Hellsing review


The mysterious Hellsing organization has been protecting the British Empire from supernatural beasts that threaten the people and the crown; armed with the ultimate killing machine, an all-powerful vampire named Alucard, Hellsing has been slaying monsters for over 100 years. When confronted with a villainous vampire priest in the British countryside, Alucard is forced to shoot Ceres Victoria – a human police woman taken hostage by the priest – straight through the chest. Given the choice between an existence as a ghoul or death by her new master, Victoria chooses to be reborn as Alucard’s ward… and her unlife as his servant begins.
Review:
Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing comic has been hailed by anime fans and horror fans alike as a masterpiece of the genre, the definitive vampire manga. A few years back, the manga was adapted by Gonzo for the small screen, with decidedly mixed results; the best part of the story hadn’t been written yet, and the show’s storytelling quality (and, woefully, animation quality) went down the tubes near the end of that show’s run. It’s been a long wait, Hellsing fans, but the adaptation you’ve been waiting for is finally here; Hellsing Ultimate is darker, bloodier, and faithful to the manga. It’s as close as we’re going to get to a perfect retelling.

The story in this first volume is going to be pretty familiar to anyone who’s even remotely acquainted with the series. This installment begins with a brief flashback to the first time Integra encounters Alucard in the bowels of the Hellsing organization’s stronghold, and quickly drops us into the middle of the battle in Cheddar, where Alucard meets (and kills, and resurrects) Ceres Victoria. There’s another action setpiece where the relationship between our (anti)heroes is further established, and then – in a segment that was obviously meant to be the second episode, but is included here to the delight of everyone – we see their first encounter with the maniacal Catholic vampire-slaughtering madman sent straight from the Vatican, Father Alexander Anderson. It’s all material that was covered pretty well in the TV series, so don’t expect any new story revelations here (minus the teaser shot we get at the end that points toward things to come, something that won’t make a lick of sense to anyone who hasn’t read the manga).

That’s okay, really; in places the storyline feels a little disjointed, like we’re watching vignettes with a recurring theme. In fact, it’s just like reading the manga. This might throw off people new to the franchise; everything that happens in this first volume will make perfect sense to the folks who saw the original TV series or read the comics, but newcomers might be a little confused by the sometimes choppy plot development. It’s possible the screenwriter was relying a little too much on the notion that his audience consisted primarily of people who were already intimately familiar with the storyline… but hey, fans won’t care one whit.

Really, the biggest and most exciting thing about Hellsing Ultimate is how faithful it is to the manga and how well the tone of the show is executed, and it’s really a pleasure to say that this retelling finally gets it right. The TV series seemed to be aiming for a broader audience; the violence was toned down, Alucard became a kind of sexy bishonen character, and it all felt a little watered down.

This time, we’re getting the full force of Hirano’s extremely straightforward, gleefully bloody and sadistic style. Alucard is rendered as a brutal, bloodthirsty monster with a sympathetic streak about a centimeter wide. He’s in it for the sheer joy of the slaughter here, and it’s much closer to the manga version of the character – his decision to resurrect Ceres makes a lot more sense in this context too, and his dialogue – especially at the end of the volume – helps us get closer to understanding why this beast would bother with a sidekick. Ceres herself is written much better as well; her pathos is more pronounced here, and while she provides the occasional comic moment, we’re given a glimpse into the character’s surprisingly brutal future. Even Integral feels like she’s more “in charge”. These are the characters the manga fans know and love, and they’re rendered with care and grace. Well, as graceful as this story can really get.

If it’s blood you’re after, Hellsing Ultimate is drenched in it. Not a single drop is spared; everything about the action sequences and the gallons of gushing blood seem turned way, way up, and frankly, it really captures the feel of the manga. In fact, everything seems a lot more extreme in Hellsing Ultimate, and that’s a good thing. The manga pulled no punches, and neither does this; it’s just as perverse and sadistic and violent as you could possibly wish for. If that’s your sort of thing (manga fans, you know who you are) then you’ll probably spend the 50 minutes of this first episode on the edge of your seat with a big dumb smile on your face. I know I did.

The production values are, somewhat surprisingly, hit-and-miss. While this OVA clearly had a larger budget than your average TV production, it’s pretty clear they saved the money for the big action scenes; dialogue exchanges are often a little awkward, and there are some questionable sequences in here that just don’t look very good. Regardless, most of this show is action, and that’s where the animation really shines. Once people stop talking and start killing eachother, you can almost see the show’s budget inflate in real-time; there are some very impressive setpieces in this thing. Furthermore, the show’s drastically improved character designs really help bring the manga to life; while we’ll probably never get something that perfectly captures Hirano’s near-psychedelic art style, this is as good as we’re going to get.

The only real complaint – aside from occasionally weak animation – is the soundtrack. While it might not be completely fair – this is an all-new production, after all – it’s impossible not to compare the score for this OVA to the score for the original TV series, and it comes up pretty short. The grungy, almost soulful music found in the TV show was a perfect match for the series in terms of establishing tone, while this new score feels weak and understated by comparison. It just isn’t anything to write home about, which is a shame, given the series’ excellent musical legacy.

Thankfully, Geneon USA had the wisdom to reassemble the crew at New Generation Pictures responsible for the English dub of the original Hellsing TV show, which was almost universally raved about as one of the few dubs out there that exceeded the Japanese language track. The same is true for Hellsing Ultimate; Crispin Freeman reprises the role he is perhaps best known for, bringing Alucard’s voice down a little bit, presumably to better reflect the darker nature of this version of the character. K.T. Grey and Victoria Harwood also return, as does Steven Brand, playing the cackling Anderson. The voices are all blisteringly authentic, and the genuine British accents really go a long way toward bringing these characters to life. Given that the show is set in Europe – and the performances are so polished and professional – it’s easy to say that once again, you should probably watch Hellsing in English. Besides which, the English track on this DVD is in 5.1, and the accompanying Japanese track – rendered only in 2.0 – sounds anemic and lifeless in comparison. It should also be noted that due to some East-West shenanigans, the subtitles still refer to Alucard as “Arucard”; no such problem plagues the English version. Just watch the dub. It’s better that way.

It’s going to be a long wait for the next episode in the series, and even longer until we get to the real meat of the story, Hellsing’s world-shaking encounter with the Millennium Nazi organization. There isn’t anything new about the story being told here, except that it’s a much better adaptation that was obviously created with much more reverence for the acclaimed manga it’s based on… which for Hellsing fans will be a real treat. This is a high-quality resurrection of a top-shelf anime series that deserves to be in the spotlight; you won’t be disappointed.
Grade:
Overall (dub) : A+
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B

+ The Hellsing manga finally gets the big-budget adaptation it deserves; English dub is a home run.
− Occasionally weak animation, underwhelming score; plot may be a little choppy for series newcomers.

here’s a mole inside the Hellsing organization, and they’ve been leaking classified information to the press. Walter discovers a snuff video on the Internet that features someone wearing a Hellsing badge; naturally, Alucard is on the job. The vicious and hedonistic Valentine brothers also make their appearance, launching an attack on the Hellsing organization that will rock Sir Integra’s important Round Table meeting to its very core!
Review:
Considered by some to be the best volume of the Hellsing TV series, volume two certainly packs a bigger bang than some of the others. The series comes to a head with this release, ramping up the action and what’s at stake (pun intended) for the main characters. This volume is made unique mostly by the episodes involving the Valentine brothers, certainly the most interesting villains the show has to offer.

Hellsing already had an interesting premise, and this volume fleshes that premise out and really brings the characters around after introducing them in the first volume. Ceres continues to struggle with her decision, unable to decide whether or not she’s willing to forsake her humanity and drink the blood her master offers her. While some consider Ceres’ struggle to be the centerpiece of the series, the relationship between Alucard and Integra is explored in greater depth. No matter what interests you about Hellsing, there will be something in volume two to excite you.

Without a doubt, the best episodes on the disc are the last two, which deal with the Valentine brothers and their assault on the Hellsing organization. They basically bring Hellsing to its knees, corrupting over half of the organization’s forces and assembling them against Integra’s secret weapon, Alucard. The Valentine brothers are ruthless and uncompromising, and they are written like true villains, which is extremely rare in anime. A lot of anime series feature villains that seem to show some sympathy for the heroes; they won’t kick them while they’re down. They stop and issue long soliloquies about why they’re evil, and always leave big holes in their plans for the heroes to walk through. The Valentine brothers are no such villains; they almost single-handedly take down Hellsing by virtue of having zero mercy. They kill everyone in their path and take every opportunity to destroy Integra, who they know is at the head of the organization. It’s refreshing to see writing like this, and it comes highly recommended for anyone who has the stomach for it.

The dubbing remains excellent in Hellsing. Jan, the more psychotic of the Valentine brothers, is voiced with a ferocious, carefree, hedonistic glee that is unmistakably authentic and one of the finest performances I’ve heard in a dub thus far. The dialogue he’s given is extremely tricky to pull off convincingly, but the actor did a fine job and the character is strengthened by his portrayal. I reiterate that the English voice cast for Hellsing is superior to the Japanese cast and anyone with even a passing respect for English voice acting needs to see it. The music is also above par, providing gritty rock rhythms to accompany the gruesome proceedings. Perfection.

On the animation side of things, Hellsing takes a slight dip in this volume. The characters are routinely off-model and it’s a bit distracting. The animation quality goes down in later volumes, and here it’s passable, but the mistakes are noticeable and distracting. That isn’t to say that Hellsing is poorly animated; it just could have used a bit more polish. The DVD presentation is flawless and one of the sharpest, most error-free video transfers I’ve ever seen.

Simply put, if you dig horror anime–or even just vampires or gothic artwork–you’re going to love Hellsing. It would be easy to recommend this volume above the others thanks to the strength of episodes five and six, but it’s necessary to see the first volume in order to get the full impact of what’s happening. Volume two is an excellent addition to an excellent series.
Grade:
Overall (dub) : A+
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B-
Art : A
Music : A+

+ Great storyline, fun characters, awesome music
− Poor animation in some spots

Following the Valentine Brothers’ disastrous attack on Hellsing HQ, Integra must face new threats from Iscariot, who feel Hellsing is unfit to deal with the vampire outbreak and send Alexander Anderson back to London to take out Victoria and her master. Alucard sees this all as a great excuse to have some more fun. Later Victoria meets another “true” undead who provides clues to the identity of the vampire behind the FREAK chips, Alucard gears up to face a worthy opponent, and Integra has a dangerous encounter with her sister Laura.
Review:
“Hellsing” is becoming somewhat notorious as a series that starts off brilliantly but ends in total disappointment. Volume 3 of 4, “Search and Destroy”, represents the weakest installment of the series as the previously sharp storytelling begins to bog down in a bunch of cryptic imagery that never gets properly explained. But there’s still enough action, atmosphere, and attitude to keep fans happy, and the unique mix of Gun-Fu, Rock-and-Roll, and Hammer-Horror continues to make the show one of the standout releases of the year.

The first episode on this volume is actually one of the series’ highlights, featuring the return of everybody’s favorite papal assassin Alexander Anderson. More is learned about the workings of Iscariot, the Vatican’s own anti-vampire task force, but the real point here is to top Alucard and Anderson’s previous battle from Volume 1. Bored with hunting common freaks, Alucard is eager for a rematch with the mad priest, and we are treated to a longer, more intense duel in which both characters pull out all the stops, all the while hurling verbal insults and Scripture passages to great effect (savor the moment when Alucard calls Anderson “Judas Priest”). Unfortunately this is the last appearance of Iscariot in the animated version of “Hellsing”, as Anderson and company are dropped in favor of some new characters unique to the anime who lack the imaginativeness of the manga’s colorful denizens.

