Wolf’s Rain review


In a desolate future world, wolves have not been seen for 200 years and are supposedly extinct. However, they’ve simply taken on illusionary forms that make them appear human. When a white wolf named Kiba shows up in a run-down city, his proud attitude attracts the attention of other wolves—naïve, undersized Toboe; street-smart, carefree Hige; and gruff loner Tsume. Together they set out in search of a legendary Paradise, led only by Kiba’s instincts and the scent of a mysterious “Lunar Flower.” But does Paradise even exist? Many humans will stand in their way: soldiers, scientists, Nobles, and a hunter who has sworn vengeance against all wolves. If they are to ever find Paradise, they will have to risk their lives to get there.

Review:

Let’s say you’re a Wolf’s Rain fan who never got around to collecting all the DVDs. Or maybe you caught some of it on Cartoon Network and want to know the rest. Or maybe you just never saw the show, and wonder why everyone thinks it’s so great. Well, now’s the chance—Bandai has packaged all seven DVDs in one stylish box, and thrown in the soundtrack CD for good measure. It’s a fitting treatment for a series that takes the traditional hero’s journey and builds a new legend out of it. Set in a vivid modern-fantasy world, with remarkable characters and powerful emotions, Wolf’s Rain is a series that deserves the praise it gets.

The story of journeying towards a promised land has been around for thousands of years, but it’s amazing what a little creative thinking can do. At first glance, the world of Wolf’s Rain is just a patchwork of familiar elements in science fiction and fantasy: domed post-apocalyptic cities, ancient castles and keeps, snowcapped wastelands, even deserts inspired by the Wild West. It’s the sheer variety of these settings, however, that keeps things interesting. Also, the entire world is kept together by a consistent back-story: once you know what happened 200 years ago, it’s easy to understand why things the way they are.

Like a typical adventure, this story involves the interwoven quests of various characters—the wolves, the wolf hunter, the scientists, the Nobles—who all meet at the end. Combined, it forms one very epic, 30-episode chase. Although carefully planned, there are still some narrative hiccups: Episodes 15-18 are nothing but recaps, effectively killing the momentum, and there’s also the occasional plot hole where people (or wolves) instantly arrive somewhere without prior explanation.

But none of this would be complete without the characters. Even though the four wolves can all be described in one word—the leader, the loner, the goofball, the kid—their personalities and back-stories are developed enough to set up some very touching moments at the end. Individually, they seem like stereotypes, but as they travel together, they change each other and end up a very different pack. It’s this long-term character development that makes the final four episodes so emotionally powerful, even reaching out to affect the human characters too.

The visuals in this series showcase Studio BONES at their most imaginative, with beautiful backgrounds that depict settings from high-tech mysticism to urban decay to open wilderness. The character designs are equally striking: in their human form, the wolves wear contemporary outfits, making them the most accessible of all characters. This also helps scenes that demand a human range of expression; it would be a less engaging series if they were just a bunch of oversized dogs running around (plus, drawing animals all the time would be a nightmare for the animators). The production quality is also top-notch, with sharp lines and colors, and animation that’s convincingly smooth—just look at some of the fight scenes.

Yoko Kanno’s music score adds greatly to the show’s emotional impact; her melodies always carry a melancholy gracefulness whether they be orchestral pieces or pop songwriting. On the classical end, Kanno relies on lush strings to express the perils and pleasures of the journey, while insert songs in certain episodes convey emotion in a more direct way. However, it’s the Maaya Sakamoto ending song, “gravity,” that really shows how much feeling Kanno can pack into a piece. Touches of folk and world music round out the score, and on the soundtrack CD you’ll hear all of these varied styles.

The English dub for this series is one of the best ever done; each voice actor brings their character to life with a distinct personality. There is no single standout performance, but rather, everyone is consistently good—even those tricky emotional scenes are as heartfelt as the original. Interviews with the Japanese voice actors come as extras on the first two discs, but the English cast deserves just as much attention for their stellar work. The dub script, too, strikes that perfect balance between accuracy and smoothness, sticking closely with the original translation and re-wording only for clarity and impact.

Bandai’s black, angular box is a striking design that sets it apart from typical boxsets; the embossed Wolf’s Rain logo is a classy touch along with the usual character artwork on the exterior. Although it doesn’t open in the conventional way (slide the top half upwards), the design comfortably houses all the DVDs plus the CD and has a shape that will sit just fine on DVD shelves.

Wolf’s Rain is proof that old story ideas can still yield new experiences, as long as creators are willing to put their hearts and minds into it. This heroic journey would be, well, just another road trip were it not for deeply sympathetic characters and an epic setting that sparks the imagination. With eye-catching visuals bringing that world to life, and a music score that adds emotional depth to the tale, it’s no wonder that everyone thinks Wolf’s Rain is so great. This is one box that any fan will be proud to have on their shelf.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A-
Music : A

+ An epic, emotionally moving journey with artwork and music to match.
− Disrupted only by that 4-episode block of recaps halfway through.

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Top anime of the decade


Looking
back on 00′s: Part 1. Flow of 00′s
, Part
2: Marketing
by Muhootsaver

Series of posts on anime trends in the first decade of the 21st
century.

2000-2009
Part 1: Looking Back
by sdshamshel

Reflection on the trends of the decade.

Anime
decade: From ‘Japan Cool’ to ‘cooling off’

by Matt Alt

“I was surprised and shocked to witness the rise of anime in
the 1990s, and now I feel those same emotions again as I watch it
collapse in slow motion. Truly, the early 2000s timeline reads like
the plot of an epic novel with an appropriately apocalyptic anime
ending.”


2000-2009
– Decade Summary Part 1
by Psgels

Very detailed post listing top three shows for each year and
season with brief impressions.

Leaders
of the Pack: 2000-2009
by Omo

Well-described unordered list of favorites with some
retrospective.

Top
50 Anime Series of the Decade
by Gaguri

Excellent ordered list with over 4000 words, characterizing each
anime. This list inspired several other people to create their own
:)

50 animes of the
decade
by Sasa

Ordered list that includes many all-time favorites as well.

Top
50 Anime of the decade
by Cokematic

Ordered list that also includes anime movies and OVAs.

Super Exhaustive
2000-2009 Anime List with Notes so You will Learn
by Tj_han

List with brief impressions by genre.

Anime
Favorites: 2000-2009
by Animekritik

Heading to a deserted island? Take these five shows with you
:)

My Top 20 OVAs,
Movies
, Series
of the Decade 2000-2009 by Chii

Ordered lists that feature some not very widely-known anime.

Best
of the Noughties – 25 Favourite Anime
by J1m0ne

“…a good show should always be a good show no matter
the subject matter and the intended audience.”

Top
10 Anime Films of the Decade [2000-2009]
by Cello

Ordered list with links to full reviews.

200
(+) Anime Worth Taking With Us Into the Next Decade
by
21stcenturydigitalboy

“a list of every single worthwhile anime of the past
decade.”

Last
post of 2009: Anime decade lists, To my readers and Happy Holidays!

by Canne

Top five anime series, movies, and OPs

Recapping
the decade 2000-2009
by Miz

Selection of anime by year with commentary.

Fifty
Noughties animu speculation (first half)
, (second
half
) by Martin

Ordered list with commentary.

Zzeroparticle’s
List of 20 Noteworthy Anime Titles

“My list of twenty titles that made an impact upon me in
this past decade. “

My
Top Eleven Anime Of The Decade
by Omisyth

Ordered list with impressions for each show.

And
before the decade concludes, here’s my top eleven anime of the
2000s
by Fangzhao

Ordered list with commentary, including an anime that is described
simply as “perfection”.

AC’s
Top 20 Anime of the Decade

“…a decade of wonderful anime titles, most of them
contributing to my all-time best list”

Sorrow-kun’s
List of 50 Great Anime of the Decade 2000-2009

Ordered list of 50 anime with commentary.

Best
Anime of the Decade: 2000-2009
by Kitsune

Ordered list with AMVs, OP/EDs, excerpts from anime, and links to
reviews.

20
Awesomest Anime of the Decade (2000-2009)
by Brikhaus

“My list probably won’t sit well with the pretentious
arthouse goons or the moe-loving fapboys, but rest assured these
anime are actually good shows.”

20
Decade Highlights
by Kavik Ryx

“for all the anime I’ve missed this decade, I feel
blessed that I had the opportunity have seen these ones.”

Japanator’s
Top 50 Anime of the Decade

Ordered list with an interesting choice for the top spot…

My
Noughties in Anime
by Absolute0

“I am by no means proclaiming that these series are the best
of the decade. Some of them might be on your list, some of them might
not. Whatever the case, I definitely enjoyed these.”

A
Reflection on a Decade
by Shadowmage

Ordered lists of top 20 series and top 20 films/OVAs.

