Anime Review: Gunslinger Girl / Gunslinger Girl II: Il Teatrino

Note: This review is spoiler free as all my reviews are–you may discuss specifics in the comments though.

One of the frustrating things of anime is finding people to watch with, or getting buy-in.  It is such a kick-ass type of entertainment, I really wish everyone I knew would watch.  And there’s something for everyone–girls, guys, sci-fi, etc. None of my inner circle of friends watch it.  I have convinced the wife to watch Clannad.  She also marathoned Nana right with me (that’s chick crack, there is no female on earth that will be able to resist that one).  But back to this anime, you see the posters of the movie and it’s ‘cute’ girls, with giant guns, and then one immediately rolls their eyes. I’d never be able to get anyone to watch this, I’d lose them as soon as they saw that official poster below. Too be honest, I’ve been overlooking it for a while, it wasn’t even on my to watch list, I only stumbled on it because I’m running out of stuff on Netflix to watch.  After watching this I’m learning that for Anime, never judge a book by its cover so to speak.

Gunslinger Girl Official Poster

Yes. This would be a hard sell to non-anime fans, but it’s really not what it looks like.

The idea here is that adolescent girls nearing death through various tragic circumstances are given a chance on life as their bodies are rehabilitated–and actually they’re physically improved.  It comes with a price–a mind wipe.  Each of the girls are assigned an agent, who trains them and on whom they go on on various missions for the agency.  The cyborgs get, well, lets just say they tend to get “attached” to their training agents. So this anime is really about those relationships. In the second season we also get some insight into the motivations of terrorists that again raises the moral issues without answering them. This is depicted through a group that’s working for a political party going up against the agency (there’s political stuff, but the particulars are not important here).  There is also the implicit issue of the morality of all of this that is going on in the background–but actually it’s not addressed and that’s actually a good thing, as it lets you enjoy the series without having your mind biased ahead of time.  As you can see from this description, the violence and shooting of guns–which is there–is actually the background, not the focus.  I’d hesitate to call this an action anime actually.

Other than the plot, I like the attention to detail in the setting of the series.  It takes place in Italy, and you get lots of lush visuals and even background voices in Italian. Visits to Castello Saint Angello, discussions of paintings, and that sort of stuff.  Even more impressive on the detail front is that apparently, the guns are ‘real’ guns in that the design and names of the guns in the series are real–I wouldn’t know anything about that, but those of you into firearms might like that.   Lastly on the background is the outstanding score, lots of piano keys, and opera sounds, and classical compositions, fitting of the setting in Italy.

What’s great about this series is that given the large cast, everyone gets treated well.

Lastly, I’ll close in observing two ways that I differ from most other reviewers of this anime .  First is I think Il Teatrino (Season 2) was just as good as the first.  Same good music and great character development.  With the large cast here–there is no main character–it is a chance for everyone to get the full treatement. Second–and I think many people get this wrong, it is not all romantic relationships from the cyborgs towards their handlers. There’s clearly master-servant, brother-sister, father-daughter, teacher-student, etc dynamics.  In some situations though, yes, there is the romantic overtone.  See if you can figure out which are which.

Anyway, outstanding anime, with high rewatchable value.


Anime Review: Fate/Zero

[Note: My intention is for my reviews to be spoiler free, I’ll avoid saying anything specific about the series or film itself, however if you’d like to discuss specifics you are welcome to do so in the comments.  So be warned comments contain spoilers!!]

Take some of Final Fantasy VII, the first ‘modern’ role-playing video game, and mix it with a more classic, fantasy based Final Fantasy.  Throw in some legends and historical figures, and that is the setting with which Fate/Zero (F/Z) is produced. It’s outstanding, and I’ll briefly explain why.