The next two episodes are somewhat unfulfilling. The action is sparse, and these dialogue-driven installments do remarkably little to advance the overall story. “Kill House” takes a cue from “Interview with the Vampire” and introduces Helena, a centuries-old nosferatu trapped in the body of a little girl. Victoria and MI-5 agent Harry Anders seek her out for information regarding the FREAK chips, and most of the time is spent beating around the bush as the disaffected Helena talks about the tragic nature of the undead. Though she speaks much but says little, this is the only episode to fully invoke the romantic and melancholy aspects of the vampire myth, and it does so quite well. The closing moments take a right-turn in schizo-ville, however, as the viewer is bombarded with a bunch a random scenes that may or may not be reality, and Alucard begins to demonstrate some weird inconsistencies in character when dealing with Integra. The pattern continues in “Red Rose Vertigo”, which throws in Integra’s sister-who-maybe-isn’t with three different names and shows Alucard shifting between deep concern and blithe disregard for his master’s well being. The true villain of the series also makes his first appearance, and though he sports one mean-looking gun Incognito isn’t half as interesting as Anderson or the Valentine Brothers. Cracks in the plot begin to appear, and despite ending on a truly wicked cliffhanger this is easily the least engaging entry of the series.

Vampire-in-training Seras Victoria continues be the heart of “Hellsing”; ironically the coming-of-age story of this undead girl is the show’s most human element, and it helps carry the series through a stretch of low-key episodes in which Alucard makes little more than a few cameos. Without her “Hellsing” would be all style and no substance, and since much of that knockabout style goes on hiatus here she becomes even more crucial, keeping things interesting and giving the audience a larger picture of the vampire world through her eyes. Few are the anime in which the sidekick is just as if not more interesting than the hero….even if Victoria can’t compete with her master in the Cool Department

“Hellsing’s” art continues to vary wildly between inspired and just plain lazy. There is some great layout work and on Alexander Anderson which uses innovative lighting tricks to convey his fanatic, predatory nature. Helena’s reclusive abode is perfectly gothic and moody. But there is only one noteworthy bit of animation, a brief sequence in which Alucard morphs into a swarm of bats and then reforms looking meaner than ever. Keeping characters on-model remains a major problem for the show, as sometimes Alucard and Integra don’t resemble themselves in the slightest.

Keen ears will notice that the background music is being recycled from previous episodes but the music is so darn good it’s easily forgivable. The soundtrack remains “Hellsing’s” constant and greatest strength, and the hard-rock battle themes are worthy of mainstream radio.

The vocal performances have gotten even stronger since the series’ first release. Early on Crispin Freeman struggled to nail Alucard’s dark nature but he has definitely found his voice, and his malevolent delivery more than holds up to George Nakata’s original performance. Yoshiko Sakakibara and Victoria Harwood have some heavy acting duty as Integra, and both meet the challenge with consummate skill. The rest of the Japanese cast is fair to average, but the English cast is superb, and the new characters continue the nice trend of coming complete with the appropriate British, Slavic, and African accents.

It is disappointing that “Hellsing” cannot maintain the high level of storytelling that marks the first half of the series, but at only 12 episodes it is easy enough to overlook when one considers the many much longer anime series that far outstay their welcome, and the wild cast of characters and great mix of genres keep things from getting too boring. Don’t let the bad things you’ve heard about the ending keep you away from this one, in today’s stilted anime market Alucard and company are a breath of fresh air.
Grade:
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C-
Animation : C-
Art : C
Music : A

+ Alucard & Anderson: Round 2
− story takes a nosedive, new villains not as interesting as the old ones

Is this the end of the Hellsing organization? Integral has been duped into sending the bulk of her forces to the Tower of London, where Incognito’s unstoppable F.R.E.A.K. squadron ambushes the Hellsing army and threatens to completely wipe them out. Alucard and Incognito himself duke it out in a final battle between the two most powerful undead on the planet. Ceres Victoria struggles with her humanity once again and proves to be one of Hellsing’s most valuable employees. Also, the link between Alucard and Integral is explored, finally revealing Alucard’s mysterious relationship to the head of the organization. The end is near, and things are looking grim.
Review:
Pioneer’s biggest release of 2002 was Gonzo’s high-profile anime series Hellsing, based on the comics published by Young King Ours. It saw success immediately on US shores–before Pioneer even announced the title–and the fanbase for it grew exponentially in a matter of months. This volume, titled Eternal Damnation, is the final volume in Pioneer’s best selling release, and while it isn’t a complete letdown as many Hellsing fans have indicated, it isn’t exactly high art, either.

The first episode on the disc is without a doubt the best. Integral was left seriously injured at the conclusion of disc three, and here, she starts out in the emergency room. During her surgery, we are treated to an explanation of the mysterious relationship between Alucard and Integral, which is certainly the most interesting bit of character interaction that the series has to offer. We discover many things about Alucard’s true nature and the Hellsing organization’s political structure, all of which come as revelations. The episode is sort of dropped into the middle of the larger storyline, though, and as things happen around Integral’s operation, we’re left swallowing back story when presumably more important things are happening elsewhere.

Following that, the final three episodes round out the series and bring it ultimately to a very unsatisfying conclusion. The screenwriter cheats a little at the end; basically, we’re lead to believe that Integral, who’s been shown as extremely intelligent and strategic up to this point, is essentially tricked into sending the bulk of her forces straight into an ambush. Alucard consistently pesters her to become a vampire, despite the fact that he’s typically very subservient to her. Suddenly, the characters’ actions are inconsistent with their established personalities, and all it does is help further the plotline–which at this point is getting somewhat ridiculous. This was expected on some level, though; whenever an anime series based on a manga (in this case, a particularly short manga) runs out of the source material, they almost always resort to the “hero or organization has to fight an enemy that’s way too powerful for them” storyline. The entire Hellsing organization and all of the major characters basically get whupped by Incognito (looking remarkably like a throwaway Dragon Ball Z villain) and his freakish hordes. Everyone is pushed to his or her absolute limits, and then, in typical anime fashion, they bounce back. It isn’t that the end of Hellsing is particularly bad. It’s just that the series started out with potential to be vastly more unique than this, and it’s somehow depressing to see the same old storyline rehashed in a show that established itself for being fairly original.

That isn’t to say this disc isn’t entertaining, not by a long shot. Despite the routine proceedings, they still managed to throw in a few clever touches, and admittedly, the final two episodes did have a true air of excitement about them. A lot happens at the end that isn’t explained at all unless you’re somewhat familiar with the manga, which makes it a blast for hardcore Hellsing fans, but American audiences relying on the series as the sole material available for this series will be confused and disappointed. As much as I really didn’t care for the Incognito character, he doesn’t pull his punches and really sticks it to Alucard, Ceres, and Integral. It’s refreshing to see a villain in this day and age who doesn’t give a long speech before delivering the final crushing blow or have some sympathetic back story intended to make the viewer understand why he or she is trying to kill everyone. Incognito is pure, unadulterated, destructive evil, and the screenwriter did a fantastic job characterizing him that way. It’s too bad his character design isn’t as good. A big portion of London gets destroyed, Walter gets a chance to show off his combat skill one more time, and Ceres deals with her personal demons. Yeah, it isn’t original, but it’s entertaining. The four main characters in this series are so much fun to watch and root for that you probably won’t notice how hackneyed the storyline has become.

For a few episodes in the middle, the animation quality in Hellsing drops to an almost insulting level. It’s practically a slide show in episode ten, arguably one of the episodes that required better animation to achieve full emotional impact. The animation in this episode is pretty awful, even by anime standards. None of the characters seem to maintain model structure and the whole thing really falls apart at the end of the episode, where a few segments of footage are re-used much too soon, making the entire climactic confrontation seem silly. The final three episodes on this disc are just as well-animated as the first three, which is saying a lot, considering this is Gonzo. The animators seem to take extra care when animating Ceres Victoria and Integral, yet many of Alucard’s close-ups and movement shots are sloppy and off-model. It’s a shame that the series’ most interesting character gets the short end of the stick when it comes to the animation budget, but at least we aren’t stuck watching Ceres’ bust line change in every frame, as it did for those middle episodes. Ceres’ close-ups are particularly well animated, and as always, the backgrounds and musical score are above par.

This may come as a shock, but Hellsing is the first anime series I can honestly say I enjoy watching dubbed far more than subtitled. The dub for this series is excellent; the voices are spot on, and aside from some weak acting on Ceres Victoria’s part, the cast is above reproach and far better than anything else I’ve encountered. Crispin Freeman pulls off Alucard perfectly, and Integral has exactly the right British tone. Since Hellsing takes place in London, it’s somewhat strange to watch in Japanese. Everyone in the show is supposedly British, and since the English staff managed to put together a stellar British cast (aside from a few obviously faked British voices), I couldn’t think of a good reason not to watch the dub. Yeah, the Japanese voices are fantastic and sound just right for the roles, but honestly, the dub is so good on this series, I suggest anyone with a penchant for hating dubs give it a shot. You won’t regret it.

An unsatisfying end to a stellar anime series, Hellsing: Eternal Damnation is obviously required viewing for any fan of the series, whether you appreciate the changes made to the storyline or not. If you aren’t a fan but like gothic horror or simply good writing and interesting characters, start from the first disc and work your way down.
Grade:
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : A-
Art : A+
Music : A+

+ Entertaining end to a great series; animation is often excellent, fun characters and storyline, nearly perfect dub
− Dissapointing in the context of the series; awful animation in spots

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Spice and Wolf 2 review


Lawrence and Holo arrive at their next destination, Kumersun, just in time for the town’s annual festival. Lawrence is there to sell his cargo of nails; Holo is of course more interested in the festivities…and the food and drink. While they’re enjoying themselves, the pair meet and befriend an ambitious young merchant named Amarty. Instantly smitten with Holo and under a rather extreme misunderstanding about her ties to Lawrence, no thanks to Holo herself, he proposes a duel for her hand—merchant-style. Lawrence takes the challenge in good humor, and not without a glimmer of greed. That is, until an oversight on his part turns the stakes dead-serious. Later Holo and Lawrence make their way north to Lenos, where economic tensions are wound just tight enough for a smart merchant to make a killing. There Lawrence meets Eve, a lady merchant with a plan that could net Lawrence a fortune—and sever his ties with Holo forever.
Review:

Where its first season still had enough odd emotional distance and narrative hiccups to allow one to wave it aside, Spice and Wolf’s second season combines a honed narrative sense with a greater focus on Holo and Lawrence’s relationship to create a sophisticated cinematic confection the quality of which is quite simply beyond denial. Whatever else you may think about Spice and Wolf, it is too well put-together to be dismissed out of hand.

The blend of coolly restrained romance and intricate mercantile plotting in these two tales is smooth, confident, and accomplished. The romance provides the stakes for the plotting and the plots push the romance forward, stripping away the pair’s usual sarcastic banter to reveal the feelings that lie beneath. The first arc does the favor for Lawrence, using his and Holo’s first real fight to put the punch in his devious marketplace duel with Amarty, which in turn reveals to both us and Lawrence just how deep his feelings for Holo run. The arc builds its sense of foreboding subtly, from the moment Amarty and Holo meet, proceeds smoothly through Lawrence’s investigation of Holo’s hometown, flares up when their relationship is scorched, and then maneuvers deftly through the tricky twists and turns of Lawrence’s plan for Amarty’s ruin before drawing everything cleanly together for a denouement that manages to thrill both intellectually and emotionally. From beginning to end, it’s the performance of a series in full control of its storytelling craft.