 

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Noein – To your other self


Summer break means fun and relaxation for many sixth-graders in Hokadate, but for Yu it means intense studying and cram school forced upon him by a mother obsessed with seeing him test into a middle school in Tokyo. Even his friends are ultimately not allowed to visit him lest he be distracted. But strange things are afoot surrounding him and especially his best friend Haruka, with whom he has considered running away. Ghostly images appear and vanish before her and time occasionally stops around her as individuals claiming to be from another dimension seem intent on kidnapping her. They claim she is something called a Dragon Torque, which is critical for stabilizing their own dimension in a future time frame, and indeed Haruka does seem capable of manifesting such an item, one linked to a mysterious entity known only as Noein, and using some incredible powers. What’s more, one of the images claims to be an alternate future version of Yu, and not all of them seem to agree on the proper course of action; some want the Dragon Torque dead instead.

Meanwhile two agents from a secretive group repeatedly keep running into Haruka and company as they try to track down the source of strange energy readings around Hokadate, ones which may have everything to do with the dimensional travelers and Dragon Torque.

Review:

In one sense Noein is a typical example of a series embedding a “the girl has special powers that make her a target” gimmick into a slice-of-life story focusing on elementary school kids, the kind of thing we’ve seen done innumerable times before. Sure, it’s considerably more serious than such series normally are, and like the recent Fantastic Children it doesn’t feel like it was written with kids in mind despite the mostly-youthful cast, but the core elements are there. To evaluate the series on that basis, though, would be to ignore how truly weird its sci-fi elements actually are and how obfuscated its underlying plot is through its first five episodes. The short and simple version is that a lot of messy business about alternate dimensions, dimensional transference, and dimension-hopping is involved.

The essence of the plot concerns efforts by a group of Dragon Cavalry to protect an alternate dimension called La’cryma, which exists 15 years down the timeline and is in danger of collapsing due to “corrosion” from something called Shangri-La. Their forays into the current-time world are difficult and dangerous, but must be done to obtain something they call the Dragon Torque, which is supposed to be able to stabilize their dimension, and this girl Haruka seems to be it. Indeed, an average of once an episode a torque which looks like a dragon biting its tail appears around her neck and in a great ring in the sky. When they appear weird things can happen, like time stopping, dimensional shifts to correct some catastrophe, a mysterious person speaking to her whom others can’t see or hear, and so forth. By implication, Haruka and this torque (or, perhaps more precisely, this Noein individual behind the torque) may be responsible for La’cryma ending up in the sorry state that it’s in, but the volume ends with a possibly more comprehensive explanation of the situation pending. Not helping matters is that it takes all of the first five episodes to even piece together this much, and that still leaves viewers without any insight as to why these two adults are investigating energy readings on behalf of an organization called the Absolute Critical Prevention Strategic Committee, whose ridiculously long name seems like just an excuse for the much cooler abbreviation “Ab-Com.”

The series isn’t all about its action-laden sci-fi elements, however. Much of the content focuses on the very ordinary activities and circumstances of 6th grade kids, whether it’s a slapfest between two girls provoked by jealousy over a boy, experimenting with a Ouija board, going out “ghost-hunting” over summer break, or dealing with a friend who’s become a virtual prisoner due to his enforced studying and cramming for an upcoming entrance exam. The extreme stress Yu is being put under, and the negative effect it’s having on him, lends a darker and edgier side to what is otherwise occasionally light-hearted slice-of-life content. His prominent use of a utility knife only furthers the impression that he is a boy on the edge, and the alternate-dimension man named Karasu, who claims to be a future version of Yu, isn’t helping matters by telling Yu that there’s nothing he can really do to protect Haruka or keep her from fading away, but hey, he should try anyway. Further making things interesting is the insane Atori, another of the Dragon Cavalry who comes to believe that Haruka, as the Dragon Torque, would be better off dead than captured.

What really distinguishes Noein from other series is its look. Character designs step beyond typical anime stylistic elements, creating designs that are sometimes familiar-looking but more often very distinctly different, especially in the way lips are drawn for women and cloaked figures of the Dragon Cavalry; Atori’s appearance in particular is an embodiment of his mental instability. The styling at times gives a distinctly manga-art feel, as if the artists were just directly animating manga panels rather than redrawing them, and this is furthered by regular use of manga-styled shading lines on character’s faces. This effect is doubtless intended to give a feeling of how the Dragon Cavalry members are disconnected from normal reality when they move to the current-time dimension, and if that is the goal, the series succeeds at it quite well.

A lot of CG work has gone into this one, whether it’s animating vehicles and water waves, depicting a giant Ouroboros-shaped portal, animating a giant alien ship, or playing around with its frequent perspective-shifting shots. The 2D animation is good enough that normal movements look smooth and lend effect energy to its dynamic, high-strung fight scenes. The 2D/CG integration isn’t flawless, but it’s one of the better efforts to date outside of a Gonzo production. Kudos to Satelight for producing one of the year’s more distinctive and memorable looks.

The fully orchestrated musical score certainly doesn’t lack for dramatic flair during the more dramatic scenes, even slightly overdoing it at times. The opener and closer are both pleasant enough numbers but neither is especially memorable. More impressive is the English dub, which feels right on the mark. Every performance hits the right tone, effectively conveying scenes with appropriate emotion and flair suitable to English speaking style, and most of the voices are very good matches. The English voice of Haruka’s friend Ai sounds a little raspy, but that’s a minor complaint, and the accent given to the female Ab-Com agent is handled well. The script stays close enough that it shouldn’t generate major complaints, although its choice of words in some places is debatable.

Despite five episodes, Manga Entertainment has also included a significant number of Extras. The most prominent is the 14-minute first installment of a travelogue about the real-life Hakodate featuring the Japanese director and lead seiyuu, who explore various locations used as the artistic inspiration for settings in the series. Watching this makes one appreciate exactly how much attention to real-world detail went into accurately depicting the settings, even for minor scenes. Also included are two alternate openers, clean opener and closer, and Japanese promos. In an unusual move, not only does the disk include both regular and Dolby 5.1 versions of both the English and Japanese language tracks, but it also includes Spanish subtitle options in addition to American ones. It also features some of the more user-friendly and easy-to-navigate menu designs. The case itself also comes inside a foil-embossed slip cover. Somewhat tacky is the quoting from “fan reviews” on the cover, which naturally sounds like overblown hype.

While the fan review comments go overboard, Noein does have enough going on to draw one in and hold one’s interest. It is not a series you can watch idly, as it is a bit deeper and a lot more involved than it may appear to be at first. An interesting visual style, edgy action scenes, and distinctive characters all contribute to an opening volume well worth checking out.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B

+ Bold and interesting artistic style, good English dub.
− Plotting is initially unclear.

Karasu whisks Haruka away to La’cryma while Yu panics and her friends and teacher, who don’t know what’s going on, frantically look for her. In La’cryma Haruka gets to see what this (from her viewpoint) alternate future dimension looks like and why the Dragon Knights have been going on about its devastation by Shangri-La. She also discovers that, in this future world, some of the faces are strangely familiar. While the leaders of La’cryma wish to call upon the power of the Dragon Torque to protect their crippled world from Shangri-La, Karasu has other ideas. Unable to get over the death of “his” Haruka, he vows to protect this one at all costs and flees back to the past world with her, where her friends wait with lots of questions. The Dragon Knights aren’t about to let Karasu go, however, and the mad Atori is still in that world seeking to destroy the Dragon Torque, not caring that his actions could have calamitous consequences.

In addition to the extradimensional intrigue, Yu still has his own serious problems with his mother’s overbearing emphasis on his upcoming entrance exams. But might the truth coming out about why she pushes him so hard be the ticket to improving his situation?

Review:

The main strike against the first volume of Noein was that its plot was so obfuscated that it took great effort to make much sense of it. That problem is corrected in episodes 6 and 7, where not only is enough information revealed for a viewer to finally understand much of what’s actually going on with this whole dimension/time-hopping business, but it’s accomplished without feeling like you’ve been subjected to the kind of “info-dumping” normally required to explain something like this. With that out of the way, the story is free to become a thoroughly engrossing mix of hard-core sci-fi and very ordinary dramatic elements.

A common plot device in sci-fi stories across all forms of media and all nationalities is the individual from a dystopian future world traveling into a past world to seek a solution to/prevention of future problems. The slight twist Noein puts on this concept is that the person who is the “solution” is taken 15 years into the future to do her thing, rather than the future individuals trying to deal with matters in the past. And what an unpleasant place La’cryma is, with its shades of Twelve Monkeys, fights against alien invaders on a devastated surface, and bugs as a main source of nutrition. Given how bad the situation is, it’s no wonder that Karasu’s fellow Dragon Knights have a problem with him trying to protect the one girl who could possibly save them all.

Of course, it’s also not hard to see why Karasu would want to protect her, given who he was in the past and how utterly likeable a character Haruka is. She may be on the spunky side but is not overly cute, energetic, smart, mature, or anything else that is normally done to excess in anime characterizations. She is a balanced and believable girl who is surrounded by equally balanced and believable friends. Yu’s tendency towards stress-induced anxiety is partly remedied once his mother is finally forced to confront why she is pushing him so unreasonably hard, a sequence of events which takes up the better part of two episodes to play out but never for a moment feels boring or like the sci-fi story is being interrupted. In fact, it’s consistently amazing how effectively the story can tuck all this very normal real-life stuff in amongst the extreme sci-fi elements and get it to work. It is not something a lesser series could pull off.

