Doctorkev’s Anime Review Digest: 3

DoctorKev
DoctorKev
Nov 26, 2020 · 10 min read

A further eclectic collection of collaboration commentary from past contributions to AniTAY reviews.

The Promised Neverland

It seems you can never go too wrong with anime about suffering children. Grave of the Fireflies? Wartime horror and starvation — check! Neon Genesis Evangelion? Existential horror and self-destructive nihilism — check! Made in Abyss? Jolly adventure and brutal mutilation — check! Now, the Winter 2019 season hath unleashed The Promised Neverland with its bounty of child sacrifice, demonic child-flesh feasting, deep paranoia, and leg-breaking sudden violence.

As an avid reader of the manga, this was my most anticipated anime of the season and it most certainly does not disappoint. In fact, in some places it may even surpass its source material. The manga at times is dense, talky, and oppressive, as the story requires. Many scenes are extended dialogues or internal monologues that would not translate well to anime. By obfuscating the characters’ internal thoughts, the animators require viewers to rely on subtle cues like body language, facial expressions, scene composition, and music. In less-skilled hands, this could have fallen completely flat; however, in this instance, every episode is a perfectly constructed and tense 24 minutes that moves the story forward, answering some questions and asking more.

Not that many answers are forthcoming about the world outside of the children’s home — the deceptively “safe” Grace Field House — but that’s okay. Those answers will come later. What is revealed is enough to provoke a profound sense of unease and raise the stakes for what amounts to “Prison Break: Genius Kiddie Edition”. And what prison break series would be complete without arson, self-mutilation, crosses and double-crosses, and the strategic use of coat-hangers to swing over vertigo-producing bottomless abysses?

Emma, our primary protagonist, is chirpy, energetic, and smart — easy to root for. Her best friend Norman is even smarter but guarded and fragile. The secretive Ray is duplicitous and snarky but ultimately self-sacrificing. They make a fascinating trio that complement and counterpoint one another in increasingly complex ways as they grow, develop, and with mounting horror realise the magnitude of their situation. No eleven-year-old children could be so coldly logical in real life, but witnessing their improbable machinations is all part of the fun. Isabella makes a superb antagonist — outwardly loving but inwardly calculating and brutally intelligent. The final episode humanises her but in a way that does not diminish her earlier malevolence. We understand her villainous actions, and with discomfort realise if placed in her shoes, we might make the same choices. In losing Isabella as the main antagonist, I worry a little about how tension can be maintained in season 2, but as long as they keep the same staff, it will be in good hands.

TL;DR: Tense, dense, well-paced, smart and disturbing. If watching children suffer is your thing (you monster), then The Promised Neverland comes highly recommended.

Vinland Saga

Episode 24 of Vinland Saga concludes with the words “End of the Prologue.” For a story whose apparent primary character spends much of the runtime absent from the main action, I can forgive this. Vinland Saga is based on a multi-volume, long-running historical epic manga that covers decades in the life of a fictionalised version of Thorfinn Karlsefni, son of legendary viking warrior Thors Snorresson. Thorfinn is an angry young man who witnessed his father’s brutal death at the hands of the magnificent bastard Askeladd. Dedicating his life to the pursuit of vengeance against his father’s killer, Thorfinn joins Askeladd’s men during the Danish invasion of England circa the year 1000AD. Featuring other historical figures like Thorkell the Tall and Prince (eventually to become King) Canute, Vinland Saga is a mostly convincing portrayal of medieval European life — cold, short and violent.

I pity Thorfinn’s voice actor who doesn’t get a lot of work to do other than the occasional wordless scream of rage or frustration. Wily schemer Askeladd drives the lion’s share of the plot, and he becomes a complex, sympathetic character despite his frequently despicable actions. Man-mountain Thorkell is improbably huge and the closest thing in this grim show to comedic relief — a clown who can tear men in two with his bare hands. Future King Canute is the most problematic character — a feminine, soft-featured boy with long blond hair, he is often mistaken for a girl. Only after a certain point in the plot does his personality make a complete 180-degree-turn and it is too swift to be believable.