The second arc does the favor for Holo, this time emphasizing the mystery elements that started to emerge in the previous arc while pushing the stakes as high as they’ll go. The mercantile branch of the plot isn’t as unique or involved as the previous arc’s, but it makes up for it in menacing unknowns and the lurking air of doom that hangs over the whole enterprise. As for Holo, we’ve always known that loneliness and conflict lurked beneath her knowing, flippant exterior, but they’ve never been so clearly articulated as when Lawrence’s deal with Eve forces her to make a decision about their future that neither really wants to make. What we see in those moments is sad and moving and, more than anything, revealing. Holo has always been the center of Spice and Wolf, and appropriately enough, its final arc brings us closer to her (and closer to understanding her) than ever before. And it does it without breaking stride or visibly straining, moving with imperturbable poise through mounting tensions and emotional crises to reach its half-hopeful, half-melancholy resolution without a hair out of place.

The downside of that seamless blending of the personal and mercantile is that you can’t get the full impact of the series unless you’re as smitten with the characters as they are with each other. If, for whatever reason, you haven’t been bitten by the Holo or Lawrence (or Holo + Lawrence) bug, then it doesn’t matter so much that Holo is betting her and Lawrence’s relationship on Lawrence’s duel with Amarty, or that every possible outcome of Lawrence’s deal with Eve appears to lead straight to the end of his and Holo’s journey. Their endless verbal sparring is less likely to set you afire than it is to make you wish that this particular literary adaptation wasn’t so…literary, and the advancement of their romance isn’t nearly as likely to leave you swooning.

None of this is new, of course. The pair’s chemistry has long meant the difference between loving and leaving the series. The difference here is that the evidence of the series’ quality is piled so high that the even the un-smitten can no longer refrain from enjoying it. Admittedly it’s a cooler kind of enjoyment, closer to appreciation or respect than the kind of consuming love that the series’ true fans obviously have for it. But it’s real, and in its own way quite potent. You feel it when admiring the completeness of the characters, from changeable Holo down to the lowliest pawn in the merchants’ schemes. You feel it when the gears of the plot mesh together and the hidden pieces start falling perfectly into place. You feel it in Holo’s fears—of entropy; the only thing, in retrospect, that a goddess would fear—and in the improbable way that taut adventure is coaxed from medieval economics. It’s something akin to the enjoyment you get from a Stanley Kubrick film: a powerful appreciation of raw intelligence and consummate craftsmanship, but at a slight intellectual distance.

There are two short video extras, one a discussion of medieval diet and the other a too-long stretching-with-Holo video, as well as welcome clean versions of both the achingly lonely opening and the simpler, happier closing, but the real extra in this set, if you have the tech, is the Blu-ray version itself. Okay, maybe it isn’t an extra, but its clean, clear video is definitely a bonus. Not so much for the animation, which is pretty minimal given the dialogue-heavy nature of the series, nor for the character designs, which are fairly standard, often uneven, and along with the animation provide too little support for the characters’ more difficult-to-divine feelings. Rather, it’s a bonus for the backgrounds. Spice and Wolf relies on backgrounds more than your average anime: for its lonely atmosphere, for its sense of time and place. They can be pretty variable, particularly the interiors and the less important in-town locales, but when the camera draws back for a bird’s-eye survey of a smoldering town, or frames Lawrence and Holo’s cart against the alpine verdure of a medieval forest, or loses itself in the washed-ink minimalism of a mist-faded vista, you’ll want every extra pixel that the Blu-ray has to offer.

Yuuji Yoshino’s thoroughly charming folk-music-inspired score, by the way, is a treat from beginning to end.

Much of Spice and Wolf consists of people sitting around talking to each other, so how Funimation handles the dub is immensely important. As per usual, the casting is pretty much beyond reproach, and the acting is generally fine. The lack of Ami Koshimizu’s imperious, insinuating and generally masterful performance as Holo is felt, Ryan Reynolds’ Amarty is rather weak, and the cast in general tends to float their feelings a little closer to the surface, taking some of the subtlety out of the emotional interplay, but otherwise there’s little to complain about acting-wise. The script is something of another matter. It plays down the sophistication of the original dialogue, particularly its fondness for wordplay but also its sly inference, while subtly broadening some of the humor. It isn’t necessarily that major—though more than a few lines of dialogue end up completely re-written—but its effect is noticeable.

There will always be those who don’t “get” Spice and Wolf. I never really did. I still don’t. Having said that, it may seem weird to recommend it wholeheartedly, but I do. After all, the series has no characters I identify with, no relationships I invested myself in, and nothing that I traditionally enjoy in an anime series, and yet I still relished every minute of it. That’s just how well-made it is. I can only imagine what it must be like if you actually get it.

Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A-

+ Polished, impeccably written, and handsomely executed; much development for Holo and Lawrence; still among the more unique series out there.
− A great deal depends on how you feel about Holo and Lawrence; talky; animation and character designs aren’t terribly impressive.

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When they cry (horror)


Teenager Keiichi Maebara has gradually adjusted to pleasant life in the small rural village of Hinamizawa, where he has joined a game-playing club with the older girls amongst his fifteen classmates. As Keiichi soon learns, however, even a village like Hinamizawa has a dark underbelly, one that led to the brutal murder and dismemberment of a man a few years in the past. Every year since then, on the night of an annual festival, one person is murdered and another goes missing. The locals claim that the curse of the village god Oyashiro is responsible, but Keiichi soon has cause to suspect that his cute fellow club members either were involved or know more than they are admitting. The more he delves into the truth, the more he begins to suspect that he may be the next person to die.

Don’t let the cutesy art box artwork, reversible cover art, and exceedingly cutesy insert art fool you; within the first few seconds of the first episode it will become quite clear that this is something well departed from a pleasant little moe fest, despite the way the rest of that first episode plays out. No, this is a case of moe meets murder, one that unnerves and disturbs much more with its violence and wickedness than with any sexual connotations, one where a perfectly cute-looking girl can turn into a perfectly menacing creature with startling swiftness. Its beginning, the way it transposes cute and evil (with its accompanying bloody violence), and how it bounces back and forth between its thoroughly innocent and grippingly dark content invites comparisons to Elfen Lied, but whereas the latter was a very visceral tale, When They Cry concentrates much more on mystery and psychological effects. Gimmicky it may be, but at its best it is also thoroughly unnerving.

The first few episodes delight in the bipolar behavior of their story and characters. When it is cute, cuddly, and reveling in basic kiddie fun, it is as tame as can be. When playing up the creepiness, the sudden personality shifts, bloody violence, or the tension of the real or imagined threats to Keiichi, it can have you on the edge of your seat. Some of its moments work beautifully, such as the scene in episode one where Keiichi makes a joke to the photographer about Rena hiding a dismembered corpse in the junkyard and he takes it deadly seriously by referring to a real incident. Other times the structure feels forced, such as the mechanic of Keiichi talking to Detective Oishi on a regular basis to receive and relay suspicions instead of gradually uncovering them himself, or the tame parts beating the viewer over the head with their innocence to emphasize the severity of the contrast.

During a panel discussion at a ‘con earlier this year, Geneon reps explained that they had specifically put five episodes on the first volume because they felt that the fifth would be necessary to get a new viewer fully drawn into the story. By the end of the second episode most viewers will be wondering why a series with such involving mysteries needs that kind of commitment, and by the end of the fourth episode, which completes the first story arc, many will wonder why they didn’t just start the new arc on the second volume, since that feels like a good break point. Once one has seen episode five and tried to absorb what it all means in light of what happened in episode four, though, it will become eminently clear why Geneon did what they did. That episode’s content may leave you scratching your head, but its inclusion in the first volume is necessary to convince viewers that they have not seen anything close to the full story in those first four episodes, despite how self-contained the arc may seem to be. Much more strangeness awaits, it would seem.

On the downside, Geneon apparently decided that the five episodes were enough content for the disc, as aside from the above-mentioned bonus art the only included extra is company previews. Each episode does retain the full original Japanese opening and closing credits, however, with the translations only being provided in the Credits option on the main menu where the DVD manufacturing credits are normally found. While the art box may be thoroughly (and misleadingly) mundane, the volume’s cover art prints its picture in a blood-stained negative, giving a dark and warped look to the otherwise-innocent-looking depiction of Rena and Mion. The gimmick with printing one of the kanji in red is reproduced in the English version of the title by printing the “C” in Cry in red, which is an appropriate adaptation.

The artwork in the series itself emphasizes extremely moe character designs for the girls, while the one young adult woman features prominently looks properly pretty. The standard visual conventions used for the sillier parts give the impression of a more simplistic artistic style, but they way the countenances of the girls are altered to suit the more horror-oriented sequences, generally denoted by a changed in the pupils of their eyes from rounded to vertical slits, is quite effective. Good background art provides sufficient detail to make the settings convincing, but the animation does not impress. The visual highlight is unquestionably the carefully constructed opening sequence, where the maniacally angry look of Mion’s eyes in one scene and a butterfly with one wing pulled off in another starkly contrasts with the fluffy look of the other visuals, providing an effective representation of the series’ dichotomous nature. The much simpler closer, by comparison, uses CG representations of flowing blood forming around a cicada. No sign of fan service can be found beyond a brief scene in the opener, but bloodshed and graphic violence do, of course, occasionally appear.

The nature of the series requires a soundtrack that can adeptly transit between cutesy themes and dark, tense ones, and this one does the job quite well. The great opener, with its stylistic transitions, synchs well with its visuals but feels too short, which begs for a full-length version to be included as an Extra at some point. The Japanese-accented English lyrics of the closer are worth listening to once or twice but highly skippable after that. The most notable sound feature, which carries over exactly into the English dub, is the frequently-present chirping of the cicadas that give the series its name. The intensity of their sound in some scenes strikes an ominous tone. And we can’t forget those nicely icky sound effects in the intensely graphic scenes, either.

Given all the young-sounding girls’ voices in the series, and how they can dramatically change their vocal style and speaking tone in certain scenes, one might have expected this to be a tricky English dub to do. Bang Zoom! Entertainment has proven more than up to the challenge, however, as they have produced an effort which even sub fans should appreciate. Every significant role is appropriately cast and performed in a style sufficiently close to the original that there should be no significant complaints. The quality can especially be heard in the performances of Rena and Mion/Shion, who can startle with the abruptness of their respective characters’ transitions from playful into Scary Mode. These are not the gimmicky performances you might hear from a lesser dubbing studio. The English script also stays fairly close to the original, except for correcting one factual error about the name of a playing card that crept into the subtitles.

When They Cry was clearly intended to be a dark, violent, horror-themed take on moe, but it actually works fairly well as a straight-up horror/mystery tale. Though not without flaws, it is compelling enough in its darker side that the cuteness overload on the lighter side can be overlooked.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B+

+ Effective horror elements, excellent English dub.
− Minimal Extras, some parts feel forced or overly gimmicky.

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Claymore (2007)


n a land ravaged by monstrous, shape-changing Yoma, humanity’s only hope is a breed of half-human, half-Yoma female warriors popularly called Claymores, who use their massive namesake swords and Yoki energy-based empowerment to dispatch Yoma on orders from their unnamed Organization. Clare is one such warrior, albeit the weakest of the 47 given rank and regional assignments due to some atypical circumstances involved in introducing her Yoma aspect. Even so, she fights the good fight against the Yoma with cold, businesslike efficiency and an underlying purpose to seek out a particularly powerful monster responsible for a tragedy in her youth. Not until she hooks up with Raki, a boy orphaned by Yoma whose life she saves in much the same way that someone once saved her, does her human side start to open up and emerge again. As Clare struggles to defeat increasingly harder opponents (sometimes with the aid of fellow Claymores, other times with their opposition) and pursue her quest for vengeance, Raki becomes both a stabilizing force and her one hope that she might, as a certain person once requested, eventually learn to live her life as a human and not just a warrior.