Although the action scenes are strictly a side event rather than the main focus, they are not given any lesser attention. The vivid imagery used and way the movements are handled makes them stand out in an environment normally replete with shortcuts like isolation shots and stills. The animation and artistry do an excellent job of giving them distinct looks and making them feel exciting. Even the power-up scenes feel fresh because they are kept short and don’t have people standing around marveling at them, unlike in most major shonen series.

The other visuals are great, too, although the overall artistic style is a marked departure from the norm for anime. The all-CG Shangri-La ships/creatures are exquisitely-detailed marvels on the level of a Gankutsuou, and the vision of the alternate future of La’cryma is suitably industrial and unpleasant. By contrast, the backgrounds of the present-time Hakodate are very realistic recreations of actual locations, as elaborated upon in the Extras. The character designs are a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing, with Karasu being the weakest design and Yu and Haruka the strongest. The color palette used also distinguishes it from most other anime; while not at all muted, it’s not the bright, cheery color set one normally sees in recent anime titles. CG is used very extensively, especially for vehicles and trolleys; its integration with the 2D animation is moderately good, but there are better examples.

The one minor weakness to the second volume is that its dramatic musical score gets thoroughly overwrought at times. Its balance is better on other occasions and it is most notable by its absence on still others. The opener and closer continue to be bland numbers.

The English voice acting, which was one of the highlights of the first volume, continues to be top-rate. Nearly every actor is well-chosen for the role and performs it admirably; even scenes where two characters are clearly drunk are handled well, with appropriate amounts of slurring and adjustments to tenor. The English script strays enough for the dialogue to sound good in English, and does make a few minor changes in places, but the adjustments are never enough to be a problem.

The main extra this time around is the 16-minute second part of the travelogue on Hakodate begun in the first volume, where the director and Haruka’s seiyuu explore various locations used as the basis for the background art in the series. Viewing this leads one to appreciate more fully just how accurately the background artistry represents the actual locations. The only other extra this time is a set of “player cards,” which is nothing more than shots of key characters. As before, a Spanish subtitling option is included along with the standard English sub. At a base price of only $19.95 for five episodes, it’s also one of your more economical first-run anime values.

The title character of the series, the mysterious otherworldly Noein, makes no appearances at all in these five episodes, and the Dragon Torque only appears infrequently, but that doesn’t matter. While not a pure sci-fi endeavor, it is nonetheless a distinctive and engrossing entry into the sci-fi genre with a high level of merit across the board. If the first volume didn’t hook you, this one almost certainly will.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+

+ Excellent writing and English voice work, great balance of sci-fi and character drama.
− Music is sometimes overwrought, bland opener and closer.

In addition to securing the Dragon Torque, the Dragon Knights must now deal with renegade Karasu, who has resolved to do everything in his power to protect Haruka, even if that means battling an old friend to the death. Wild card Atori must also be dealt with, but another even more dire threat looms in the background: the mysterious masked being who calls itself Noein, and the menacing aliens of Shangri-La who seem to be working with/for Noein. Through it all Haruka struggles to learn more about the power of the Dragon Torque she possesses and the ability it gives her to perceive and cross over to other dimensions, an ability which may have more frighteningly powerful potential than she ever imagined.

Meanwhile Kyoji Kooriyama and Kyoko Uchida delve into the explanations of quantum mechanics as they relate to alternate dimensions and decide to hunt down a particular scientist to discuss their concerns over a potentially very dangerous project dealing with that subject, a man who also happens to be Haruka’s father. And Yu struggles to deal with his jealousy over his older self’s apparently tight relationship with Haruka.

Review:

The above synopsis does not even come close to describing all that that happens in this volume, partly because of some genuinely surprising twists the story takes but mostly because there’s just too much going on through these five episodes to describe everything without giving a lengthy dissertation. So much happens that each episode feels longer than it actually is (and at more than 25 minutes per episode, they are already a little longer than the norm for broadcast animation), yet the pacing never feels rushed. Even with all its plot development and sci-fi goings-on, the storytelling still somehow finds time to delve into character development and lots of explanatory exposition and throw in great action scenes, too. Most series could not accomplish all that this one does in half again the same length of time.

The most amazing things about the series – and this volume in particular – are the successful melding of dramatically different story elements and nonreliance on traditional anime elements. Its children actually behave like children should instead of the normal goofy animated take on their behavior (and note that I did not say “anime” for a reason), and from that comes the volume’s few light-hearted moments. While allowing the kids to express themselves, it also delves into explanations of some of the fundamentals of the extremely complex theoretical world of quantum mechanics and how it relates to the dimension-hopping themes of the series; a point of particular relevance to the plot is the notion that mere observation of an event can have an effect on the event, which in this case is extended to mean that Haruka can make alternate realities actually happen just by using the Dragon Torque to see them – a scary notion. This isn’t your normal sci-fi technobabble, as all of what Uchida explains in episode 11 and elsewhere is based on actual philosophy and science. By extension, this means that the entirety of the series and its dimension-hopping mechanics is, in fact, based on actual philosophy and science rather than just the fantastic musings of its creator. As a nice touch, the visuals accompanying Uchida’s explanation in episode 11 include a sly reference to the famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, which will probably fly over the head of all but the best-educated viewers. Despite much of the cast being kids, this is definitely not kiddie fare.

As with previous volumes, this one further explores some of the underlying psychological elements. What does it say about a person who’s jealous of an older alternate-dimension version of himself? The writing also continues to delve into the “what is reality and what is an illusion” mode of thinking, and while most people wish at some point that they could revisit the past and look for ways to have seen events play out differently, Haruka actually subconsciously has the power to do that. But is she old enough to understand and appreciate it?

Coming up more prominently in this volume than the previous ones is the creepy side of the story. We have all seen horror and/or supernatural stories about phones that are supposed to be disconnected and nonfunctional suddenly ringing, allowing the listener to communicate with people from different times and places than should be physically possible, but the gimmick gets used quite effectively here. Most series also could not pull off having a CG-created alien which looks thoroughly ridiculous (think of a giant seahorse with a hand on a tentacle) and yet also still carries an aura of menace, but this one does. The reappearance of Noein, whose role in the scheme of things and connection to Shangri-La (and also what Shangri-La is) is finally made somewhat clear, adds the final bit of edginess.

The highlight of the visuals is unquestionably the boldly stylish action scenes, which use distorted graphics and a pulse-pounding musical backing to give a strong sense of the kind of frenetic movement one would expect to see in fights like this. The lowlights are a few thoroughly unappealing adult character designs and irregularities in visual quality. The series retains its unique look while continuing to heavily employ CG artistry in its aliens and perspective-shifting shots of buildings. Background art, as before, meticulously recreates the real-world settings used for the series, and the animation supports the series well, whether dealing with the action scenes, more fantastical visual effects, or the exaggerated reactions of some characters.

As with previous volumes, the musical score normally works quite effectively but can get a bit too heavy and overly melodramatic in key scenes. The opener and closer remain unchanged. The styles of delivery for the English cast may not always match up perfectly to those of the original Japanese cast, but one would have to get quite picky to find fault with the accuracy of the casting relevant to the characters; Melissa Fahn and Yuri Lowenthal are especially good choices for Haruka and Yuu, respectively. No fault can be found with the quality of the performances, either, beyond possibly Ai. (And she has few lines in this block of episodes anyway.) The English script also sticks relatively close to the original.

Included with these five episodes is part 3 of the location-scouting documentary seen in previous volumes, an image gallery of screen shots, and a “NOEIN: Storyboard to Screen” feature, which takes clips from all three volumes and breaks them down into one-after-another comparisons with their components parts; a nice inclusion for those interested in the animation process. As with previous volumes, this one also has an Easter Egg, which can be accessed by selecting the “Noein Volume 3” circle on the main menu. It provides a collection of humorous alternate dialogue outtakes, many of which are actually quite funny but most of which are definitely not PG-rated in content. Set-up options include Spanish as well as English subtitles. This volume also comes with a very economical list price (MSRP of only $19.99), making it a great bargain.

Manga Entertainment, a company which never shies from licensing and distributing thought-provoking sci-fi series, has done an excellent job with this one, too, with one exception: the three freakin’ month wait in between volumes. Hopefully this is not a sign of the future. Otherwise this volume has a lot to recommend it: intense, stylish action, involving storytelling, complex explanations, and surprising plot twists. If the first two volumes didn’t convince you that this is one of the best of recent sci-fi anime series, this volume should.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B+

+ Dense writing capably brings together diverse elements, spectacular action scenes.
− Three months in between releases, some artistic quality control issues.

