next day, Kaguya wakes up sick. Miyuki, Chika and Yuu play a memory card game to see who will get to visit Kaguya and give her the student council printouts. Chika reveals that Kaguya becomes childlike when she’s sick and wants to be taken care of. Miyuki and Chika both want to see her in this state for the opportunity to comfort her. It’s a hilarious process as Chika attempts to cheat but Miyuki figures it out and wins.

Part three shows Miyuki visiting the mansion that Kaguya lives in. And the ensuing set up created by Kaguya’s maid to bring the pair together is also laugh out loud (the maid knows Kaguya has a huge crush on Miyuki).

This episode was memorable because all three parts connect and delve deeper into the underlying emotions the pair have for each other.

A crazy, fun ride.

8 out of 10

Anime Review: Spy x Family (2022)

TL;DR – To accomplish his mission, a spy must create a family in order to get close to his target. In doing so, he will discover that being a good husband and father is the toughest assignment he’s ever undertaken.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Spy agent Twilight is on a mission to get close to reclusive Donovan Desmond, a political leader of the rival nation, Ostania. In order to do this, he must pose as a parent and enrol a child into the same private school as Desmond’s son.

The school is stupidly elite and snobbish, and to obtain the best chance of getting a child into the school, he has to “create” a happy family unit.

Twilight, under the alias Loid Forger, adopts an orphan girl named Anya and marries a woman named Yor Briar. Twilight is the type of meticulous spy that he plans for all possible outcomes, but even he is unaware that little Anya is a telepath and Yor has a secret life as an assassin.

Comic situations abound because Loid and Yor do not know each other’s true professions, and neither knows that Anya can read their minds and knows the truth.

Totally ridiculous, but there is a delightful charm about all three characters and the situations that unfold. More importantly, Twilight starts to care more about his “family” than he realises.

The animation is clean and gorgeous to look at. The action is over the top, and the reactions of characters are ludicrous and funny, but interspersed between all this are genuine moments of emotional connection and the conundrum all three of our main cast face.

That is, Loid learns to think and care for someone other than himself, Anya is seeking to be part of a loving family, and Yor is trying to find how she can be “normal” and in a relationship when she has spent most of her life killing people.

The absurdity of someone as intelligent as Loid and as deadly as Yor and neither realising that the other is not who they say they are is something you might ponder for a minute and then let go cause it’s all part of the fun. The fact that Anya is able to read their minds leads to some very hilarious incidents.

Adding to this tangled trio is Yor’s brother, Yuri Briar, who (unknown to Yor) works for the State Security Service (SSS) police. The SSS hunt spies and use torture to identify anyone working against their country.

This puts Twilight and Yuri at odds with each other as they work for different countries and have been told contradictory information. Twilight has been told to get close to Donovan Desmond because the man threatens the peace between his nation, Westalis, and Desmond’s nation, Ostania. Yuri has been told that Twilight is actually the one seeking to destroy the peace within Ostania and seeks to stop him. It seems like one or both of them are being lied to by their own governments.

Yuri also has an unhealthy obsession about his sister and is overly protective, so this leads to further tension and hijinks that are over-the-top funny. His first visit to their home where he gets drunk had me in stitches.

The silliness is balanced with the emotional growth among our main trio. A thoroughly enjoyable ride from start to finish.

The highlight would have to be the dodgeball game. Just watch it.

8 out of 10

Anime Review: Sol Levante (2020)

TL;DR – 4-minute experimental anime that should be viewed only through that lens.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Production I.G has created a number of excellent anime over the past decade include Psycho-Pass, Guilty Crown and hands down the best volleyball anime ever in Haikyuu!!.

A joint project with Netflix, Sol Levante uses hand drawn constructs with 4K HDR (high dynamic range) technology. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a 4K HDR television (like myself) then you can’t fully appreciate Sol Levante‘s four minutes of animated brilliance.

The making of video by Netflix is longer than the anime itself, but it will give you an idea of what anime production companies like Production I.G are seeking to do.

For four minutes, you can’t tell much of a story but Sol Levante is meant to be about a warrior searching for a sacred place that fulfils wishes, but the warrior upsets the guardians that watch over the place.

In truth, it’s more an animated experiment than a proper story. And from an enjoyment factor, you’ll forget it immediately after it’s viewed.

I debated whether to do a review on something like this, but seeing the making of video helped me appreciate what animators are trying to do.

Anime traditionalists will likely hate everything about Sol Levante. But I’m a little more open to seeing different styles. I appreciate variety but not at the expense of story. At the end of the day, no matter how pretty it looks, if the story is not told well (or in this case there isn’t really a story) then it’s a wasted effort from an entertainment perspective.

I’m not sure why they released Sol Levante other than to act as a showcase or stepping stone of what is to come. But as a piece of entertainment, it did not do much for me.

2 out of 10

Anime Review: The Cat Returns (2002)

TL;DR – Haru saves a cat from getting hit by a truck and triggers a journey into the Cat Kingdom where she unwittingly discovers cats that act like humans in more ways than one.