Review:

In the 1990s, Berserk became the epitome of the kind of dark, graphically violent fantasy anime beloved by American fans. Claymore assumes that role for the first decade of the 2000s. Based closely on the manga by Norihiro Yagi until its final few episodes, it spins a tale of sexy but intimidating blond, female, half-human warriors (the process of making them half-human apparently bleaches their hair) who use big swords and a variety of creative fighting techniques to slay monsters. Against small fry they do it with little effort, while against bigger bad guys they get beat up – even on occasion tortured – in the process. Along the way the main character, who starts out competent but comparatively weak (but with a potential hidden reserve of strength, naturally!), must increase in skill, power, and combat tricks in order to fight progressively more powerful foes or even just survive difficult situations.

Sound like a typical shonen action series, albeit with a predominately female cast? In many senses it is just a darker, more graphic, and more mature audiences-oriented version of a Bleach or Naruto. When the series falters, it is because it sticks too closely to hoary shonen traditions, such as prolonged dialog in the middle of fight scenes, emphasis on power-ups, fudging on certain time factors, and fight scene animation short-cuts. It does also share some of the stronger shonen traditions, such as creative power use, nicely-choreographed individual and group fight scenes, and a threat escalation sufficient enough to keep viewers regularly worried about the safety of the star and major supporting cast members. Like most shonen series, it does occasionally go over-the-top with its fights, most notably in the climatic battle at the end.

But Claymore stands apart from its shonen brethren in one very important way: for all its monster-bashing, gore, and flashy powers, it is ultimately more a human story than anything else, and that makes all of the difference here. Clare may go around callously slaying monsters, but this is more a condition of the humanity which bled away from her due to the tragedies of the past and becoming consumed by revenge. The reluctant acceptance of Raki into her life gradually restores her humanity in much the same way that Clare herself did for Teresa, the Claymore who once saved her; in fact, the background story delineated in episodes 5-8 is not only (arguably) the best run of episodes in the series but is also critical for understanding the parallels of Clare’s situation with Raki to Teresa’s situation with young Clare. As Clare progresses through her mid and late series challenges and gradually learns to master her nature, she walks a fine line between her human and monster sides, and only by association with others can she keep herself leaning more towards the former than the latter.

In one sense the entirety of the story presented here is as much an effort to keep Clare human despite what she feels she must do – in effect, to save her from herself – as it is to carry out Clare’s quest for vengeance. This is reinforced by how certain characters who pop up along the way fall to ruin when they have no one to help them retain their humanity while others who do have that help can be brought back even from the brink of a supposedly irreversible transformation. It also helps cast the series’ climax, which strays markedly from the manga and is oft-criticized by fans, in the proper light. The story may continue in the manga after the late battles in and around Pieta, but the anime needed a 26-episode resolution of some sort, and the resolution it uses disappoints much less if regarded as being more about a struggle for Clare to keep or irrevocably lose her humanity. Minor tweaks to Yagi’s original story along the way slant the series towards that kind of resolution from the beginning, so claims by some that the ending was just “tacked on” fall flat.

The series’ visuals feature top-grade character designs entirely free of normal anime stylistic influences. They portray Claymores as statuesque beauties with widely varying body types, though most feature average-to-mildly-large busts. The body suits and armor trappings seem more like concessions to fantasy style than purely practical outfits, though the armored shoes are necessary for the distinctive clicking of the slow, deliberate signature stride of Claymores not in battle mode. Monster designs are more generic except for the vastly creative Awakened Being forms and common citizens designs, while still done well, get a bit repetitive at times (as do the designs for unnamed Claymores, actually). Backgrounds, including meticulously-designed towns heavily dependent on stonework, promote the dreary but not lifeless aspect of the setting, while the series sometimes does some wonderful effects with color, such as red tint in certain key scenes or a predominately bluish tint in the Pieta scenes. One curious side effect of this is to emphasize the brightening of the settings on the rare occasions when the sun shines, the warmth conveyed by a campfire, and the vibrant spectacle of human and/or Claymore blood. The animation is very good when it does animate scenes but takes a lot of shortcuts, including the static shifting of characters across backgrounds rather than animating them and cut scenes in fights. Graphic content is plenty high enough to earn a TV-MA rating, including some nudity, frequent intense graphic violence, and even torture scenes.

The soundtrack, which covers a range of intense techno beats, hard rock numbers, and bagpipe theme, greatly aids and supports the action and events on the screen. Occasionally the choice of music for a particular scene is a little questionable, but the themes available for use are not. They contribute greatly to the intense, dynamic feel of the fights and wonderfully highlight the purely dramatic moments. The opener and closer are both strong rock numbers (especially the opener) which are used in every episode.

English dub performances over the course of the series are a mixed bag, with problems more coming from questionable casting than performances. Some choices and performances shine; Luci Christian, who is more known for comedy and tsundere roles, immerses herself so thoroughly in the atypical (for her) role of the amoral, half-mad Ophelia that it is hard to recognize her, Christine Auten, Colleen Clinkenbeard, and Stephanie Young are nice fits for Teresa, Galatea, and Clare respectively, and nobody but Jamie Marchi probably could have done Helen’s attitude justice. Even the deep-voiced Clarine Harp struggles to be sufficiently masculine-sounding as Undine, however, and Monica Rial never carries quite enough authority to be fully convincing as Miria. Amongst prominent male roles, R Bruce Eliot gives Rubel a deliciously slithery sound and Vic Mignogna is nearly unrecognizable as Rigaldo, but Todd Haberkorn’s Raki grates on the nerves a bit. John Swasey, who is often called upon to voice mature leader-types, gives a different but not necessarily inaccurate interpretation to Isley. A bigger problem is a few places where the dialog is changed too much, resulting in some lines that are weaker compared to the subtitled version and questionable adjustments to information being provided (or not) in other places. On the plus side, the layered audio effect used with the Awakened Beings gives them creepily inhuman-sounding voices, an effect not present in the Japanese audio.

Compared to the original DVD releases, the Blu-Ray version does, as expected, offer sharper picture quality, which highlights the character designs and makes the darker scenes even easier to follow, but at the same time it also makes the occasional artistic flaw even more apparent; there are a few places where the artistry goes a bit off-model which are not as easy to spot in the regular DVD version, for instance. The picture quality is not immensely sharper, however, and this set does not offer a single Extra that wasn’t present in the individual DVD releases. The booklet included with the box is just the booklets from DVD volumes 1 and 6 put together and the three disks have the same six English audio commentaries (for episodes 1, 8, 11, 16, 19, and 26 spread two each across the three disks), the same four Japanese staff interviews, and the same clean opener/closer, Japanese TV commercial collection, and the cast audition set. In fact, the only new things this set offers are reversible covers for each of the two disk cases (one has the first two Blu-Rays). The picture of Teresa on one side of the first case cover is also available in wall scroll form, but the pictures of Galatea, Miria, and Priscilla’s child form seem to be exclusive to this set – but they also deserve wall scrolls. The box pales in comparison to the DVD singles’ artbox in both sturdiness and artistry, too.

If this is your first exposure to Claymore in anime form or you have not previously bought the series then this Blu-Ray set may be for you, as dark, graphic fantasy anime series don’t come much better than this. Its lack of offering anything new compared to earlier releases, and of blow-away video quality increase, makes a less than ideal choice for those looking to upgrade.

Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A-

+ Character designs, soundtrack, remarkably human story involving compelling characters.
− Sometimes burdened by shonen influences, English dub quibbles, lack of new features.

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Elfen Lied


A monster in the form of a naked red-haired girl breaks free from her cell and wreaks bloody havoc before escaping outside. The next day a pair of college-aged cousins discovers the girl on the beach – but now she’s a simpleton lacking any means of communication. Unaware of what she is and not knowing what else to do with her, Yuka and Kohta take the girl they call Nyu (because that’s all she can say) home, clothe her, look after her, and even try to protect her when police and armed special forces troops come looking for her. Though Nyu seems harmless enough, the serial killer personality within her still lurks within, occasionally taking control when threats arise. Are Yuka and Kohta safe from her? Is anyone?

Review:

You know you’re in for quite a ride when the very first scene of the first episode features a severed arm whose fingers are still twitching. What follows is a tense 7½ minutes which serve up a stunning blend of fan service and extreme graphic violence in one of the most jaw-dropping opening sequences ever created for an anime series. By the time the title screen comes up you’ll either be utterly repulsed or thoroughly entranced (and quite possibly both). Although the story shifts to more mild content after that, bursts of intense graphic content and displays of nudity pop up on a regular basis throughout the first four episodes. If you cannot handle scenes of bodies being torn apart in gruesome fashion then this is not a series you should be watching. If you can handle it, though, then you’ll find Elfen Lied to be a fascinating new horror series loaded with mysteries and – surprisingly – romantic elements, too.

Taken individually, most of the story elements in the first four episodes have a familiar feel. Monstrous creatures that get loose and run amok are staples of sci-fi and horror stories on both sides of the Pacific, and who hasn’t seen at least one series or movie involving a split-personality killer? Many of the scenes between Yuka and Kohta are strongly reminiscent of anime romantic stories, and a few scenes involving Kohta being innocently caught in a compromising position with Nyu smack of typical romantic comedy hijinks. Nyu’s personality and behavior have also been done before; they reminded me strongly of Chi in the earlier episodes of Chobits. The mysteries are the ones you might expect: who helped Lucy (the killer personality) get loose, since she couldn’t have escaped on her own, and why? What is the connection that Kohta and Lucy seem to have? And why didn’t Lucy harm Kurama, when she brutally killed everyone around him in one scene? The backstory about how Lucy/Nyu is a Diclonius (essentially a human mutant) whose reproductive potential threatens the existence of humanity is also just a simple twist on common sci-fi/horror plot elements.

What makes Elfen Lied distinctive and intriguing is its effectiveness at melding all the standard aspects together with a couple of surprises and some new material to create a production which has a strong impact on the viewer. Its horror scenes carry a punch, but so do its romantic and dramatic aspects. Part of its effectiveness comes from a cast stocked with empathetic characters, most of whom are at least a bit removed from standard anime stock. Both aspects of Lucy/Nyu are well-portrayed – Lucy is genuinely scary, while Nyu is the lovable simpleton – though it’s her dichotomous nature which is her strongest appeal. Or perhaps it’s just the large amount of fan service associated with her? Either way, she’s more the centerpiece around which the story revolves than the actual lead character. Of the rest, one of the most interesting is Mayu, the runaway who stumbles into the midst of what’s happening with Lucy/Nyu. Runaways who still “live on the edge” don’t come up much in anime, which automatically makes her inclusion an edgy move, and this particular one exists in a state of denial over what she’s seen because she cannot conceive of a girl like Nyu going around chopping people’s limbs off. (There’s also the issue of why exactly she’s a runaway, though that is not dealt with in this volume.) The other standout is NANA, another Diclonius employed by Kurama to help find Lucy and bring her back in. Though her design and personality is a little too cutesy, she is a deliciously tragic character who has grasped on to Kurama being her father, and working to please him, as a means of keeping her sanity in the face of the terrible experiments she has undergone. It takes a cold-hearted person not to feel for her plight, especially when things go particularly bad for her in the later stages of this volume.