The Magic Circle Project, intended to give humankind a greater mastery over quantum mechanics, proceeds apace despite the protestations of numerous individuals over the danger it represents. The home dimension of Haruka may also be in the first stages of its convergence as Shangri-La makes more incursions, while La’cryma’s status grows increasingly unstable. Haruka views slightly altered versions of her own past and life at the instigation of Noein but ultimately returns home, only to once again become the target of Kosagi and, later, Kuina – but it seems that Kuina has other motivations than trying to save La’cryma. When events land Haruka, Yu, and Karasu once again in both La’cryma and Shangri-La, Yu’s life proves to be at stake.

Meanwhile Uchida and Kooriyama try to piece together what exactly is happening and where their priorities lie.

Review:

The content of Noein is such technical, mind-trippy stuff that, once again, the Synopsis above only begins to do justice to what all goes on through these five episodes. The quantum mechanical foundation of the whole dimension-hopping and dimensional convergence structure was firmly-established last volume, so the plot of this one runs with it further by delving even more into stable vs. unstable quantum states, defining everything in quantum terms, determining reality by perspective and observation rather than empirical measurements, alternate realities, branching futures, and complex technobabble slipped in once the writers feel that the audience is too flummoxed by the details to notice. It is heady, high-concept stuff on a degree not normally found in anime outside of titles with “Ghost in the Shell” in their name. It is also to the immense credit of producer Satelight that everything actually makes sense if you carefully pay attention and think about it a bit afterwards. Too often series which attempt this kind of approach get so bogged down in their technicalities that they hopelessly muddle their stories, but not here.

As with earlier volumes, this one strives to achieve balanced storytelling by mixing the freaky sci fi elements with the very normal travails of impending middle school students trying to enjoy their summer break. The drama involving Yu’s overstressed behavior and his mother’s ironclad insistence on him concentrating on his studies officially passes with this volume, resulting in a more relaxed Yu than we have previously seen but also leaving a gap in the storytelling that is only partly filled by Haruka’s concerns about forgetting people from the past. More of the character drama instead falls to the adults, who have to deal with concerns about the Magic Circle Project, personal motivations, and Atori’s returning memory.

Although the series would not be what it is without its character drama, the sci fi elements are still what truly power the series. Haruka’s ability, as the Dragon Torque, to finalize unstable existences based on her observation gains a frightening new dimension when it becomes apparent that she can, in some circumstances, even use the ability to cheat death. Also in this volume the true natures of La’cryma and Shangri-La get revealed, more spectacular fights take place, lots of dimension-hopping goes on, and science applies to interpretation of existence in existential ways. In other words, just what you’ve come to expect from the series if you have been watching up to this point.

The irregularities in visual quality mentioned in the review of the previous volume have thankfully not continued, allowing the artistic quality to return to the level seen in the first two volumes. Some of the adult character designs are still unappealing, and the way character talk and smile may strike some as very odd, but the intricate and imaginative beauty of the CG designs for the Shangri-La entities and vessels more than compensates for disappointments elsewhere. The CG work combines with the sense of motion in the action scenes, the unusual style of the character designs, and other impressive feats of coloring and CG effects to create a unique look which not only stands wholly apart from normal anime visual styles but ranks as one of the most visually striking and original looks this side of Gankutsuou. It may not work for everyone but certainly can be impressive.

The soundtrack plays milder through this stretch of episodes, occasionally using the dramatic operatic themes heard earlier in the series but not overdoing it so much, and is better for it. The English dub also stays solid through this stretch, with strong performances in key roles and an English script that does not engage in needless alteration to the original. The English version of Noein (who gets more lines here than in any previous volume) does not quite achieve the chilling menace seeped into the Japanese performance, but that and a few lines involving the operation of La’cryma’s dimensional transfer system not being included at all in the dub are the only minor flaws.

Volume four offers a much skimpier selection of extras, this time including on an art gallery containing a limited number of screenshots and a textless opener. The Easter Egg seen found on previous volumes seems not to have been continued with this one. The Set-Up does still include Spanish as well as English subtitling options, however, and it still carried an economical base price for five episode of animation.

Overall this volume may not be quite as strong as the previous one, but it still provides five more episodes of quality entertainment. The three-month wait for this volume to come out will not leave you disappointed.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+

+ Involved writing combines diverse elements well.
− Fewer Extras than past volumes.

While the Dragon Knights and elementary school gang try to locate the missing Haruka and Yu, Uchida, Kooryiama, and Professor Mayuzumi come to an agreement that the Magic Circle Project must be stopped, lest it trigger a dimensional collapse. Such a collapse is precisely what Noein wants, however, and it is he that Yu and Karasu must contend with in Shangri-La. He shows Haruka the most unpleasant futures for her friends in an effort to manipulate her into working his will, but none are more unpleasant than his own. With a disaster that could cause the quantum collapse of the universe at hand, it falls to an intrepid few and one Dragon Torque-endowed 12-year-old girl to stop Noein’s nihilistic plan.

Review:

At turns intense, ominous, spectacular, confusing, and even emotional, the final four episodes of this convoluted exploration of quantum physics and existential philosophizing never get dull. Though the writing resorts to sci-fi standbys like doomsday plans, branching alternate realities, potential futures, and madmen twisted by tragedies in their youth, its creative application of quantum mechanics, effective characterizations, and talent for staging incredible action sequences (mostly) prevents the series from losing steam going into its conclusion. The grand climax in the final episode does not carry quite the dramatic punch one would hope for given the build-up, but few will walk away from this one feeling disappointed.

Whether or not fans will walk away understanding everything is another story, as even intense concentration may not succeed in piecing together all the details; this is not a block of episodes you want to watch casually. Fortunately the series can fall back on the stabilizing influence of its steady character development, and this time Atori gets the feature treatment. By the end of volume four he had already showed signs of regressing from the dramatic personality change which afflicted him in volume three, but the way he interacts with, and is affected by, Miho (and why) shows both a newer, more integrated personality potential and thoroughly enjoyable character by-play. The set-ups for the tragedies afflicting the future versions of the elementary school gang resonate remarkably well for as time-worn a gimmick as they represent, and their resolutions provide an emotional punch which may catch viewers off guard.

And yes, the series finally resolves the longest-standing mystery in Noein: the true identity of the old guy with the straw hat, who keeps appearing to Haruka but never introduces himself, gets revealed. The definitive identity of Noein also gets revealed, although claims to that effect were made at the end of the previous volume.

Little can be said about the artistry and technical merits that has not already been mentioned in previous reviews; by this point the series’ unique look either works for you or it doesn’t. The CG renditions of the living Shangri-La airships still amaze with their exquisite detail and near-flawless integration with the regular animation, and the 17-year-old designs for the elementary kids (the only truly new artistic element) stay convincingly consistent with their younger designs. Action scenes never disappoint with their detailed motion and fluid movements, and the CG animation is flawless, but the emphasis on exaggerated movements can make the regular animation look jerky, especially in this volume.

Little more can also be said about the dramatic but effective soundtrack, which uses a few minor new themes but mostly still relies on its core orchestration and vocals. Music director Hikaru Nanase, whose other credits include notables like Chrono Crusade, Galaxy Angel, and Scrapped Princess, never overcomes a tendency to lay it on a bit thick, especially in action scenes, but some novel sound effects by the Shangri-La airships balance out that minor flaw. The English dub performances also maintain the standard of the last couple of volumes: the performances of Haruka, Atori, and Uchida are gems, the rest of the cast stays solid, the pronunciation of Haruka’s name varies from VA to VA, and preferences will generally fall along normal sub/dub lines. The English script varies a bit more than it should at times but never becomes a major problem.

The only normal Extras are a textless opener and a brief gallery of screenshots, but as with some previous volumes, an Easter Egg can be found by pushing “up” on the remote control while the cursor is on Play on the main menu page. Select the “Noein Volume 5” circle and you get several minutes of audio cuts featuring bloopers and often-crude alternate dialogue, some of which pokes fun at the pronunciation issue. Spanish subtitles also remain as an option.

The quality of the writing may slide a bit, but the final volume still delivers. To its end one of the most economical dubbed series of the year remains a great and entertaining view.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-

+ Characterizations, action scenes, CG visuals.
− Can be hard to follow at times, relies too much on sci-fi stand-bys.

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Clannad


High school student Tomoya is a delinquent who thinks nothing of cutting class and typically wiles his time away with fellow delinquent (and playboy wannabe) Sunohara. A poor family situation leaves him apathetic towards everything until a chance meeting with Nagisa, a girl a year older who happens to be repeating because of a lengthy illness the previous year. Nagisa wants to find a way to revive the school’s Drama Club, an effort Tomoya allows himself to be drawn into. Along the way he associates with several other cute girls, including the fortune-telling class rep Ryou, Ryou’s aggressive older sister Kyou, the martial kicking specialist Tomoyo, socially stunted genius Kotomi, and Fuko, a small girl enamored with starfish. The latter seems both obsessed with, and tremendously earnest about, handing out wooden carvings of starfish as invitations to the upcoming wedding of her sister (a former teacher at the school), although Tomoya and Nagisa soon learn that there’s something strange about her that goes well beyond that. That doesn’t stop them, and to lesser degrees the others, from supporting Fuko’s cause to the end, however. Later it’s Kotomi’s turn for the Tomoya Development Treatment, during which she reveals both a curious “talent” for the violin and a wealth of deep-seeded issues resulting from her own family situation.