Review (warning: spoilers)

The Cat Returns (aka Neko no Ongaeshi) sees the return of Baron Humbert von Gikkingen, a handsome cat that dresses up in a suit and uses a cane. The Baron is a cat figurine that is used to inspire the main character in Whisper of the Heart to write a novel. In The Cat Returns, the Baron comes to life to help a young girl named Haru trapped in the Cat Kingdom.

Haru is a quiet, unassuming girl who often sleeps in, is late for school, and has an affection for cats. She has a good heart though is a bit unlucky in life and secretly pines after a boy named Machida in her class even though he already has a girlfriend.

One afternoon, while walking home from school, she spies a cat carrying a little gift box in its mouth. The cat attempts to cross the road, but Haru sees that an oncoming truck will run the poor feline over. Spurred into action, she rushes over with a lacrosse stick, scoops up the cat, and scrambles over to the opposite side crashing into the bushes. There she watches amazed as the cat stands on its hind legs and brushes himself down with his paws and then thanks Haru using human words for saving his life.

The cat she has saved is Prince Lune of the Cat Kingdom, and later that evening, Haru receives a visit from a progression of cats (all walking on their hind legs) down her street carrying the Cat King who gifts Haru with a program as thanks for saving his son. The program will bestow upon her unlimited happiness, but Haru discovers the next day that happiness is all relative.

She wakes up with her front yard overgrown with cattails, and receives gifts of catnip and mice in her school locker. All this would be heaven if you’re cat, but for Haru it’s nothing but trouble. She is visited again by one of the servants of the Cat King and is invited to his kingdom along with a proposal to marry Prince Lune.

She, of course, expresses that she can’t marry a cat but briefly ponders the idea of living a life as a cat and thinking it would be much easier than being a human. This is interpreted as acceptance of the marriage proposal and leads her down an Alice-in-Wonderland type adventure into the Cat Kingdom.

Thankfully, there are those who are willing to help her return to the human world including the Baron and Muta (a giant fat cat with a penchant for eating everything in sight). Though Haru slowly begins to transform into a cat, she escapes with the aid of the Baron, Muta, Prince Lune (who didn’t realise that his father had tried to arrange this marriage) and Yuki (a white cat that Haru saved from starvation when she was a little girl).

The Cat King reminded me of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. A rambunctious and volatile character that doesn’t hesitate in having any cat in his court kicked off the highest balcony in his castle. His attempts to prevent Haru from returning to the human world include a maze that gets Haru lost and a tower that has a portal to the human world loaded up with explosives.

In the end, Haru succeeds in persevering through her transformations and returning home. She learns to stand on her own two feet, which is the key transformation that sticks with Haru. By story’s end, she has grown and understands who she is better.

When she is told that Machida has broken up with her girlfriend, she reacts nonplussed and you realise her transformation is complete.

Not necessarily as impactful as other coming-of-age Studio Ghibli films (e.g., Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away are two masterpiece coming-of-age Studio Ghibli creations that come to mind), it still ticks all the boxes and is a delightful journey into the discovery of one’s self.

7 out of 10

Anime Review: Tales from Earthsea (2006)

TL;DR – in a land where dragons and magic exists, there is a delicate balance. A balance threatened by a warlock seeking immortality.

Review (warning: spoilers)

When sailors aboard a ship witness two dragons fighting in the sky, it is an omen that the balance is being attacked. When one of the dragons gets killed, misfortune begins to fall across the land of Enlad. Crops fail, livestock die, and a disease starts plaguing the country.

For Prince Arren, he is also being plagued by some unseen shadow. It causes him to be possessed by a violent spirit, leading him to assassinate his father, the king, and stealing his sword.

Arren flees from the castle and ends up crossing a desert where he is chased by wolves. He is saved by the archmage Sparrowhawk, and together they journey to Hort town ruled by Lord Cob, a powerful warlock that has historical animosity towards Sparrowhawk.

In Hort, the prince and archmage briefly part ways. Arren discovers the inhumanity of the town. Slaves are bought and sold; a drug called hazia is peddled to the desperate; and most of the market stalls sell weapons. When he encounters a girl named Therru being chased by a slaver, Arren intervenes and saves her but reveals he does not care whether he lives or dies (guilt riddles him for murdering his father, and he doesn’t see the point in living), which upsets Therru who doesn’t want to be around someone who doesn’t care about life.

Arren later gets ambushed by the same slaver who wanted to capture Therru and ends up chained in a wagon with other slaves. The prince is saved by Sparrowhawk and taken to a small farm outside of town owned by a woman named Tenar, another mage who has worked previously with Sparrowhawk. It also happens that Therru is under Tenar’s care, and it is here that Arren reveals to Therru that he killed his father and stole his sword because of this shadow that pursues and possesses him.

Existentialism comes to the fore as the twist is that the “shadow” is the true Arren. What the prince is afraid of is living a life that will eventually end in death. Arren’s greatest fear is mortality.