Elfen Lied would be watchable based just on its story content, but superb artistic and technical merits enhance its appeal. Most of the character designs are not terribly distinctive – we’ve seen characters who look like Kurama, Kohta, Bandoh, and Yuka dozens of times before – but they’re all well-done, and Lucy/Nyu is sexy rather than cute, though in a disconcerting way in her Lucy persona. The one disagreeable touch is the way the horns that sprout from the heads of Lucy/Nyu and NANA, which mark each one as a Diclonius, look suspiciously like cat ears. (An homage to cat girls, or an attempt at cuteness? Either way, they are out of place.) Balancing that is the chilling menace effectively conveyed when Lucy takes over, at which time her face is depicted with a single eye staring out from behind hair shadowing a hateful expression. Backgrounds are vividly detailed and gorgeously rendered; this is one of the best-looking series to date in that regard. The gore factor is disturbing without looking forced or being heavy-handed, two problems which often plague more graphic anime. The brighter-than-normal coloration of blood in the series, and the way it sometimes looks more like paint than body fluid, dampens its harshness to a bearable level but does make some scenes (such as NANA’s initial appearance) look a little odd. Integration of foreground and background art is nearly seamless, with the only noticeable CGI effect being drifting cherry blossoms. Animation is also very well-done and devoid of shortcuts, with background characters actually sometimes being animated. Admittedly, Elfien Lied doesn’t boast prolonged, complicated action sequences, but overall it’s one of the best-looking of recent series. The artsy opener, which features prominent nude depictions of Lucy/Nyu, is also a wonder to look at, and not just because of the fan service. The much simpler but similarly visually-themed closer also features prominent nudity.

As good as the rest of Elfen Lied is, its musical scoring is the key which winds it all up and makes it work. It begins with “Lilium,” the wonderful opening number, which is sung in Latin by a female voice and sounds much like a Reformation-era church hymn. That theme, which is revisited at various points throughout the series both as an instrumental piece and with a Gregorian chorus, sets the tone for the whole. Highlighting other scenes are string arrangements, which can be either gentle melodies to complement dialogue or nerve-wracking riffs to bolster horror or fight scenes. The closer, “Be Your Girl,” is a more upbeat and traditional J-pop/rock tune done in the style of Avril Lavigne. Though not as distinctive as the opener, it’s pleasant enough. Also supporting the series is superior use of sound effects; just the sounds of what Lucy does to some of the people she kills is enough to make many viewers squeamish, and great attention to detail is paid in the use of background noise. Even without a Dolby 5.1 or DTS track, this is a series which begs to be played on a system with surround-sound capabilities.

If Elfen Lied has a weak point, it’s in its vocal tracks. Most of the English voices actors are long-time ADV regulars, with only Adam Conlon (as Kohta) being a relative newcomer; you might have also heard him as Noboru in the English dub of Voices of a Distant Star. They are all well-cast, but the performances are generally a bit flat. The root of this problem is a concerted effort to mimic the original Japanese performances, which were also a bit flat. Kira Vincent-Davies in particular is dead-on as both aspects of Lucy/Nyu, but that isn’t saying much since her character doesn’t vocalize much. ADV’s dub can take the blame for the English script, however, which strays farther than is necessary from the subtitles, to the point that the meaning of some dialogue is altered. I don’t see this as a major problem, but it won’t sit well with sub-favoring fans. On the upside, sign subtitling is automatically on for the dub unless it’s manually turned off in the Settings menu, which becomes relevant in the early stages of the first episode.

Extras on the first volume consist of standard fare like a textless opener and closer (though the opener is certainly worth watching textless), company previews, and extensive displays of character and production art set to music. In what is becoming common practice for ADV, a preview of Volume 2, which automatically plays after the last episode, is also present. The liner notes include a short interview with Mamoru Kanbe, the Executive Director. Fair warning, though, this interview does include spoilers, and not just for this volume.

Elfen Lied is an impact title, one of those rare anime which makes such a strong impression that it will, for better or worse, linger in your mind long after you’ve first seen it. If future volumes live up to the artistic, musical, and storytelling standards set by the first volume then this series has the potential to be one of the best releases of 2005. The intensity of the graphic content may make it too extreme for even some mature viewers, but it’s a title which should be on the shelf of any otaku with a high tolerance for graphic violence.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A

+ Superior music, sound effects, and background art, stunning opening sequence
− vocals are a bit flat on both language tracks

Yuka and Kohta convince Mayu to stay with them and Nyu at their place by more or less adopting her, while Nyu’s visit to college with them results in unexpected and dangerous complications. When Nyu turns up missing in the wake of that incident, Yuka and Kohta set out to look for her, only to be caught in a rainstorm that winds up bringing them closer together. Lucy is now afoot, though, and doesn’t seem happy with current developments. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that Lucy and Kohta have a past connection, and it isn’t a good one. How will Kohta deal with that?

Meanwhile Mayu has some chance encounters which, unknown to her, put her in great potential danger.

Review:

This volume, which consists of episodes 5-7, slides away from the horror and action emphasis of the first volume in favor of a predominant emphasis on character and plot development. Though the series remains quite serious and plays most scenes straight, the flavor of anime romantic comedies continues to linger; the living arrangements are gradually developing in a haremesque direction, for instance, and the way Yuka reacts to Kohta at times reminds one strongly of any number of past romantic comedies. Unlike in true romantic comedies, though, the signs of Yuka’s frustration with Kohta are often subtle and muted, and the overall tone is too dark for the series to qualify as any kind of romance or comedy. The romantic story between Yuka and Kohta, while it does get heavier treatment in this volume, is still merely a sidelight to the main plot rather than the focus of it. Equally as important are the revelations of the very disturbing reasons why Mayu is a runaway and the heartwarming way she responds to the offer of Yuka and Kohta. We also get to see more character development for Bandoh, Lucy, and even NANA—yes, she’s an important character in this volume despite the fact that she was apparently dead at the end of the last one.

Oh, there are still bits of intense gore, action, and horror-themed tension to these episodes, but those elements come in much smaller doses. The most fascinating elements of this volume are the way characters shift in and out of states of psychosis and the different ways which characters come up with to cope with incidences of extreme trauma. Further hints are dropped about the suggested past connection between Kohta and Lucy, enough so that a viewer can come to some rather ugly conclusions about what really happened several years ago that caused Kohta to repress some of his memories. The full truth will have to wait for a later volume, though. More is also explained about the nature of Lucy and NANA, though whether their nature truly makes them a threat to mankind or whether their threat is a product of the way they have been treated is left unclear. As with the first volume, the writers make a concerted effort to always end episodes on cliffhangers. The one at the end of this volume is a doozy, and the fact that you can see it coming a minute or more in advance only heightens the anticipation. I am quite intrigued to see where the story goes next.

As with the first volume, Vector Two is a technical and artistic marvel. It is one of the best-looking anime series currently in circulation, with sharp, well-detailed backgrounds perfectly supporting somewhat cutesy but very well-rendered character designs, with a vibrant palette of colors bringing both to life. Of particular note in this volume is the striking use of red highlights in the dark and muted mountainside temple setting in episode 6 and the visual contrast between the normal and psychotic states of certain characters. Animation is smooth, clean, and mostly devoid of shortcuts, with minor support from CG effects and an emphasis on facial expressions. Fan service continues to be used liberally, and its use is very edgy in one case. All the actual nudity appears in episode 5 and the stylish opener and closer art.

As good as the artistry is, Elfen Lied is unquestionably the best-sounding anime production to date. Its wonderful musical score ably supports each scene, but even more important is its well-balanced sound mixing. This is a series which must be heard on a surround-sound system to be fully appreciated, one where off-screen sounds coming out of the rear speakers give scenes a convincing three dimensional sound effect. The stellar Latin opening number, respectable J-rock closer, and eerie menu themes don’t hurt either.

The English and Japanese dub performances in Vector Two are distinct improvements over the first volume, though this could partly be because this block of episodes gives more characters a broader emotional range. Most English casting choices are both a good match for the role and for the original performance, with only Andy MacAvin as Director Kakuzawa sounding a bit off. The English dub in general is solid, with the only flaw being a distinct reduction in background murmurs in one college lecture hall scene in episode 5—but you have to be listening closely to both dubs to catch this. As with the first volume, ADV’s English script takes a few liberties with the translation. Most of the time this isn’t going to be a problem for anyone other than diehard purists, but it does result in a handful of scenes where the meaning varies a little between the dub and subs. (This is particularly noticeable during a confrontation between NANA and Bandoh in episode 7.) Fortunately none of this affects major plot points.

The extras for this volume are a duplicate of the set found on the first volume: clean opener and closer, company previews, and extensive (if somewhat repetitive) sets of character and production art. A preview of volume 3 is also included, continuing a recent trend by ADV. Included in the case is a reversible cover and brief commentary by series composer Takao Yoshioka, who might be known to American fans for his work on Happy Lesson and Mezzo.

Though Vector Two lacks the “WHAM-BANG!” opening punch of Vector One, it acquits itself quite well in its examination of core characters, its handling of situations both dark and romantic, and its maintenance of top-rate artistic and production values. It is not as graphic as the first volume, but still an edgy title intended exclusively for mature audiences. More importantly, it reaffirms Elfen Lied’s position as one of the year’s top series releases.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-

+ Top-rate artistic, animation, and sound merits.
− English script takes some liberties.

The Director authorizes the use of Number 35, the deadliest of all the Diclonius, to hunt down Lucy, but Kurama has his own ideas about how to handle matters. Meanwhile, Nana struggles to adjust to life with Kohta and crew and reconcile herself to the fact that Nyu may be the same body but not the same personality that she fears. But the hunt for the escaped Diclonius makes bloody confrontations inevitable, and this time Kohta does not remain oblivious to what – and who – Lucy/Nyu really is. What dark memories will be aroused when he finally sees Lucy’s true nature? What is the full extent of their past connection? All will be revealed in this final volume.

Review:

The year’s edgiest and most intensely graphic series concludes with a trio of episodes which resolve most of the major plot threads, serves up a couple of surprises, and finally reveal the full truth behind the incident in Kohta’s past which caused him to lose part of his memory – and no, that isn’t one of the surprises, since anyone who’s been following the series to this point should at least partially anticipate that revelation. A couple of points are brought up in the final few minutes which strongly imply that there’s a lot more story to tell, but then the series ends on a note of anticipation. This will doubtless frustrate many fans, and a few plot points are left hanging, but overall the ending feels right. Kurama’s story is resolved in the only reasonable way it could be resolved given what leads up to it, and while some may question Kohta’s reaction to finally realizing who Lucy/Nyu really is, it does not feel at all out of character.

The healthy doses of nudity and gory deaths in Elfen Lied (and this volume is no exception) invite comparisons to Gantz, but whereas the latter is almost pure sensationalism framed within an action-oriented story, Elfen Lied is a true horror story with some romantic elements mixed in. Sure, it’s got its shock value, but it also has a bit more story, a lot more substance, and tremendously better pacing. The background of Lucy showcases the stress factors that can shape one already predisposed toward psychosis into a monstrous killer, while the contrasting case of NANA shows how the influence of, and belief in, a father figure can shape one so predisposed in an entirely more socially acceptable direction. The extreme dichotomy between the Lucy and Nyu personalities, when combined with the final bits of background revealed in this volume, raises the possibility that Nyu’s absolute innocence may be less a writing gimmick than a plausible psychological reaction to feelings of extreme guilt on the part of Lucy. Events revealed in this block of episodes also suggest that Kohta’s motivations for taking all these girls under his wing might run much deeper than his character being a typical anime nice guy. The writers also didn’t forget an important rule of horror tales: some of the scariest and most disturbing villains are cute children filled with malicious intent and/or a callous disregard for human life.