Review:

If Air was Key/Visual Art’s summer-themed visual novel-to-anime translation, and Kanon was its winter-themed production, Clannad is its spring-themed production. Aside from the seasonal change, the only major difference between it and its predecessors is that it started as an all-ages production rather than being adapted into one from an erotic version, and that is really only a background factor. Otherwise it just offers more of the same well-proven recipe that has made Key/Visual Art’s productions into fan favorites: take a mischievous but basically good-hearted guy, surround him with cute but highly dysfunctional girls whose problems he must solve one by one, throw in a few eccentric adults and side characters, flavor it with supernatural elements, and then drown it in moe sauce. Cook in the oven at 375 degrees for an hour, and voila! Another adorable wonder for moe fans to gorge themselves upon.

And really, if you don’t have at least a tolerance for moe content then this series, like the others, is absolutely not for you. Key/Visual Art’s and Kyoto Animation have had three series now to tweak and tune their recipe to maximum effect, and it shows. Every action and nuance of each major female character, down to the slightest detail, is carefully fashioned to endear the characters to the viewer and inspire those protective feelings that can give moe series such a strong draw. Though none of the female characters have (yet) shown a signature sound effect, each has some other adorable affectation peculiar to her: Nagisa names favorite foods when excited and is enamored with a cutesy anime called Big Dango Family, Kotomi is constantly concerned about whether or not other characters are going to bully her, Fuko gets euphorically dazed when contemplating her beloved starfish, Kyou is shaping up to be the classic tsundere (i.e. tough on the outside, soft at the core) type, Tomoyo can kick those who attack her hundreds of times in a single action, and so forth. Even the way they move and speak tries to invoke the kind of heart-warming lovableness that powers moe titles.

Of course, this can be done to overkill, and Clannad constantly flirts with crossing that line. Not every girl needs to be deeply troubled, sickly, a projected spirit, or have some other psychological and/or supernatural hang-up for such a title to be entertaining, but apparently normal girls are too mundane for such an exercise. For all the practical jokes he plays, Tomoya is entirely too nice, making him practically a carbon-copy of Yuichi from Kanon. (He does, of course, have his own Big Issue, but that has not become a major plot point yet.)

The structure of the story so far is virtually identical to the equivalent episodes in Kanon: spend the first few episodes introducing the cast, setting, and circumstances, generally piddle around as the male lead hooks up with one of the female characters as an ongoing thing, then gradually start cycling through the other girls and their issues. Fuko gets the first treatment, followed by Kotomi, whose story is steadily building as the release ends. These individual stories do, of course, slowly progress towards a big emotional payoff, and that is where the series works its greatest magic. No matter how jaded you might try to be about what the writing is obviously doing, and no matter how many times you might roll your eyes at the inanity of it all, the climaxes of Fuko’s storyline can still hit home with sudden and surprisingly effective emotional intensity. Those prone to sentimentality should not watch the second half of episode 9 without some tissue handy.

The other element which makes the series tolerable as it meanders towards its emotional apexes is its humor. Like Kanon, the first half of Clannad can, at times, be quite funny. Sunohara is practically pure comedy relief, as are the occasional game effects, and the gags that Tomoya pulls at the expense of various characters he associates with (especially Fuko) are sometimes priceless. Also watch for a surprise guest appearance in episode 12 that doesn’t go quite the way you might expect but is nonetheless perfectly in character.

The look of the series is very similar to that of Kanon, save that it has a somewhat flatter color scheme by comparison. (The school uniforms, which have a more mundane design and muted color, could be the chief culprit on this.) All of the female character designs are moe to the max, and while male designs are more typical, they still have their own appeal and distinctiveness. The backgrounds convey a vague sense of warmth and coziness, save in the scenes in Tomoya’s house – a doubtless intentional effect – and watch for some special coloring effects, especially at the beginning. The animation takes some shortcuts but is generally of the quality fandom has come to expect from Kyoto Animation. As with its predecessors, more prurient fan service is almost non-existent.

As good as the series looks, only in the key emotional scenes does its soundtrack make much of an impact, though it works quite well in those cases. Most of the rest of the time it provides a succession of humdrum musical numbers that sound like they were lifted from the background score for a dating sim. Its opener by eufonius, whose other credits include theme songs for Noein and Kashimashi, is of a similar style to the openers for both Air and Kanon, while the closer “Dango Daikozu” by Chata is the same song Nagisa occasionally signs from her Big Dango Family anime. While it may seem silly at first, it can grow on you.

Clannad is another series actually licensed by Sentai Filmworks but processed by ADV personnel. Like Princess Resurrection, it offers no English dub and nothing for Extras beyond a clean opener and closer on the first of two disks. It does, however, offer a plethora of on-screen translation notes to explain certain terms and fine points of language that do not translate well. Sadly, the subtitles are not entirely free of grammatical glitches and some minor irregularities in the sound mixing might be noticed by astute listeners watching it on a surround-sound set-up. (The narration sometimes sounds as if it comes from the wrong speaker, for instance.)

Spread throughout the first dozen episodes are several introductory bits involving a girl alone in a world and a being who comes to inhabit a Frankenstein-like robot to be with her. What, if anything, these scenes actually have to do with the rest of the series have not even been hinted at yet, so that and the truth behind Kotomi’s apparently severe circumstances will have to wait for the next volume. Those who enjoy these stories about a kind-hearted guy helping out broken and secretly damaged moe girls will not need that impetus to continue on, however. This series already offers nearly everything such individuals could possibly want.

Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : C+

+ Humor, occasional intensely emotional moments, a moe fan’s dream.
− Lack of an English dub, sometimes tedious, flirts with overkill on the moe elements.

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Hoping MtG phenomenon isn’t “do or die”


I hate that income sucking Magic the Gathering (drug addiction sucking) overthrown poker, uno, blackjack, Crabs, golf, solitaire, chess, checkers, Battleship, Connect 4, risk, monopoly, Mahjongg, Sudoku, Jenga, sports cards, Yahtzee, and most videogames phenomenon

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Moribito – Guardian of the Spirit


With the first four episodes of Moribito, Production I.G does to fantasy anime series what they did to hard-core sci-fi anime with Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex a couple of years earlier: use a combination of impressive technical merits, excellent storytelling, and a compelling lead character to set a new standard for the genre. Never has a fantasy anime series looked better, and rarely has one been more involving. That its Adult Swim broadcast has not been very successful so far is a shame, as those avoiding it because it does not have the high-octane feel of a Bleach or Code Geass are doing themselves a disservice.

The series gets off to a rousing start with a fantastic opener which combines “Shine,” one of fan-fave L’Arc-en-Ciel’s best songs, with a sampling of the series’ gorgeous artistry and animation. (For those who have been following the series only via the Adult Swim broadcasts, the broadcast version of the opener is slightly truncated.) If any further proof of the series’ sterling artistic merits is needed, the very first scene delivers a panoramic shot of a mountain range that is so breathtaking that it should be used as a textbook example of how to draw mountains in animation. Throughout these four episodes Production I.G piles on one fabulous-looking scene after another; even in the mundane details the series shines, and the shots of palatial opulence rival the best anime has to offer. Every detail, from costuming to elaborate building design to even depictions of rice patties, impresses, and even minor visual flaws or drop-offs in quality are few and far between. Rich use of color and lighting effects, whether from a sunny late afternoon, a stormy night, or even underwater, distinguish the series amongst any competition. Though character designs sometimes stray a little too much into caricatures, they nonetheless show the same quality and attention to detail.

Such great artistry would still struggle without good animation to support it, but the series shines here, too. Short cuts are infrequent, or at least less obvious, and the few true fight scenes are things of beauty. Characters move, dodge, and thrust with great smoothness and alacrity, creating convincingly dynamic fights filled with motion and an all-too-frequently-absent sense of danger; the highlight four-on-one fight scene from episode 3 may, in fact, stand amongst the year’s best. These are fights not fueled by ridiculous displays of skill or super-human powers, but ones ground in reality. The production team threw in a few neat 3D tricks for good measure, but these episodes look plenty good enough without the extra gimmicks.