Before moving into the review, know that F/Z is based on a Visual Novel. I have never read a Visual Novel before, and the first time I heard about it was when reading about Clannad.  Also, F/Z is actually a prequel to another series–Fate Stay/Night (F/SN) that was adapted by another anime in 2006.  I haven’t watched F/SN and didn’t even know about it until I was in the middle of watching F/Z which is unfortunate, as I tend to like watching series or movies in production order rather than chronological order (see: Darker than Black, in which you really should watch season 2 (Gemini) before it’s prequel (Gaiden)).

Saber, one of the main protagonists.

The premise here is basically that there are individuals (billed ‘masters’), who get assigned spirits (‘servants’) that they can use to win the “Holy Grail”, which grants the victor whatever they wish (Some of the individuals are from families that have been involved in this war for generations).  The main protagonist depending on how you look at it is either Emiya Kiritsugu, a stoic, brooding character that’s actually more anti-hero than hero, or Saber, one of the spirit knights who is pure and full of conviction and virtue–she’s more of a conventional hero for sure–and the contrast of her uncompromising principles with Kiritsugu’s relativism is one of the running themes of the series.

This sounds like a  tournament type series Dragonballz style, but trust me, it’s FAR from that.  There is a lot of talking.  There’s so much subtlety, philosophical debates, etc in this series.  The first episode alone is one hour of…talking.  For me that’s a good thing, but apparently from the forums, many found that annoying.  Another thing to keep in mind that even though most of the focus is on the two aforementioned protagonists, there are A LOT of other characters, all across the spectrum in personality and morality.

Kiritsugu himself has ambiguous morals depending on your world view, and that’s what I like about the anime.  Lots of shades of grey here.  Some of the stuff he does like how he gets rid of a rival will just blow his mind, it’s something a lot more ruthless than most villainsdo.   Another way that ‘shades of grey’ is in the servants–you’ll have guessed by my description of Saber, that the servants have independent personalities and motifs on their own right.  Some of them are not even interested in the Holy War.  This makes for an intriguing web of relationships between the servants, but also between the servants and masters–there is a debate in one of the episodes between three of the servants on what it means to be a King which is so deep it would not be out of place in a philosophy lecture class.

Kotomine Kirei, one of the central characters in the story

Anyway, I  like epic, fantasy related stuff, but it’s hard to find good ones–that includes books, comics, etc.  This one was top quality from the production to the storytelling.  The pacing was a little off sometimes, and there was an event towards the end that was supposed to have high dramatic effect that kind of came out of nowhere and fell flat.  I’m glad I watched this–it was actually my second choice after Steins; Gate (which I still haven’t watched–is that any good?).

So for those of you that watched Fate/Zero, what did you think? Should I watch Fate/Stay Night?  What is the perspective of those that watched the anime?Rating: 5/5

The sometimes uneven pacing is forgiven for the outstanding visuals, the complex philosophy and the great dialogue and diversity of characters.  Also best “final battle” I’ve seen yet.

Entertainment Review scale:

5=Outstanding, Classic, etc.   4=Very good   3=OK    2=Not good  1= Horibble

Note: Most reviews I put up will be 4s or 5s, very few OKs.  You’ll almost never negative or low-scored reviews from me as I don’t waste time watching stuff I don’t like.

Anime Review: Nana

Overview of plot: Apparently ditzy, 20 year old easy-going girl called Nana heads to Tokyo for the glamour life, and on the train meets an apparently stoic, moody, rocker-girl also called Nana that is headed to Tokyo to fulfill her dreams. They become BFFs. This is really two stories, the first about relationships—platonic and romantic, but there is also a story about the music industry too.  At 47 episodes, it’s pretty long for an anime series, but well worth sticking with it.

Here is a list of reasons that I consider this a classic:

– Manages to keep the focus on the two protagonists yet at the same time, each of the supporting cast of characters are well managed. Each of the characters in this show are so unique, and unpredictable, but not not unpredictable in a random way, but in a way that makes them real people rather than caricatures/roles. I swear to god you know people like these.