One should not be quick to overrate the depth and complexity of the storytelling, however. This is still a pretty straightforward story loaded with plenty of nude girls (even in the opener and closer!), bodies getting torn in half, and various body parts exploding to satisfy those with more prurient interests. The victims in this volume aren’t always adults, either, so the series is still nearly as edgy as it was in the previous two volumes. On the more pleasant side, seeing the subtlety in Yuka’s envious reactions to Kohta’s friendliness with the other girls, instead of the bombastic reactions we normally get in such situations in anime, is a refreshing change of page.

While other top-end titles may surpass Elfen Lied in writing, it has few equals in technical categories. This is some of the sharpest and prettiest traditional anime artistry to be found in any anime series, especially in its detailed renditions of backgrounds and strikingly vivid (but never garish) use of color. Character designs beyond Lucy are unoriginal, but that can easily be overlooked given how exceptionally well-rendered they are, and the series continues to do a great job in visually differentiating between the Lucy and Nyu personalities through alterations to her expression, posture, and manner of movement. Even the gore is very well-handled, though it cannot be stressed enough that the series pulls no punches on showing it. Animation is also amongst the best of recent series; the only obvious CG effects are the vectors used by Diclonius, but movements are consistently smooth and fight scenes lack typical anime shortcuts. The only reasonable complaint here is that the series slightly overuses flashbacks in the final volume, but do keep an eye out for a brief flash scene showing how Kurama’s life with his wife and daughter might have gone had Mariko not been born as a Diclonius. (It passes by so fast that you’ll have to slow it down just to comprehend what you’re seeing.) Let’s not forget the beautifully-drawn opener, either.

In its sound production Elfen Lied is in a class by itself. There may not be a better-sounding animated series that’s ever been made, in this or any other year or country, nor one which better-exploits a surround sound system. Some of the credit for that goes to a top-rate soundtrack based around the soulful, elegant Latin opening theme “Lilium” (which, as it turns out, is actually a plot device) and buttressed by suitably creepy or dramatic musical scoring in other places. It’s in the use of background noise and sound effects, and the way everything is balanced between multiple speakers, where the sound production truly excels, though. This is a Hollywood blockbuster-caliber effort.

ADV’s English dub, originally the weak point of the series, has made great strides since the first volume. While the English casting has always produced very good matches for the original Japanese voices, the performances at the beginning were a little weak. The voice work has steadily improved since then, partly because the VAs have clearly found their respective characters’ proper tones and partly because the Japanese vocals they were patterned from have also improved. The last three volumes also give the VAs more of an opportunity to show off their characters’ emotions, and this is generally done well. The English script still wanders a bit, but it is tighter than it was in early volumes.

As with previous volumes, ADV serves up a good set of extras with this one. Clean opener and closer, extensive character and production artwork, and company previews are once again present. The special feature this time is a collection of cover artwork from the Japanese DVD releases, while the liner notes explain the translation and composition of the lyrics for “Lilium:” they’re an amalgamation of phrases taken from Biblical verses, hymns, and Nicholas Melchior’s Alchemical Mass. A reversible cover is also present, and the creepy sound effects used on the menu screens of past volumes are back.

Elfen Lied is definitely not for everyone. This isn’t a series that children should be anywhere near, and it’s not for the prudish, squeamish, or anyone else that doesn’t have a very high tolerance for nudity, extreme graphic violence, or general cruelty. For those who can handle it, though, it is a horror series of exceptional merit, and its final volume does the series justice.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A

+ Best-ever sound production, outstanding artistic merits, oodles of intensely gory violence.
− The ending may leave many fans unsatisfied.

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Top anime alternate list


1. Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood
2. Fullmetal Alchemist
3. Death Note
4. Cowboy Bebop
5. Code Geass
6. Code Geass R2
7. Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann
8. Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
9. Eureka Seven
10. Baccano!
11. Last Exile
12. Samarai Champloo
13. RahXephon
14. Mushishi
15. Monster
16. Neon Genesis Evangelion
17. The Vision of Escaflowne
18. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
19. Eden of the East & Movies
20. The Twelve Kingdoms

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Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood


In a decision between Monty Python’s Flying circus 16-ton and Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, i went with Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood.  Monty Python’s Flying Circus from 1974 is a tad dated.

In 2003, Studio BONES produced an anime adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist, a shonen series from relatively new mangaka Hiromu Arakawa. The end result was a smash hit for both Japanese and American audiences, ranking #20 in TV Asahi’s list of the Top 100 most popular anime, and continuing to run on Adult Swim for years after its incredibly successful initial run with longtime anime fans and non-fans alike, becoming a gateway title to otakudom somewhat comparable to Cowboy Bebop and Spirited Away. For all its acclaim, however, a fair amount of fans were displeased with the adaptation’s severe divergence from the original manga.

Brotherhood seeks to rectify this complaint with a retelling of Ed and Al’s quest to regain their lost bodies, this time in strict accordance with the events of the manga, which is now nearing completion. The revisited epic jumps to an electrifying start, following the brothers from their tragic origins up through their first encounter with the self-proclaimed homunculus, Greed…

Review:

It would be nice to have written a real plot summary to preface this review, it would be nice to pretend everyone doesn’t know the synopsis already, and as such, it would be nice to discard the first anime adaptation of FMA and take Brotherhood completely at face value. It’s the only way to gauge an adaptation’s worth as a work unto itself, after all. Unfortunately, this series makes it clear from episode one that it doesn’t want to be taken in through fresh eyes, but rather, squeals of nostalgia. Like its predecessor, Brotherhood’s begins its pilot in media res, but instead of doing this as a way to establish the cast and the world they live in, this is really an excuse to cram as many well-known characters and their catchphrases into one episode as possible. This does not feel like the first episode to a fantastic journey, it plays like an episode of Saturday Night Live where retired cast members come back for a cameo and only those who recognize them laugh at the skit. Of course there is a great deal of action, the story is well underway, and some character establishment is present, but “establishing” that “ha ha, Ed is short” at least four times in ten minutes makes this easy to forget.

Speaking of casting, fans of the Japanese version of FMA may be at odds with the casting choices here. Romi Paku, Rie Kugimiya, and Keiji Fujiwara return as Ed, Al, and Hughes respectively, but the majority of the characters have been recast, and many, notably Mustang’s new seiyuu, sound wholly different from their original voices. Still, no complaint can be found with the acting as of yet, and this goes for the dub as well. With the notable exceptions of Dameon Clarke and Aaron Dismuke, the entire English cast, down to some incidentals like comedic vagrant Yoki, returns here and mostly sound as if they’ve never left, which is a very good thing if the glowing reception for the previous dub is any indication. J. Michael Tatum takes over Clarke’s place as Scar, playing the role quite differently but for good reason: Scar is a very different character in this version of the story. Maxey Whitehead takes over the post-pubescent Dismuke’s role as Al, and while still clearly not Dismuke, does a remarkable job emulating his voice. What’s more important, of course, is that she fill the part dramatically, regardless of her vocal quality, and in that regard, they could not have found a better replacement for Aaron’s great performance in the first series. The english cast is also responsible for the only noteworthy extras on this release: a pair of commentaries, wherein we are introduced to the talented Maxey Whitehead and everyone discusses Tesla and anachronistic rotary telephones. Thanks to the breakneck pace of the show, nearly all the main cast makes an appearance somewhere in these first thirteen episodes, so viewers can judge for themselves what to think overall.

This is a party held for the fans, and the more diehards you can pack into a room to watch this series, the more enjoyable it will be. This is highly recommended, because viewed alone with the fanboy (or girl) switch off, the very first episode is borderline terrible. By episode three, there is no borderline. Now portraying these events for a third time and striving to do it uniquely, Brotherhood plows through key emotional moments just before shattering them with poorly placed humor, all the while dogged by music so uninspired and distracting, it sounds suspiciously like a mix from Pro Scores tacked on far too late in the game. In fact, the musical score of Brotherhood has got to be its highest detriment. This series’ fear of silence is astounding, and overly grandiose choral music or piping loops of orchestral mediocrity blare through scenes that were more effective without them…just compare to the other, quieter anime. It is honestly embarrassing. By episode 4 the series has shown signs of restraint, but it’s not yet doing anything that the first anime and the manga did not do better, because it can’t seem to decide between the two mediums in its execution.

With the exception of its celebratory premiere episode, this series is everything that the fans have hoped for: a transcription of the original manga, nearly by the panel, with elements and events added in occasionally to pad for time or speed it up and substitute chapters like the train hijacking or the Youswell coalmines already covered faithfully in the first anime. It seems loyal to its source manga to a fault, playing out like a pan of various comic panels and lapsing into super-deformity and screaming for nearly a third of every episode, but the places it chooses to step out and improvise are much worse. Case in point: by the time Father Cornello turns into the Hulk, exhaustion and confusion have replaced all initial fanthusiasm, never mind any poor newcomer who happened to stumble upon the raucous mess. Once the dust has cleared, this series has covered roughly 33 episodes of the first anime’s material in its first 13, or to be more accurate, 7 volumes of manga.

Still, to be fair…how many anime fans have not seen Fullmetal Alchemist or have at least had its entire plot spoiled for them by their friends who have? The franchise was lucrative enough to allow a viewership entirely of prior fans, and should they hold out past the garish introduction, the later episodes in this release are already improving. Al’s identity crisis and the brothers’ reunion with Izumi are handled well, and despite rough spots in execution, the story at Fullmetal’s heart is incredibly strong, and not even slipshod pacing and delivery can tarnish that by much. All complaints against this series are simply comparing it against an incredibly high pedigree, but it is still above average.

In truth, there are precisely three places this adaptation surpasses its predecessor. Adherence to the manga, obviously, which will be a more rewarding trait when new material is animated, and a budget sizable enough to make those coming episodes an incredible treat for all. Brotherhood carries a rounder and warmer look than its predecessor, with simpler character models that are both more fluid in animation and, of course, eerily exact to Arakawa’s illustrations, down to Ed’s puppyish downturned mouth when he’s being obstinate. It could even be argued that this sketchier, more velveteen look will lend the gorier events of the manga more tolerance than the original series, which is sometimes accused of being melodramatic. Whatever the case, a couple fights in these initial offerings are near feature-quality, and that’s reason enough for praise. Thirdly, a minor but appreciated detail, the opening and closing themes to the show are wonderful. FMA has had a number of catchy pop and rock themes grace its episodes, but YUI’s Again and SID’s USO are so good at conveying the heart of the story they play more like love letters to the series itself, assisted by some downright moving animation that proves this remake may be in good hands after all.