Animated by Wit Studio of Attack on Titan and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress fame, this is a generally propulsive adaptation, barring a slow portion in the middle of the series. It never looks anything less than good and the action sequences are animated breathlessly. I get Berserk vibes from Thorfinn and Canute who remind me of Guts and Griffith, respectively, though there’s no fantasy here — this is a straight-laced historical epic and I hope that Wit Studio continues to produce it for years to come.

TL;DR: Compelling and violent with complex, multifaceted characters, Vinland Saga is the best historical anime I’ve seen in years. If you like live-action shows like Vikings, give this a try.

Dororo

Osamu Tezuka’s manga is something of an acquired taste. I have no doubt the man was a genius of graphic literature — he practically single-handedly kickstarted the manga industry and invented several genres. His work has not dated well though, and I say this as an avid collector of his (translated) books. The term “tonal whiplash” could have been coined to describe the experience of reading many of his works, especially the more adult-targeted stories. One scene could be horrendous violence, the next light-hearted slapstick with bug-eyed characters goofing around. Tezuka’s character designs were heavily influenced by early Disney — cartoonish and rounded, and this can work against the sometimes serious topics he tries to explore.

Dororo the manga was released in 3 volumes in the 1960s then cancelled. Tezuka was forced to hastily end his manga with a conclusion that was anything but. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the original 26-episode black and white anime adaptation, which for the first half hews very close to the manga (including barely altered character designs) before veering off into mostly original stories. You can see various episodes on Youtube. It has aged even less well than the manga. 2004 brought a harder-edged, “adult” version of the story to PS2 as the game Blood Will Tell, a fairly decent third-person hack’n’slash game with character designs far removed from the manga.

2019’s MAPPA-produced anime adaptation is an interesting combination of both earlier releases. While Tezuka’s childish cartoon-faces are gone — replaced with a far more modern aesthetic — the characters do remain recognisable. Even the major story beats are preserved, only with some significant changes involving the fate of Tahomaru, brother of lead character Hyakkimaru. Much like the 1969 series, the second half contains a large proportion of anime-original material, for good and bad — a somewhat misjudged comedy episode is entertaining but feels very out of place. The conclusion is far more satisfying than the manga’s though, even if it does keep one of the more frustrating plot developments.

Aesthetically, Dororo (2019) towers far above the original anime in terms of design, animation proficiency and plot propulsion. It usually looks good, and even in some episodes when obvious cost-saving measures are employed it never approaches the cheapness of 1960s B+W anime. Titular character Dororo is far less annoying than their manga counterpart and Hyakkimaru’s character development is far better conceived and realised than in Tezuka’s original. Dororo does not skimp on violence either — it evokes well the sense of horror that ordinary people must have experienced when living through the real warring states period. I’d recommend this as a good watch to anyone — even those unfamiliar with the original — this anime surpasses it in every meaningful way.

TL;DR: Engaging and violent modern interpretation of an over-half-century-old Tezuka Manga. Don’t let that pedigree put you off.

Lord El-Melloi II Case Files

Detective Waver, as I shall henceforth refer to this show, is not a product for Fate newbies to consume, steeped as it is in the deepest, most obscure, impenetrable molasses of Type-Moon lore. For those already drowning in the vast media franchise spawned by Kinoko Nasu’s 2004 Eroge/Visual Novel Fate/Stay Night (F/SN), it’s also helpful to be familiar with the tangentially-related Tsukihime and/or Kara No Kyoukai to truly grasp some of the prominent concepts explored in the course of this obtusely-plotted but visually gorgeous show.

Do you know what The Root is, or the numbered types of magic or what the different grades of Mystic Eyes are? No? Prepare to be bamboozled by barely explained concepts that drive the so-called “logic” of the plot. Multiple “reveals” and twists hinge on the labyrinthine contortions of the obscure (and apparently extremely elastic) rules that govern the Fate universe’s magecraft. This is a pretty big problem for a show that purports, if not to be a “whodunnit”, then at least to be a “whydunnit”.