– Avoids clichés in two ways—resolutions of relationships and second in the dynamic between the bands. While one of the Nana’s has a warm ‘happy-ending’ in her relationship (well, in the anime at least), the other Nana doesn’t end up in a fairytale situation, which is not to say it ends up badly for her, just that they don’t take the obvious route with both relationships. The second way they avoid clichés is in the interaction of the two bands, early in the series, it looks like one of the bands will be the villains, and that the show will center around the bands being matched up against each other. It doesn’t end up like that at all. In fact…..

– …..there are no villains in this show. Perhaps this is something unique to the ‘slice of life’ genre, I haven’t watched many of them (Clannad is the only other one), but there was no character in this that was a villain. There’s one male character in one of the bands that gets a lot of hate online, but a lot of that hate I’ve noticed is from female fans, and I think it’s related to the above point of the fairytale ending, there’s a lot of projecting that I detect in the hate he receives. I disagree with that hate and find him to be completely on point.

– For guys with girlfriends/wives that are skeptical about this whole “cartoons” hobby of yours, this is a great show to show them how real and adult anime can be. Careful though, they WILL be hooked and it’ll be funny how they’ll be the ones wanting you to marathon through it with them.

This is a wonderful anime, and you get so attached to the characters and their dreams. Because of of the open-ended ending, it is probably the first anime for which I will actually read the Manga—I’ve never read a Manga before, which is why I’ll stay with the 10/10. I’d considered giving it a lower score because of the ending but the fact that I’ll actually read the manga—something I thought I’ll never do, is reason to keep it at a 10.

PS. Can’t forget to give a shout to the soundtrack, all music in this anime is made by the actual characters in the anime itself, interesting concept. Also the music is actually part of the story, so pay attention to it! I’m mostly a hip-hop/dance guy, I barely listen to any Rock music at all, but I still enjoyed the punk-rock music in this. Maybe it was because of how the music is actually weaved into the story.

Rating: 5/5

Entertainment Review scale:

5=Outstanding, Classic, etc.   4=Very good   3=OK    2=Not good  1= Horibble

Note: Most reviews I put up will be 4s or 5s, very few OKs.  You’ll almost never negative or low-scored reviews from me as I don’t waste time watching stuff I don’t like.

Best Anime: My sensational 7

(NOTE: This post is spoiler-free)

I don’t do “greatest of all-time” lists as such as I never feel like I’ve been exposed to enough quantity of whatever that list is.  Also, I never really feel like an expert–I don’t see myself as a movie critique for example, I see myself as a fan.  As applied to Anime, even though I’ve watched quite a few, don’t read this as a “greatest of all-time” list but rather as recommendations of what the medium has to offer.

As a background I’m not new to this, or someone who thinks anime = pokemon.  On the other hand, I’m not (yet??) an ‘otaku‘  that knows names of japanese voice actors or anything like that.  Also, in sharing this list, I omitted movies and kept it to series only, so classics like Akira will not be on.  Lastly, I try to write my posts on this matter both for people new to it, but also for those that are in deep and have watched a lot more than me.  Anyway, moving on this is how I group animes:

– Bad: Animes in this category I don’t even bother to finish. I just drop them after a few episodes.  Stuff like Last Exile and Neon Evangelion (has got to be the most overrated anime of all-time), etc, I just don’t finish. Animes that are boring and literally consistently put me to sleep also fall into this category.

– Ok-to-good:  Anime’s here I’ll watch and be reasonably entertained.  Most anime, most entertainment for that matter, falls in this category. Stuff here I probably wouldn’t watch again though. This is a large grouping I know, it includes standard stuff that I’ll put on the TV with nothing else to do, but also some very good animes that still didn’t make the cut to the top level such as Ghost In Shell: SAC or Eden of the East that fit into this category.

– Amazing:  Here is stuff that has for me unlimited replayability. The kind of stuff that I would push hard to non-anime watchers.  See something like the aforementioned Eden of the East is good, but I don’t know that I’d promote it to a non-anime fan. However, the anime’s that make this category are just brilliant and I truly feel most people would enjoy them.  For me, 7 series have reached this, presented in no particular order:   Clannad, Darker than Black, Nana, Samurai Champloo, Gungrave, Saint Seiya, and Baccano.  I’ll explain a little more about who these would  this appeal to and why they’re so far the best.  All of these, again listed in no particular order, I could watch over and over and over….