If those factors make it a superior series for certain fans, namely aficionados of the manga, then rejoice, because it will run for many more episodes to come. For those wishing to view it as standalone entertainment, however, it is floundering in its own self-indulgence, pleading for approval, and despite being fairly enjoyable for it, only has room to improve. With any luck, it probably will, and quickly. Until then, either the first anime or the manga should absolutely be experienced first, then this younger sibling can be given a fair shake.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : C+

+ Much higher production values for the well-loved story; an entirely new animal from the original while still maintaining the essence of the franchise, later episodes show promise
− Catered almost exclusively to prior fans, using its assured audience base to get away with a rushed, noisy, and tactless presentation that is “faithful” to a fault, earlier episodes are terrible

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood Blu-ray Part 2
BLURAY
Synopsis:
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood Blu-ray Part 2 BLURAY
Fuhrer King Bradley gets personally involved in dealing with Greed and his chimera soldiers, leading to a quick and messy solution which also results in Al regaining his memories from the time of the alchemical accident. In the wake of that incident, visitors from the distant eastern land of Xing arrive on the scene, one a prince (Lin) with his accompanying duo of warriors and the other a girl (May) with her accompanying mini-panda. Both have an interest in learning the secret of immortality to further their respective clans’ statuses in an upcoming bid to succeed the dying Xing Emperor and both bring with them the Eastern traditions of alcehestry (a variation of alchemy focused on medical arts), so both hook up with prominent Amestrian players – the former with Ed and Al, the latter with Scar. All get caught up in the ongoing schemes of the homunculi and their Father, although both Ed and Colonel Mustang bring their own schemes into play focused on drawing out the homunculi, learning the truth about a former comrade’s death, and learning just how far up the chain of command the influence of the homunculi goes. Amidst the battles, subterfuge, and occasional foolishness, a loyal soldier gets made a scapegoat, Winry gets to confront the man who killed her parents, someone loses an arm, others lose their lives, and Ed gets to confront Hohenheim, his father. A few people get eaten, too (and not always intentionally) and someone other than Gluttony eats a shoe.

Review:

In wrapping up the affair with Greed and his chimera soldiers, episode 14 also marks the end of Brotherhood’s quick replay through events covered in some form in the first TV series. With its closing scenes it heads off in a completely new direction, a move only further reaffirmed in episode 15 with the introduction of prominent characters who never appeared in the original series: the Xingese prince Lin (with servants Lan Fan and Fu) and princess May (with panda Shou Mei – actually they appeared briefly in an earlier episode, but this is their formal introduction). This expansion of the core cast provides ample additional opportunities for gags and slick action scenes and adds another cute girl into the mix (Lan Fan is quite the looker when not shrouded in ninja gear), but just as importantly, it also expands a setting that was originally relatively limited for as worldly as its story was. A different culture taking an entirely different mindset to alchemy is a quite sensible and intriguing development, one not explored at all by the original series, but as of the end of episode 26 it has been treated more as a curiosity than an element of major importance to the ongoing plot. More significant is the presence of Father, the mastermind behind the homunculi in this version of the story; he appeared very briefly in earlier episodes but has broader involvement here. The addition of the backstory involving the legendary city of Xerxes also adds a new wrinkle to the overall story, essentially replacing the role served by the underground city in Conqueror of Shamballa.

Not all of the new direction involves new characters and story elements. Barry the Chopper, who was arguably the most colorful of the antagonists in the original series, gets a substantially expanded role as he works with the good guys, while the character who was the homunculus Pride in the first series becomes Wrath in this one, the barely-seen Sloth is entirely different, and the heard-but-not-seen Pride also seems to have an entirely different identity. Some of the prominent subordinate soldiers get caught up in much messier complications and Scar’s backstory is expanded, including connecting him to an event portrayed in the first series that previously did not explicitly involve him. Unfortunately, though, those expansions fail to make Scar a more interesting character. The same cannot be said of King Bradley, who gets some sharp new action sequences and background development which fleshes him out better. Winry gets some new scenes, too, although only one of them has more than a negligible impact. (That one scene is arguably the strongest dramatic moment in the series to date, however.)

Freed of the constraints of having to paraphrase big chunks of the original series, this new material progresses smoothly and at a brisk pace, creating a very fluid and dynamic story in which multiple things are always going on at the same time. Though these episodes still retain the full frequency of (supposedly) humorous asides, they have little downtime; nearly everything that happens feels like it fits into the bigger picture, and the episode content rarely wastes time on needless distractions. Yes, there are flashback scenes, but unlike the producers of Naruto and Bleach, the producers of this one actually understand how to use such scenes without bogging down the story with them. The producers never forget through this run that this is, at heart, an action-based shonen action series, either, as it provides plenty enough spectacular action sequences, with plenty enough variety, to satisfy any action junkie. Those who like their graphic content will not be disappointed, either, as plenty of bloodletting can be found here and some scenes (especially the death scene of one of the homunculi) border on gruesome. Plot developments over the course of this block make it clear that, for all that has happened so far, these are just the first stages of a much longer story, and based on what is going on at the end of this set, it should continue to be an interesting one for quite some time.

Most would say that the visuals are an upgrade from the first series, and indeed these episodes have many especially sharp moments; Envy’s true form is quite the impressive monster, battle scenes are typically visual spectacles, and flashback scenes use some neat coloring effects which focus on the eye colors of involved characters. New additions to the cast vary between respectable designs and semi-caricature. On the downside, flaws in the integration between character animation and background art are commonly noticeable (at least on Blu-Ray, anyway) and silly moments sometimes go too far into superderformed caricature. The animation shines in the fight scenes but it is more ordinary elsewhere.

Although the first TV series was no slouch in the music department, Brotherhood’s musical score may be even better. Directed by Akira Senju, the same man who turned in such a wonderful effort on Red Garden, it delivers a rich, deep, and effective sound clearly made with advanced digital stereo equipment in mind. It is heavy, thrilling, creepy, or silly as needed, and unlike many other anime scores it knows how to be dramatic and full-bodied while stopping just shy of going overboard. Its original opener and closer remain through episode 14 before being replaced by “Hologram” and “Let It Out” respectively in episode 15; the former is a decent number which is a straight-up replacement for the first opener, while the latter is a more adult contemporary-styled number whose tone and lyrics serve as such a perfect round-out for many of the episodes that it stands among the year’s best closers.

Funimation’s English dub for the original series was a strong one, and the vast majority of the original cast reprises their roles here. Maxey Whitehead is a good-as-could-be-hoped-for replacement for the aged-out Aaron Dismuke; she has slipped into the voice and role well by this point, shaking off the tentativeness heard in the earliest episodes. Contrarily, J. Michael Tatum is an adequate but far less impressive replacement for Dameon Clarke as Scar. Perhaps the best performance in this run belongs to Jerry Jewel for his nigh-unrecognizable, gleefully twisted take on Barry the Chopper, but many other performers shine, too, including the vocally-flexible Chris Cason as Gluttony and especially Ed Blaylock as King Bradley, a role in which he skillfully embodies a sense of his real identity’s name without ever making him sound crazed or evil. Personal preference may still reign in the key roles, but the English performances and minor script adjustments lose nothing in comparison to the original Japanese dub.

Funimation’s Blu-Ray transfer, which is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec, looks decent but unimpressive as such transfers go, especially considering how recent the animation is. It excels most in its sharp coloring but suffers from some of the same minor visual flaws that the first set had, although only those with top-grade equipment and picky eyes are likely to notice. The presentation makes very good use of lossless audio tracks, especially in the English dubbed version; you’ll want a good stereo system to fully appreciate this one. On the downside, a viewer can only switch between audio tracks via the main menu and the Japanese dub seems to be hard-subbed – both major annoyances for those who wish to flip back and forth between dubs or watch the English dub with subtitles on. (Thankfully, this has not been a common practice with Funi Blu-Ray releases beyond this series.) On-disk Extras include clean opener and closer for the new set and a pair of audio commentaries for the English dub, both featuring line producer Mike “Havoc” McFarland; episode 14’s also features Vic Mignogna and Chris “Greed” Patton, while episode 23’s features Monica “May” Rial, Trish “Lan Fan” Nishamura, and Todd “Ling” Haberkorn. The latter is, naturally, a little sillier (Monica is involved, after all), but both mostly stay on-topic.

The big question that still remains is whether or not this new version of Fullmetal Alchemist, given that it has now shown some new content, is clearly better than the original. The answer should be irrelevant; why don’t fans just enjoy the fact that they get to see a whole bunch more fresh FMA content and leave it at that? Does it really need to matter that this version sticks with the original manga, while the original veered off on its own? Unfortunately that does matter to a significant chunk of fandom, so let’s look at the two. Brotherhood is unquestionably an even flashier and more graphic show than the original and tells a grander and broader story with upgraded sound and animation. Its emphasis is more firmly on the action and graphic content, however, at the expense of the philosophizing done in the original. The recurring underlying theme about how power should walk hand-in-hand with responsibility – and how abuse and calamity happen when it doesn’t – that was so prominent in the original series is far less in evidence here (at least so far). While this loss of substance has gotten mostly washed over by the hyped-up action, it is still evident and may hurt the series’ depth, comparatively speaking, in the long run. Taking the silly asides to greater extremes is not necessarily a Good Thing, either, unless the viewer is already a fan of that style of humor in the manga. Overall, this second series has proven quite good and entertaining so far, but claiming that it blows the first series out of the water is an exercise in hyperbole.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A

+ Superb musical score, good English dub, great action sequences, new content.
− Apparently hard-subbed, some art integration issues, sacrifices some depth.

Ed and Ling (and Envy, too) reemerge from Gluttony’s gut to be reunited with Al, only to discover that Al was in the process of meeting with the figure the Homunculi refer to as “Father” – who happens to look exactly like Hohenheim! All Hell breaks loose when Scar and May Chang also show up. In the wake of that mess, Ed and Al get their formal introduction to Wrath and are warned not to stick their noses too far into Homunculi business lest those they care about (i.e. Winry) be endangered. After a talk with Hawkeye, who fills in the gaps for Ed about the awful story of putting down the uprising in Ishval, Ed comes to the conclusion that he and Al’s best chance to get their bodies back involves studying alcehestry – and to do that they have to track down May Chang. Their quest leads them north to Brigg’s Wall, Amestris’s border-guarding northern fortress, where Major Armstrong’s sister, Major General Oliver Mira Armstrong, reigns over a harsh, tough bunch. There they encounter the Homunculus Sloth, discover that Solf Kimblee, the Crimson Alchemist, has been freed from jail and set on Scar’s path, and piece together something of the full truth about a grand plan for Amestris which spans centuries. Things get more complicated when Winry is brought to the scene (to reinforce her hostage status) and Scar shows up, but under the circumstances can the Elric brothers even consider him an enemy this time? And who else can they really trust?

Meanwhile, back in Central, Hawkeye has a very scary run-in with Pride as she struggles to maintain safety and sanity in her status as a walking hostage against Mustang, while Mustang calls in an old friend for help. On another front, Hohenheim contemplates finally taking action himself.

Review:

This set, which spans episodes 27-39, begins with a reflective piece focused on Hohenheim which is about 80% recap of the first 26 episodes and 20% delving into Hohenheim’s own motivations. After that, though, things really begin to sizzle, and quickly. Though the next twelve episodes occasionally pause for a retrospective piece, such as further revealing reflections by Hohenheim and Hawkeye’s account of her past and the events in Ishval, they otherwise charge forward with a tightly-packed regimen of action, scheming, and menace. Want to see the sum and substance of what makes this version of the story great? Check out these episodes.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this span of episodes is that it is nearly devoid of side stories. Other than the recap episode, nearly every scene in every episode is somehow related to the bigger overall plot lines. Even the content of its retrospective pieces is directly relevant to current events. For instance, what happened in Ishval shaped the current attitudes of characters like Major Armstrong and Hawkeye; seeing the boisterous Armstrong so downcast and the unwaveringly firm Hawkeye so dead-eyed from what they had to do there is heartbreaking. Hawkeye also gets another one of this season’s best sequences in her harrowing encounter with Pride (it may not be who you expected it to be) and how much it shakes her in the aftermath. That, combined with the thinly-veiled threats cast against Winry to keep the Elric brothers in line, the disturbing scheming of General Raven, and the overwhelming power of Father, gives this series a sense of menace well beyond what the first TV series ever achieved and a tightness to the writing not as evident earlier in the series.