The series has much more than just a great opener and technical merits in its favor. In Balsa, Moribito offers a fully credible heroine, a woman in her late 20s who is attractive in a vaguely ethnic way (but not distractingly so) and has the kind of solid, powerful build one would expect of a true warrior. She is very skilled, capable, and practical, a woman good at thinking on her feet and taking charge of a situation without being needlessly arrogant or flashy. Unlike so many of her anime contemporaries, she does not exist to be ogled, but to do her job and do it both completely and well while coping with her own demons. She is such a refreshing change of pace that the series would be worth watching for her alone. Chagum, her charge, is well-crafted as a privileged young boy who quickly realizes the dire nature of the situation and that he must adapt to the circumstances if her wants to survive; the inbred arrogance of his former position gradually gets set aside. Madame Torogai, the old witch who serves as the series’ obligatory colorful character, does not have enough screen time in this volume for her eccentricities to fully establish themselves, and key player Tanda also has little chance to reveal his character or past with Balsa by the end of episode 4. Long-haired Shuga shows some promise as the astrologer-insider, while the children Saya and Touya distinguish themselves less but still have better-defined personalities than the norm for being minor recurring characters.

Even these elements in a series’ favor can still ultimately fail without proper support from the writing, but this volume has no concerns there, either. Based on a novel by Nahoko Uehashi, the story grounds itself in a setting heavily influenced by medieval China yet offering enough of its own novel twists to distinguish itself as something unique. This is a story and setting which dabbles with mysticism and the supernatural without being dominated by it or, indeed, even making a big deal about it. The story it tells about the need to safeguard a special boy despite deadly threats against him is a staple of sci fi, fantasy, and action titles around the world, and in many senses the basic plot strongly resembles that of Scrapped Princess, but the quality here lies in the details and story execution. The Mikado and his servants are not painted as heartless villains, but instead people reluctantly carrying out what they see as an onerous and unfortunate duty, while Balsa is crafted as a powerful figure and yet is not above serious harm. The writing smoothly works in many details about the well-defined setting without yet resorting to any kind of info dump and tantalizes with hints about the past. It finds novel ways to present and carry out daunting tasks, such as the slimy, slippery rocky ridge Chagum must traverse in a rain storm to fetch help for a gravely-wounded Balsa in episode 3 or the water rescue in episode 1. Perhaps most importantly, it has smart characters consistently taking sensible actions, something woefully lacking in the many prominent series which depend on a parade of idiocy to aggrandize their heroes. Moribito does not need to do that to carry out its story, and thus never stoops that low.

Although the opener may be the soundtrack’s shining gem, it is hardly the music’s only strong point. Original closer “Itoshii Hito e” by Sachi Tainaka, which does not air during the Adult Swim broadcasts since it only has translated Japanese credits, is a lovely matching of song and visuals in its own right, while an adaptation of one of the soundtrack themes is used for the English credits closer which does play at the end of the Adult Swim broadcasts (and appears here at the end of the volume). The music in between peaks with the intense, pounding rhythms used during the dramatic battle in episode 3 but serves the production well throughout. Good use of background sound and an especially good 5.1 mix – listening to this series in 2.0 does not do it justice – further complement the sound production.

Bang Zoom! Entertainment does its usual solid job in assembling a worthy cast for the English dub. Cindy Robinson’s voice and delivery style may not be a perfect match for Mabuki Andou’s fine original performance, but she has a deep, slightly rumbly feminine voice that suits Balsa quite well and gives her a convincing sense of age, competence, and authority. It may take sub fans a little while to get used to, but they should definitely give it a chance. Mona Marshall, by comparison, is dead-on with the original performance in crafting a proper voice for Chagum. The supporting cast varies a bit more, with long-time veteran Barbara Goodson as Madame Torogai being a highlight and Peter Doyle’s Tanda sounding a bit flat and uninteresting, but generally it hits the mark. The English script finds a satisfying balance between accuracy and smooth flow.

The first volume, which is available separately or in the combo pack with the second volume, offers nothing significant for Extras, though it does have both 2.0 and 5.1 sound tracks. Notably, the menu art is decidedly inferior to anything in the actual animation.

Some have complained about the pacing of Moribito being a bit on the slow and deliberate side, but that does not show as much in this span of episodes as it does in some later ones. This block chugs along quite nicely, offering a fair share of action scenes and intrigue to complement its thoughtful, well-paced storytelling. All-in-all, it is an exceptionally strong start to a highly promising series.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-

+ Gorgeous artistry, excellent fight scenes, strong heroine, rich storytelling.
− Pacing may be a little too slow and deliberate for some, no Extras.

Life undercover for Balsa and Chagum means dealing with the mundane aspects of Yogoan life, but given the individuals involved, even the mundane aspects can have greater complications. When Saya passes out and falls into a deep sleep in the wake of a marriage arrangement, Tanda must go on a spirit walk to call her back, only to find it difficult for him to return. Later, Chagum gets drawn into an arranged fight with a tough visiting boy during a local festival, an affair which eventually involves Balsa, too. The incident draws unwanted attention, however, in the form of a man from Balsa’s past who bears a deep grudge over a past defeat. When he threatens to involve innocent bystanders, Balsa is left with no choice but to become a tiger and confront him.

Review:

Lesson learned from this volume: forcing Balsa into a situation where she actually has to try to kill someone is a really, really bad idea for her foe.

After nearly eight months of delays and repeating the first 10 episodes twice (a practice that newer anime fans may not realize used to be commonplace for Cartoon Network/Adult Swim), Adult Swim is finally starting to broadcast the rest of Moribito. For those who could not wait, or preferred a hard copy with the full opener and original closer intact, there’s always DVD volume four, which covers episodes 11-13. Sadly, the first three new episodes in quite some time have the feel of filler about them.

In fact, if “filler” content is defined as content which tells stories not drawn from the source material, then these three episodes are exactly that. While they touch on some things described in the original novel – such as what Nayugu looks like or Balsa’s commitment to not taking any life – these are entirely original tales. Calling them “mundane” would not entirely be accurate, since one does involve spirit-walking and another contains a very dynamic fight scene, but none of these three episodes are more than very peripherally involved with the overall plot. Those waiting to get back to the quests of Star Reader Shuga and Madame Torogai to find out what is going on with the egg inside Chagum will apparently have to wait for episode 14 in volume 5.

As filler stories go, though, each episode has its own appeal. Episode 11 focuses as much on the relationships of the series’ two main couples (Balsa and Tanda, Toya and Saya) as on the spirit-walking Tanda must do save Saya; one simple but great scene shows Chagum glancing at Balsa and Tanda knowingly after having Toya and Saya’s potential relationship spelled out for him. Episode 12, by contrast, is more of a setting-building exercise in the way it details a prominent festival and the different ways city and rural folk celebrate it. Episode 13 shifts the series back into action mode, returning to the fluid, vibrant, intense fight choreography which was one of the series’ early hallmarks. The allusions to a warrior assuming the spirit of a tiger (and the dangers thereof) take on a more fascinating dimension when the series shows an unusually fierce Balsa briefly but literally taking on the aspect of a tiger. The effect the incident has on Balsa also makes the episode noteworthy.

As it showed in its earliest episodes, Moribito is practically in a visual league of its own. This is Production I.G’s artistic masterpiece; no other anime fantasy series ever made even comes close to equaling the richness of its backgrounds and character renderings or the energy and sense of movement portrayed in its action scenes. The series is not shy about using character designs that are distinctly ugly, yet even those are drawn exceptionally well. Even its opening animation, complete with a wonderfully-detailed scene of a flock of birds taking off from a pond and a gorgeous shot of an eagle soaring into sunlight-colored clouds, shows off this title’s artistic excellence.

While the soundtrack is not quite as overwhelming as the artistry, it is still effective and distinctive, with its moody numbers and deep, resonating recurring themes. The wonderful L’Arc-en-Ciel opener continues through this run in full form (rather than the trimmed-down version shown on Adult Swim), while the original closer skipped over in the American TV broadcasts has been restored with intact Japanese credits; English credits follow at the end of the volume using the theme that serves as the broadcast’s closer.

The Bang Zoom! dub continues to be solid (if unexceptional), with Cindy Robinson as Balsa and Mona Marshall as Chagum firmly anchoring the cast in the key roles and newcomer Amy Johnson ably serving in a key episode 13 guest role as a traveling teacher. Other performances are generally at least adequate. The English script varies a bit in some places but not in any meaningful way.

Although Media Blasters is selling this one at a lower price point, they still are offering only three episodes with no Extras for an MSRP of $24.99 – an outdated practice in the current market and definitely not a good value compared to most other releases over the past couple of years that did not have Bandai Visual somewhere on them. This volume is also available in a two-pack with vol. 3 for a better per-episode value, however. Conspicuously absent is any translation of the text inscribed on the mountainside in certain scenes in episode 13, which is one of this episode’s coolest background visuals.

The one strike often laid against Moribito is that it progresses rather slowly, and this volume does nothing to allay that concern. The series is clearly stalling at this point to fill up 26 episodes for a novel not originally long enough to directly support more than 12 or 13. Even with expanding certain aspects of the story, it still drags a bit through this run. Still, it looks great, sounds good, and does its job well in world-building and character development departments. That should be enough to sustain fans until the meat of the main story returns.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B+

+ Top-rate series artistry and animation, superb fight scene.
− Filler stories which only peripherally involve the main plot, no Extras.