I would not have watched this based on this poster, but don't let it fool you! (image source: myanimelist)

7. Clannad / Clannad: After Story

It’s kind of like:  Beats me, there’s nothing quite like it…..

By the way:  1. I don’t care who you are, You WILL tear up or get damn near close.  2. This is is especially good if you’d like to get your skeptical girlfriend/wife into watching Anime.

I almost skipped this series because first I heard it was a ‘romance’ anime, and second, the poster for clannad (see above) is just way too ‘cute’ for my tastes.   I thought it would be something about high school people skipping around and just being silly.  Boy was I mistaken.  Instead we get a wonderful tale of family, and also of overcoming  and coming to terms with one’s past.  In real life, shit happens. That’s bascially what this anime is about, it’s about “life happening” but also about how you move on beyond that.  Another thing that makes this a masterpiece is the blending of comedy, drama, and romance, with none of the three dominating the other.  The comedy is never over the top, and the romance never feels forced or contrived.

FIFTEEN "main" characters!

6. Baccano

It’s kind of like:  The movie Snatch , Oceans 11/12, Quentin Tarantino films.

By the way:  Watch this one in English, as the accents add so much more to it.

If you’ve seen Snatch, or if you enjoy the ‘randomness’ of films in with plots and characters run into each other such as in Pulp Fiction, then Baccano will resonate with you.  Its set in the prohbition eras, in the 1930s US.  Different gangs run into each other, and also there’s some characters that get into the mix as well. Russians, Italians, Irish, and the French, they’re all there.  Different types of ‘bad guys’ too from the cunning powerful villains pulling the strings, to hilarious common thiefs, and last but not least a sadistic, yet ridiculously entertaining villain that just has to be experienced to be believed.

5. Nana

It’s kind of like:  MTV, American Pie, Neil Strauss’s The Game, emo, angst, relationships, dating, sex.

By the way:  1. Another good one for girls, but where as Clannad is more “wholesome”, this one is more “adult”.   2. 47! episodes, and apparently the story is still ongoing in Manga form, so a second season is very likely.

You see that Nana poster? Heh.  This is on the list as after finishing Clannad I wanted something similar and this was what I picked from Netflix, so I run into it completely by accident.  This makes the list because I have never come across more realistic characters anywhere.  Like how the characters in here act are how people IN REAL LIFE act, you could be any of these people, and very likely know someone exactly like this people.  The main characters are namesakes–the two Nana’s. Both from the country, they meet on a train heading to Tokyo pursuing their dreams.  Nana 1 appears ditzy and she, well, “likes guys a lot”, let’s put it that way. She’s going to Tokyo to move in with her boyfriend, and also to hang out with her two college friends that are now a couple and have moved to Tokyo.  Nana 2 appears all grungy and rebellious, is going to Tokyo to pursue a music career as a rock star.  The two become best of friends almost right away.  The types of characters here are players, groupies, celebrities, etc. I also like how nuanced the characters are, they’re not as stereotypical as you’d imagine–note that I used italics when describing the Nana’s above. This is a great series about the complexity of relationships and physical attraction, dealing with themes such as–What is the difference between a guy and a girl that sleeps around a lot? Who says you have to be in love to have sex? etc.

4. Samurai Champloo

It’s kind of like:  Wu-Tang Clan, underground hip-hop, nu-Asian martial arts flicks (think Crouching Tiger: Hidden Dragon).