And it is this fear that is used against him by Lord Cob who seeks to open the door between life and death and obtain eternal life. Lord Cob convinces Arren that Sparrowhawk has been manipulating him and wants to achieve immortality by using Arren for his own ends.

Lord Cob also kidnaps Tenar and uses her as bait to lure Sparrowhawk to his castle. There Cob unleashes Arren to fight Sparrowhawk, and though the archmage is able to save Arren and disarm him, the archmage is captured.

With the execution of Sparrowhawk and Tenar at hand, it ends up being Therru that saves the day. She manages to reach Arren, give him his father’s magic sword and convinces him that life is worth living because of its mortality. That’s what makes it precious.

The climactic scene sees both Arren and Therru defeat Cob and revealing that Therru is a dragon.

The wonders of Studio Ghibli animation are on full display and every scene is filled with sumptuous detail, and the characters animated with love and care.

The story itself is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. There’s a lot of stuff that gets mashed together that doesn’t quite make sense. For example, both Arren and Therru have ‘real’ names that if known can be used to evoke power or be used against them by a mage. This is never clearly explained but that’s how I interpreted these scenes where Arren reveals his true name to Cob, and the warlock is able to take control of him.

Then there’s the fact that Therru is a dragon and a princess, yet at no point does she reveal her power or royalty when she’s attacked by slavers. It’s kind of illogical and how and why she is with Tenar on a farm is a mystery.

Another mystery is why does Arren kill his father in the first place? Initially, I thought it was because he was possessed by some sort of evil spirit but that’s not the case. Loosely one can infer by film’s end that he killed his father to obtain the magic sword that might somehow grant him access to eternal life because Arren feared death. But I can’t help feel that that is a stretch because at no point does the sword display anything other than being… well… a sword. Sure when Arren finally unsheathes the sword, it displays a magical light but otherwise all it’s used for is slicing and dicing.

And the battle between the two dragons at the beginning… what was the point of that? Are we to infer that Therru is the dragon that got supposedly killed? That she somehow resurrects herself in human form and doesn’t reveal her true self until Cob tries to kill her?

It’s all a bit convoluted and messy. Add to this that the only well-rounded character is archmage Sparrowhawk and the film struggles. Cob is one dimensional with only glimpses of his own fears about death and his desire for immortality. Why he didn’t just open the door between life and death first before trying to kill Sparrowhawk is a real puzzle. He even tells the archmage that he’s found the key to unlock the door but doesn’t obtain immortality straight away. Instead he wants Sparrowhawk dead first. Bizarre move.

Tales from Earthsea was directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki. I really feel for him. The expectations of trying to live up to a man who is a master storyteller and created a canon of brilliant and magical Studio Ghibli films would be daunting to say the least. As his first film, Goro probably bit off more than he could chew.

On the flip side, Goro Miyazaki didn’t give up and subsequently directed From Up On Poppy Hill which is a far more effecting and moving story. I highly recommend watching that one over Tales from Earthsea. This film could have been much more than just being visually stunning, but in the end it’s a disjointed affair that loses its magical lustre.

6 out of 10

Anime Review: Whisper of the Heart (1995)

TL;DR – coming of age drama about a girl trying to find her calling through books, stories and a small statue of a cat in a suit called the Baron.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Shizuku is a voracious reader and a lover of books that spark her imagination. She enjoys writing songs and can even hold a tune even though she doesn’t think she can sing. She’s mindful of the small things in life, and these fascinate her to no end. For example, a cat that sits next to her on a train, an antique store that holds a cat statuette with eyes made of sparkling stones, a restored grandfather clock, sun rises, and watching a boy craft a violin out of wood.

It’s the attention to detail that Shizuku notices, and so, when she discovers that many of the books she borrows from the library have been borrowed previously by someone named Seiji Amasawa, she starts wondering who this boy might be.

Along the way she goes through the trials and tribulations any young girl goes through at high school including the joys of a love triangle when she discovers the boy her best friend, Yuuko, has a crush on, actually likes her. The whole situation compounded when she identifies that Seiji Amasawa is a boy at her school that teases her relentlessly, which she fails to realise until later is ‘code’ for ‘I like you’.

Slowly, she comes to know the real Seiji and falls in love with him, but not before she realises that his lifelong goal is to be a violin maker, and he will be travelling to Italy for a two-month study. Shizuku feels the pull to achieve something of herself during this time and invests all her energy into writing a novel.

The attention to detail that Shizuku’s character exhibits is also captured in the detail of her surroundings and the detail of animation that one would expect from Studio Ghibli. Somehow, animating the simple things adds layers to what is essentially a drama that could be filmed in real life. The way Seiji rides his bicycle with Shizuku on the back, the detail of the grandfather clock when it strikes midnight and reveals mechanical dwarves that tell a fairytale story, the hustle and bustle of trains and in classrooms, the cityscape views from atop a hill, the many hidden treasures in an antique shop… you take the animation for granted because it’s so effective.

Magical in its simplicity, gorgeous in its detail, and a story written by Hayao Miyazaki himself, this is a journey in appreciating the small things and learning to believe in yourself.

9 out of 10