Madame Torogai and Shuga each independently discover that the official history of New Yogo has obscured the truth about the Nyunga Ro Im, leading the former to uncover a deadly threat to Chagum which lurks in Nayug and the latter to find evidence that Chagum is still alive. A chance encounter leads to more perilous conflict as the Mikado’s Hunters pursue Balsa and Chagum on their fact-finding mission to an isolated Yaku village, after which Balsa’s group and Shuga’s forces eventually come to an understanding: the prince is to be protected by Balsa while Shuga continues to look for clues in New Yogo’s long-concealed true history about what, exactly, Chagum needs to do and how the dreadful Egg-Eater Ra Runga can be fended off, allowing the egg within Chagum to be born without killing Chagum. During a long winter in hiding, Chagum toughens up, learns to fight from Balsa, and finally hears the truth about Balsa’s past with Jiguro. As the fateful day approaches, Balsa’s group, Shuga, and the Hunters must all band together to oppose the Ra Runga and give Chagum a chance to complete his purpose. Staving off the upcoming drought, and thus the fate of the Empire, hangs in the balance.

Review:

As Moribito begins its second half, it leaves behind the flirtation with filler content which dominated the previous few episodes and gets back to its core plot: figuring out what, exactly, must be done with the mystical egg within Prince Chagum and what role he must play in helping to avoid the upcoming drought. The only distraction from this course is a two episode flashback arc detailing Balsa’s past with Jiguro, but it is so well-executed and plays so directly into Balsa’s underlying motivations for what she is doing in the current time that no one should have issue with it. In fact, “execution” is the word of the day for the series as a whole; no fantasy anime series made to date brings all of its story elements and production aspects together better than Moribito does, especially in its second half.

Such a grandiose statement may sound like hyperbole, but that is only true if the series cannot back up such a claim. This one can. Moribito is, without question, one of the best-looking anime series of any type ever made. It is Production I.G’s visual masterpiece, complete with rich coloring, distinctive and beautifully-rendered character designs that even convincingly de-age characters (and my, wasn’t Balsa a cutie at younger ages!), gorgeous selections of background art, and even inventive critter designs when dealing with the Ra Runga, important birds, and other spirits from Nayug. The artistry consistently stays on model, never showing the flaws that most other series eventually do, and even integrates its occasional use of CG effects very smoothly, which is an important consideration given the presence of some massed troop movement scenes. Its animation is crisp and smoothly-flowing, including dynamic and fully-detailed fight scenes that, surprisingly, never take shortcuts. That Production I.G was able to create a movie-grade effort on a series budget is, frankly, astonishing.

Its fully orchestrated musical score is the only aspect of the series which is not brilliant, but even so it does its job very well. Scenes that are supposed to be intense never lack for intensity, and the deep, resonating beats suit the tone of the series well. Prominent towards the end is an insert song intended to represent a Yaku children’s song relevant to the plot, which provides a nice complement to critical late scenes.

Even the most impressive visuals and music would not matter much if the story and writing were not there, but that is another of Moribito’s strengths. This is a story with two distinct angles: one is the relationship that Balsa forms with Chagum and her motivations behind what she does, the other is the unraveling of a mystical puzzle whose true nature has been blurred by history. Both aspects can fascinate. Balsa’s stern but caring and devoted treatment of Chagum established her as a motherly figure for Chagum earlier in the series, a dynamic which continues to allow Chagum to grow as a person and gives him the strength to face the deadly trials that befall him late in the series. Moreso than before, certain key scenes give the impression that Balsa’s protection of Chagum is much more than just a job; it is a solemn commitment, the same kind that Jiguro made towards her when he took on the damning task of having to protect her during her childhood; as that two-episode arc plays out, the parallels between Balsa’s childhood situation and Chagum’s become increasingly clear, which also makes it absolutely clear why she took on this task in the first place and why she is reluctant to kill.

The mystical puzzle surrounding the Nyunga Ro Im never gets lost alongside that character development. As these episodes progress, the story deals with issues like history being falsified for political purposes and the way that vital old traditions can die out over time when one culture is absorbed into another. It also deals with how seemingly innocuous current traditions can provide vital clues to important events of the past. Too many series make these discoveries too easy; watching characters have to work for it, and figure things out on the fly based on past knowledge, is a treat.

Just as important as the mysteries being sorted out here and the relationships being built is the intelligence on display. Unlike so many other fantasy stories out there (or anime series in general, for that matter), these characters actually think things out and carefully strategize rather than just jumping into rash action; the warriors’ assault on the mill early in this block of episodes is a perfect example of this. Sure, they sometimes act in ways that ultimately prove counterproductive, but that is nearly always from a lack of knowledge rather than recklessness. They are even willing to admit when mistakes have been made and change their viewpoints accordingly, which ultimately leaves no true villain in the story except the dreadful Ra Runga.

Bang Zoom! provided the English dub, and while it is not one of that institution’s finest efforts, it is good enough to minimize quality drop-off from the Japanese dub. Cindy Robinson handles both old Balsa and young Balsa’s emotional moments well and generally gives a convincing feeling of competence, experience, and motherly guidance to her role while still getting suitably intense when Balsa gets riled up. Barbara Goodson gives one of her career-best performances as crotchety old Torogai (and that’s saying a lot, given that she has one of the longest anime voicing careers of any active VA), while Mona Marshall impresses as Chagum and Steve Cannon is solid as Shuga. In fact, the only major role which is even questionable is Peter Doyle’s less-than-completely-smooth cadence as Touya. Secondary roles vary in performance quality but generally do not disappoint.

Media Blasters is one of the few companies that is not Viz Media still not only resolutely continuing to release series as singles, but doing so mostly with three-episode singles, a practice common in the first half of the decade but rarely-seen these days. Those with a bit of patience along the way could have picked up the Two-Pack sets, which bundle volumes 5-6 and 7-8, at the same time as the second volume in each pair and for a 30% reduction in price; in fact, if you are going back now and buying up the series, there is no point whatsoever in buying the singles instead of the Two-Packs unless you only happen to need one of those volumes. Sadly, none of the volumes offer any Extras.

Some may still complain about the pacing here, but now that the filler episodes have passed the story is too involving, and too many things are going on, for that criticism to have much legitimacy. Besides, those looking for a more dedicated action fantasy probably gave up many episodes earlier anyway. This is not a fantasy action series, but a true and full-blooded fantasy series at its finest. It even does a superb job of taking the more bare-bones original novel by Nahoko Uehashi and expanding it by enriching the characterizations and more thoroughly exploring the setting. Some details do get changed along the way – Chagum’s relationship with his brother Sagum is entirely different in the book, for instance, and there was only one Ra Runga – but no one who read the book is likely to complain about how director Kenji Kamiyama handled things here. The end result makes this one of the decade’s highlight anime series.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-

+ Top-of-the-line series artistry, animation, and storytelling, improves on source material.
− No Extras.

Posted in Guardian of the Spirit, Moribito - Guardian of the Spirit | Leave a comment

Nana


On a snowbound train two young women meet. Despite being the same age, heading the same direction and, most curiously, sharing the same name, Nana Komatsu and Nana Osaki couldn’t be more different. Nana Komatsu—or Hachi, as she is soon to be known—is a flighty, love-addicted bundle of energy in hot pursuit of her relocated beau. Nana Osaki—or just plain Nana—is a scarred and defiantly independent musician looking to make her name in Tokyo’s punk rock scene. To the delight of both, and consternation of their respective friends, they fit together like two long-lost pieces of the same puzzle. As they settle into their life together—they decide, after some divine intervention, to split a flat—Nana reassembles the shattered pieces of her old band and Hachi negotiates the thorny byways of true love. But as both know all too well, life is a thug with a crowbar up its sleeve, and it’s only a matter of time before it clobbers you over the head. That’s the beauty of friendship though: having someone there to pick you up and drag you to the hospital when it does.

Review:

You can’t talk about NANA without talking about the relationship around which Ai Yazawa coils her knotty tale of life in cosmopolitan Tokyo. It’s not a romantic relationship, at least not in the conventional sense. Neither is it a friendship in the conventional sense. Rather, Nana and Hachi’s relationship is something in between; two people finding in their friendship the soul-mate that they could never quite find in their romantic relations with the opposite sex. It’s an incredibly odd and yet somehow very real relationship, and probably the most conspicuous example of Yazawa’s vaunted skill with characterization. Creating an ostensibly mismatched pair who fit as seamlessly together as Nana and Hachi is a tricky business, and doing so with the honesty and gimlet eye for emotional consequences that Yazawa brings to bear is worthy of the overused epithet of “genius.”

But for this first set of episodes, that isn’t really so important. We could speak of Yazawa’s uncanny insights into the complementary faults that make the two so compatible, or her deadeye accuracy in capturing the conflicting feelings of those on the outer edges of friendship, or the organic flow the two Nanas’ relationship as it forms, intensifies, and ultimately cracks. But that is fodder for a later date. NANA will eventually become anime’s single greatest statement on the power, both constructive and destructive, of a single friendship, as well as one of the few dramas of truly epic breadth and depth, but here in the throes of its introductory growing pains it is only (only?) a nigh-perfect snapshot of that queasily uncertain time after high school and before the rest of your life.