By the way:  1. Another one to watch in English, because sometimes the narration and characters ‘freestyle’.   2. Find an episode-by-episode, scene-by-scene guide of the music here:

In my opinion this has accomplished for Animation what the Wu-Tang Clan did in the 1990s–blending elements of oriental culture and fusing it with hip-hop.  Samurai Champloo is light-hearted, that has a lot of anectodes about actual real Japanese history.  The soundtrack is purely hip-hop, and it’s brilliantly done.  In fact, all four elements of hip-hop–beats, scratching, breaking and graffiti feature in Samurai Champloo. And all this is done without it coming off as contrived.  This is not exactly an expansive anime with a grand storyline, and it is not necessarily insightful, but damn, is it pure fun.  Watch this! The soundtrack alone makes it worth it, so have good headphones or adjust your surround system accordingly when you watch this.

Gungrave, one of the greatest mob stories ever--and this is not hyperbole.

3. Gungrave 

It’s kind of like: The Godfather, Gangster flicks, mob flicks, Sopranos.

By the way: If you decide to watch it, at least watch to the third episode.  Whatever you do, do not make your decision based off of the first episode, which is completely different in mood, setting, and style from the episodes that follow it.

This is basically a mob story. From the atmospherics, the music, the mentor ‘godfather’ figure, mobs, themes of “protecting the family”, hit-jobs, etc. And it’s a damned good mob story at that.  One of the better anime endings too.  One unusual thing about this one is that the source material is not a manga, but a videogame which is unusual for the genre.

2. Saint Seiya  

Kind of like: Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and old school RPGs, Thundercats, Zelda, Lord of the Rings.

By the way:  Just watch ‘Lost Canvas’ if you have no background to this, and if you don’t have the time to get into the original 80s series, and the follow-ups of the mid-2000s.

For this one nostalgia plays a heavy role in its inclusion. I grew up in the 80s watching some anime and I thought this was the most bad-ass of them all.   It’s heavily steeped in Greek, roman, and Asgard mythology. If you take the entire volumes, from the beginning to  the end–that’s about 200+ episodes, and that’s excluding the recent Lost Canvas which is a prequel of sorts.  My advice is to just watch Lost Canvas, and skim the rest on Wikipedia, then only watch if you like what you see.   Me? I don’t like “old” anime other than what I grew up with, so I probably wouldn’t watch the old stuff if I saw it now.  Another thing is compared is the character development in the original series is not that great, but the fighting and mythology is where it’s at.  Basically, if you think of video games I’d say it is like a role-playing game in which you spend a lot of time fighting and levelling up, it might get tedious for some.  For that reason,  I say stick to Lost Canvas, a prequel which was released over 2010-11 as it’s modernized, and has a story that can stand-alone, and it has better character development (of the side characters).

1. Darker than Black

Kind of like: Batman, The Crow, Heroes (on NBC).

By the way:  There are three series. Watch in this order–original series, Gemini, THEN Gaiden. In other words, watch it in the order it was released, not in the chronological order of the events. It’ll be more enjoyable seeing Gemini without knowing how things got to be that way. Note that Gemini and Gaiden are not available in English yet, so Japanese with subtitles will have to do.

Action~! Lots of action in this anime.  This is a fun anime with great character development.  Also has an interesting twist on the use of superpowers with the idea of ‘remuneration’.  Hei, the main protagonist, is a very ‘cool’ character, basically I’d liken him to being the Batman of anime.  Another thing I like is how all three series are different, the original series, Gemini (the second season) is much darker, and in between there is Gaiden, which recounts the events immediately after the original series.  While Hei reminds me of Batman, the overall series is similar to something like Heroes of NBC, with faceless corporations overseeing/regulating Super heroes, so there’s political undertones to this as well.

Your thoughts? Is there anything I should watch based on what I like here? There is some good stuff that I have seen that missed the cut.  I’d say Ghost in Shell’s, Eden of East, Death Note and Angel Beats are the most notable, but I wouldn’t put them at elite level.  I’ve heard great things about some anime like Stein’s Gate, and Cowboy Bepop, neither of which I’ve watched yet.  Again want to reiterate that I’m not saying these are definitely the best animes, just that some combination of these anime’s are what I’d recommend to people already not into anime, and also they’re the series which for me have unlimited replay value.