The scheming is another big draw here. The earlier episodes dropped plenty of hints that some kind of grand plan was going on behind the scenes in Amestris, but not until this block of episodes do viewers start to get a sense of what that plan actually is. The scope of it is mind-boggling, but one would expect nothing less from a shonen series running a single main plotline over the course of 64 episodes. Its intricacy and execution so far do an excellent job of getting viewers interested and giving the Elric brothers and their allies an awesome problem to confront and difficult foes to defeat; too often shonen series depend primarily on having personally uber-powerful Big Bad Guys at the core of things to provide the full threat value (and this one does, to an extent, have one in Father – seeing Scar completely flummoxed by an individual foe is a treat), but here the systemic corruption that the Elrics, Mustang, and others must contend with is even more daunting, and that is a challenge that most other shonen series lack.

These episodes offer some great characters and character development, too. While the highlights may be Winry’s Round 2 with Scar and the aforementioned scenes with Hawkeye, we also get to see that Hohenheim is not the uncaring, irresponsible bastard that he earlier appeared to be; he is a man who does care but simply does not know how to relate to other people, even his own progeny. We get to see more of the pasts of Hawkeye and Mustang and understand how they hooked up (and get some suggestion that Hawkeye may have her own alchemy-related secrets, unlike in the first series) and see Scar start to question more deeply the nature of his own actions. Ling also heads in an interesting direction, the consequences of which will, no doubt, have an impact for the rest of the series. Pride finally pops up in physical form, and Sloth gets some feature scenes as he figures into a couple of episodes big-time, but the bigger treat is new character Olivier Mira Armstrong, who is cut from the classic hard-ass mold but is also insightful and impressively righteous in her convictions for all of her “this is a harsh place where you must be strong to survive” bluster. Kimblee’s expanded role is, by comparison, a disappointment, as he simply does not come across as aggressively evil enough to be exciting and does not cut it as a manipulator.

Of course, Fullmetal Alchemist would not be what it is without its action scenes and humor, though this season does not have as many pitched battles as earlier 13-episode sets. This season’s regular episodes open with one of the most intense and hairy battles to date, a multi-sided affair which eventually involves the Homunculi, Father, Scar, May Chang, Ling, chimeras, and the Elric brothers, but then lays off on the heavy-duty action for a while until a Scar/Kimblee battle comes up and Sloth’s burrowing results in a heaping amount of trouble for everyone involved. Along the way the series offers no shortage of humorous asides, some of which continue to be annoying in the same way that they were earlier in the series while others sparkle (General Armstrong’s comments about the stolen food several years earlier, for instance).

The artistry and technical merits remain on par with what has been seen previously in this series: very sharp most of the time but not without weak points and occasional brief visual flaws. Highlights here include the aforementioned tweaks to character designs in the flashback episodes, Pride’s horrifying nature, Olivier’s character design, certain automail mechanical designs, and some color contrasts and uses of gray in the mining town in the later episodes. On the downside, the minimal variance in facial structures, especially in female character designs, becomes more noticeable in these episodes. The musical score also maintains the same high standards seen earlier in the series, with highlights here including the ominous vocals used in various places. New opener “Golden Time Lover” is a decent but bland pop song, while new closer “Tied Hands,” which primarily features Winry in its visuals, is solid but not quite up to the level of “Let it out.” Both get more up-tempo replacements for episode 39.

Recurring roles in the English dub continue to do either mediocre or stand-out jobs, as established by earlier volumes. Caitlin Glass and Todd Haberkorn in particular get some additional nice work as Winry and Ling, respectively, while Scar still is the weak link. Amongst new roles, Stephanie Young is a suitable fit as Olivier and Troy Baker makes a good-sounding new incarnation of Greed. Patrick Seitz so subsumes himself into the role of Sloth that he is unlikely to be recognized.

The thirteen episodes of the Blu-Ray version of this release come on two disks in a now-standard 9-4 distribution. Extras on the disks include clean opener and closer on the second disk and one English audio commentary on each disk, one for episode 28 and the other for episode 36. Both feature line producer Mike McFarland hosting 2-3 of the English voice actors and predominately stick rather closely to the series. Both disks also have the now-standard but no less irritating arrangement of not allowing one to shift between the vocal tracks without going out to the Set-Up menu and providing no option to view the dub with subtitles on. The disk encoding uses an AVC/MPEG-4 codec with 1080p/24 resolution, producing a picture that still has minor glitches for visual nitpickers but generally looks a little better than the earlier two sets. The Japanese track uses lossless Dolby TrueHD 2.0, while the English track uses Dolby TrueHD 5.1. The latter give a little fuller surround sound experience.

Funimation’s release of this set, perhaps not coincidentally, nearly coincides with the series’ return to TV broadcast of new episodes on Adult Swim, and perhaps also not coincidentally, the next set is due out around the time that the AS broadcast will hit the end of this set. If done intentionally, that seems like a fairly effective marketing gimmick. In general, though, of the sets that have come along so far, this is the one most worth owning.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-

+ Generally strong English dub, great musical score, very involving.
− Apparently hard-subbed, some minor artistic integration issues.

Events in the North come to a head when Ed’s group and Kimblee finally clash, but before the final blow can fall Kimblee gets new orders: carve the crest of blood at Briggs. The nationwide transmutation circle is almost complete and the new turn of events soon has “Father”‘s staunchest opponents, Ed and Al, separated. With every soldier in Amestris on their tails, the two, along with a few unlikely allies, must make their separate ways to Central and to the heart of the evil that threatens their nation. They’re not alone. Olivier Armstrong and Roy Mustang both have plans for Amestris’s capital, and neither plan is particularly beneficial to the powers that be, King Bradley and Father included. The coup is on, and Central will burn.

Review:

If you want a demonstration of what a shonen adventure is like when it’s done exactly right, you can’t go wrong with Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Especially now. It has always, at least since its somewhat rushed opening episodes, been a funny, exciting, occasionally wrenching action series of epic scope and deceptive depth. But it’s here during the opening strains of its nearly twenty-episode climax that it opens the throttle all the way and really comes into its own.

Of course, this being the show’s penultimate set, it isn’t all climactic acceleration. There’s a good deal of maneuvering to be done and secrets to be revealed before the show can wind up for its final blow-out. It’s in this period that we finally learn Hohenheim’s past, and Father’s. That Ed and Al go their separate ways, create their separate alliances, and demonstrate their separate strengths. That Dr. Marcoh settles his score with Envy, and Greed breaks with his homunculi brethren. That the boys reconcile with their father and make their final preparations for the Promised Day. There’s humor along the way (most memorably during Ed and Winry’s ill-timed reunion), and intrigue, and poignancy (most strongly in Al’s return to Liore). Brotherhood navigates this all with the same loose-jointed ease with which it has navigated nearly all of its many plot turns and mood shifts, plunking us almost carelessly down right on the brink of the siege of Central.

Whereupon it screams downhill into a pit of tightly-controlled chaos.

It’s in that pit that the true mettle of Brotherhood’s creators is tested. The siege of Central is an enormous undertaking during which dozens of characters, a half-dozen plot lines, and nearly as many fragmenting and recombining fights are juggled simultaneously with the inexorable advance of the main plot. That takes skill to pull off—a lot of it. And surprisingly, Brotherhood has it. As charming as that loose-jointed feel was, it gave little indication that the series would handle a Byzantine monster like the siege particularly well. But director Yasuhiro Irie and screenwriter Hiroshi Ohnogi orchestrate Hiromu Arakawa’s epic climax with a clean ease that is truly eye-opening. Armies of undead dolls, the various homunculi, Central’s disordered soldiers and their even more disordered leadership, Mustang and Olivier’s factions, Ed’s group, Al’s group, the Xingese warriors, the Ishvali dissidents, Father, and a few unaffiliated faces from the past—Irie and Ohnogi keep them all moving with miraculous clarity as they bounce off of each other, joining and parting and striving each for their own ends in their own distinctive ways. It’s a narrative balancing act of daunting skill, nearly as thrilling and beautifully choreographed as the fights that result from it.

It’s also a narrative balancing act that necessitates a few transparent devices. The ways in which it delays and otherwise occupies some of the factions while it focuses on others aren’t always artful. Ed and his crew’s long, pointless brawl with a legion of flesh-eating mannequins is the worst of them, though the pitifully unconvincing “death” used to keep King Bradley out of the fray is a close second. Such tactics are necessary, one knows, and can pay off most handsomely (especially about four episodes into the next volume), but that doesn’t stop them from also being irksome.

There are enough other rote elements scattered throughout this set to remind you that Brotherhood is indeed a shonen adventure, with all of the attendant trappings. Folks who somehow find the time for lengthy speeches on not leaving comrades behind or the relative efficacy of killing as opposed to sparing enemies in the midst of pitched battle, for instance. Or timely rescues by once-absent comrades. But the series gets so much else right that it’s positively curmudgeonly to hold that against it. It’s full of great little inventions, from Pride, a formless monster comprised of teeth and eyes swimming in jagged lakes of shadow, to the screeching, ravenous masses of eyeless man-dolls that make up Central’s “immortal legion” (among anime’s more unsettling sights, by the way). It’s populated with characters every one of whom, from the tertiary throwaways to the late additions to the big players, is written well enough that they could spearhead a lesser series on their own. Its world strikes a perfect balance of eerie mystery and explicit detail, and it never forgets its slightly goofy sense of humor (or its SD gags), even in its darkest, most disturbing hours—of which it has plenty.

And one shouldn’t forget the series’ sheer technical skill either. Hiroki Kanno provides simple and efficient, if occasionally slightly sloppy, designs for the characters to inhabit, just as Irie and his collaborators at BONES flesh out Brotherhood’s setting with superior backgrounds and complement its colorful, varied plot with vibrant, energetic visuals. Action scenes are pure showboating, full of “because we can” moments of sheer animated excess as characters leap, punch, slice, shoot, burn, detonate and generally wreak mayhem with every ounce of cinematic fluidity and substance that BONES can muster. Akira Senju’s score, for its part, is as vast, varied, unsettling, and beautiful as the series itself.

There’re no new characters added this set, so your impression of Funimation’s dub is unlikely to change for the better or the worse. It’s rock-solid work with just the occasional soft spot in it, perfectly capable of delivering every ounce of the series’ considerable impact intact. The script appears to be pretty tight, though it’s difficult to tell as the discs’ settings prevent one from watching the English version with the subtitles on.

For extras we have two episode-long commentary tracks, one for episode 40 and the other for episode 46. Each features ADR director Mike McFarland with a portion of the cast and is more informative than entertaining—just the way I like ’em. The bump in video quality, for the record, is worth the bump in price.

Filmmaking is a curious art. It’s as much a logistical exercise as an artistic one, its practitioners both artists and engineers. There are a good number of differences between the original Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, but if one had to choose just one, it would be that Fullmetal Alchemist was controlled by the engineers while Brotherhood was controlled by the artists. The original’s mechanical precision, its carefully measured ratios of action and tragedy and humor, are no coincidence. Brotherhood is the more organic of the two, ruled simply by what it wants to do rather than what it thinks it should. Which, by the serendipity peculiar to artistic efforts, results in it doing exactly what it should: Weaving an engrossing tale, the next chapter of which, thanks to this set’s roiling cauldron of intertwining schemes and destinies, cannot come soon enough.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : B+
Music : A-

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