So the plot is basically garbage. However, where the show succeeds is in the interactions between its well-drawn and engaging characters. This is a sequel to the highly regarded Fate/Zero (F/Z), arguably the best Fate anime so far, and itself was a prequel set 10 years prior to the original F/SN. Detective Waver seems to be set immediately preceding the events of F/SN. Our protagonist Lord El-Melloi II is a grown-up Waver Velvet, who was one of the most empathetic characters in F/Z. His personality has developed over the years to become a world-weary, exasperated academic who can’t help but let his curiosity and overly good nature entangle him in elaborate mysteries and inscrutable plots. He’s portrayed very much like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes (with mystical powers).

Waver is aided by a colourful cast of supporting characters, most prominently by Gray — a mysterious young girl with a gothic vibe and a massive scythe. The show does not explain her situation well — one of the main weaknesses of the plotting. One should not need to pore through a Type-Moon wiki for clarifications. Other familiar faces from Fate/Apocrypha, Fate/Hollow Ataraxia and even Fate/Grand Order appear, and most have at least some impact on the plot. I enjoyed these little touches, though they will leave non-Fate fans cold.

Although the first few episodes are generally stand-alone, once the second half of the series becomes more heavily serialised, it recontextualises each of the earlier stories in clever ways. At least I think it was probably clever — most plot points are so drowned in jargon as to be practically meaningless. Take the final “reveal” of the ultimate mastermind. I defy anyone, even Fate obsessives to have predicted something that came right out of left-field, despite a few very very small clues identifiable only in retrospect.

For an otherwise sedate detective show, Detective Waver has some great action scenes and beautiful animation. It never looks anything less than immaculately polished with a perpetually glossy sheen. There’s even some traditional Fate servant-on-servant violence, all flashy lights and bonkers choreography — though it does introduce yet further wrinkles/convolutions to master/servant lore. Check this show out if you don’t mind long, potentially boring conversations that sound smart but make little logical sense. It looks pretty and the characters are funny and compelling.

TL;DR: Detective Waver is inscrutable, sometimes boring but always glossy and mostly fun. Be warned of the high barrier of entry. Not for Fate newbies.

Kaguya-sama: Love Is War

Winter 2019 was loaded with excellent anime shows, and for me Kaguya-sama was the best, narrowly edging out The Promised Neverland. At first I was concerned this would be one of those shows that stretched out a single joke to wafer thin (and unfunny) proportions. Thankfully, the sheer creativity and cleverness of the show avoided this pitfall. What starts as a goofy, lightweight premise develops surprising emotional depths by the final episode.

Our main characters have complex inner lives, and their deep-seated insecurities and somewhat odd beliefs never fail to frustrate and complicate their interpersonal relationships. Simple interactions which for any normal person should be effortless become titanic battles of wits with plans, counter plans, counter-counter plans, and counter-counter-counter plans that spiral to the point of absurdity. I found myself equally frustrated and empathetic with these characters. Who after all has never felt anxiety when faced with the object of their crush, who has not tried to protect their own inner vulnerability from those around them? Such is our main characters’ need for control. They constantly ruin their chances of meaningful emotional connection and therein demonstrate how close comedy really is to tragedy.

Kaguya and Miyuki are such truly damaged individuals that the viewer desperately wills them to shed their impenetrable defence façade and be honest with one another. The emotionally charged finale does allow for some moments of true vulnerability and honesty between them. I hope any sequel series that is made continues to develop their relationship without the complex and psychedelic mind games becoming stale.

And Chika. I love Chika. More Chika Dancing please. Chain that animator to a desk for the rest of his life and make him animate more Chika.

TL;DR: Warped, hilarious and heartfelt, Kaguya-sama was the surprise hit of the season for me. Chika is best girl of 2019 already. More of this, please!

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