Already the series’ signature mix of unflinching realism and deeply-felt sympathy is firmly in place, effortlessly shaping a cast of believably flawed and infectiously likeable characters and almost unconsciously tossing off scenes of heartbreaking honesty. It gets that intangible aura of directionlessness and looming, unstoppable change frighteningly right, and it wraps it all in a rich and achingly ephemeral sense of time and place. Watching NANA is unsettlingly like living through your twenties all over again—only cooler and sexier. Director and master technician Morio Asaka filters Yazawa’s fashions and urban environs through his own cinematic sensibilities to create a living, breathing and very seductive Tokyo, and he polishes each scene until it shines like a dark jewel. If you aren’t completely won over by the time Nana, decked in her punk finery and wreathed in moonlight, performs solo for Hachi, well, you may want to check your pulse. Likely as not, you’re dead.

Viz continues their winning streak with another fine dub. Kelly Sheridan attacks the role of Hachi with bracing enthusiasm, the supporting cast is strong, and the scripting is tight and, when need be, inventive. The real revelation, however, is Rebecca Shoichet, whose slender resume gives no warning of the smoky charisma she brings to the role of Nana. Nevertheless, the difference in the depth of Japan and America’s respective talent pools shows. Sheridan, Shoichet and the rest are taking over for a cast of voice-acting superstars, nearly all giving the performances of their lives. No matter how careful and professional the dub, it’s hard to compete with a Japanese track that can cram the likes of Kenji Hamada and Emi Shinohara into peripheral roles and populate the main cast with talents like Akira Ishida and Tomokazu Seki, to say nothing of the underrated Kaori and magnificent Romi Paku. Sad, but true.

A short but telling interview with Morio Asaka and the usual art gallery and clean OP and ED (a pair of rocking angst punkers) are on hand to stave off extras starvation. If you want to be well-fed, though, go elsewhere.

It’s almost futile to rave about NANA. Praising its construction, its wonderful central relationship, its cast, its intelligence and emotional maturity—it’s all woefully inadequate. Go on about the black-leather luminescence of its art or the artful stylization of its animation as you will (with MADHOUSE and Asaka behind it, you’d be amiss if you didn’t), deify Ai Yazawa if you want (the Goddess of Ugly Love?), parse, analyze, and deconstruct—it stands up to it all—but ultimately none of that can communicate the magic of the show; the way it can make your heart to that little two-step, the way it makes your blood stir and your chest hitch a little. Hell, by episode two, it has you feeling like dizzy little Nana. Like a fool in love. And in love with someone you just know is going to break your heart. That’s a feeling no words can do justice—you just have to experience it for yourself.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A

+ A nearly flawless adult drama: powerful, insightful, and most importantly, human; in short, one of the greatest anime of all time. No joke.
− Can be difficult to watch; recap episodes; Sid Vicious is not, repeat not a role model.

When Shoji meets Sachiko, the accidental namesake of Hachi’s imaginary rival, he knows he’s in trouble. And sure enough, mere episodes later everyone is in a world of hurt. Hachi, upon learning that Nana’s ex is Trapnest guitarist Ren, throws herself into reuniting the separated lovers, as much to distract herself as to help her friend. The result isn’t as clean as she’d like, but it does afford her a chance to meet her idol Takumi, Trapnest’s bassist. Whereupon a whole new world of hurt comes knocking.

Review:

NANA isn’t terribly enamored of plotting. Not that it’s plotless—anything but—just that it doesn’t try imposing narrative order on the chaos of its characters’ lives. On the surface that can make it feel a little rudderless. But such a judgment misses entirely the point of NANA. NANA isn’t about events, it’s about people and experiences. Its purpose lies not in constructing a neatly cresting narrative, but in capturing the reality of life and the poignancy of change at the cusp of adulthood. And it does so with the multifaceted perfection of a fine gem.

The question going into this set is whether the series can maintain that perfection: its honesty, potency, and indeed plain old excellence. Firing on all cylinders for fifty episodes isn’t easy to do, and all twelve episodes (well, eleven if you discount the recap) pass with the expectation that the show will trip up somewhere, will somehow flop, fall flat or at least stumble or slip. Even if just momentarily. But it never does. One wonderfully formed scene after another the series does nothing but impress. If the previous set was falling in love with a series you know will break your heart, this is the series breaking your heart. Nearly every scene glitters with telling little touches that open foggy windows into the hearts of its protagonists, while pointing the way towards swelling changes that wash with tide-like regularity through their lives. A parking-lot confrontation where Hachi’s heart shatters like glass only to reform into something even more unyielding; a concert where music sets free a torrent of repressed emotion; a late-night tryst driven by a toxic upwelling of self-loathing—again and again the series builds to moments that sear themselves into the memory, and every time their power and unsparing realism comes as a surprise.

The facility of Ai Yazawa’s writing is nothing short of astonishing. Even as the series prepares itself to tear your heart out and dance a high-heeled polka on it, it is shining a light through the bewilderingly familiar prism of its characters’ personalities. Starkly exposed is both the fragility and the self-reproach that bubble beneath Hachi’s blithe self-interest. Briefly glimpsed are the doubt and need that NANA hides behind her brash front. Compassion buds in Hachi, twisted by her self-absorption, just as appreciation buds in NANA, twisted by dependence. The two intertwine, the layers of each personality complementing the other’s in ways both healing and imperiling. It’s a dance of personalities as delicate as it is powerful, and hands-down the greatest achievement in a series crowded with them.

But it isn’t the only one, nor are they all Yazawa’s. Her vision is broad, thorny and incisive—never does it flinch from ugly realities, and not once does a relationship, personality or development ring false—but without Morio Asaka that would mean little. Asaka teases every nuance of feeling and meaning from Yazawa’s story, forming hugely complex emotions with limited resources and then beaming them to us via some form of animated cinematic telepathy. No gesture, expression or visual flourish is without its corresponding meaning, no shift in the score’s tempo or insertion of a Black Stones song without its effect on us. He juggles Yazawa’s multiple storylines with virtuosic ease, deftly handles her characters, and almost off-handedly arranges some of anime’s finest concert set-pieces. Heck, the Black Stone’s first Tokyo concert is worth the price of admission alone.

Given the series’ glossy perfection, every imperfection in Viz’s dub stands out like a zit on a supermodel. It isn’t a bad or even substandard dub by any stretch. Indeed it has some potent charms, not the least of which is Rebecca Shoichet’s wonderful turn as NANA. It does, however, make mistakes. Little things that you usually wouldn’t notice in a dub: inflections missed by a margin, delicate timing thrown off by necessary rewrites, hitches in performances. In a normal series they would mean nothing, but here they are highly visible flaws that occasionally unbalance very intricate narrative constructs. The subtle doom that hangs over the series is dampened when Kelly Sheridan misses the yearning melancholy that haunts Hachi’s monologues, and too many of the series’ aching episode-end (and -beginning) transitions are knocked askew by glitches in timing. Little things, but cumulative in their effect.

For extras fun: a dialogue-free version of one of the concert set-pieces.

It becomes a kind of reflex to j
udge anime series based on their entertainment value. But NANA reminds us that anime can be much more than mere diversion, more than anesthesia for whatever pain plagues your life. There’s a quality to it, an elusive, rare and yet familiar quality. A quality that you can sense in the redemptive mysticism of Haibane Renmei, feel it in the cruel psychological poetry of Hideaki Anno, see it in moral ambivalence of Koi Kaze. Honesty, realism, insight—these are but weak synonyms for it: Truth. NANA may not quite be sister to those wonders—it is just a hair too concerned with dramatic convention to violently shatter the mold the way they do—but it has that quality, and with it becomes something more than entertainment: Art.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A

+ Heightens the intensity of an already flawless adult drama; the Nana+Nana bond.
− Character designs are an acquired taste.

As what first seemed an opportunistic one-night stand with Takumi blossoms into a decidedly warped relationship, it drives a wedge between Hachi and Nana. Nana hates the long-haired bastard and she can’t bear the sight of them together. The alienation is forestalled when Hachi’s flighty little heart flits to another, less icky flower, but the respite doesn’t last long. Life drops a bomb on poor Hachi, one with enough megatonnage to level Nana’s life too. As the two drift farther apart, BLAST is offered its first record contract and Nana throws herself into her work. But the bond they formed remains, no matter the events that conspire to cleave it. Whether it will support them as their search for fulfillment takes them in opposite directions or lay them both low is something only time will tell.

Review:

If you hate Hachi with the heat of a thousand suns, the second half of NANA will only stoke the inferno. In twenty-plus episodes it maps out, in ugly and exacting detail, the evolution of a course of action that would by most standards be unforgivably mercenary. Hachi is the main player and it culminates in a decision that could, if you were kindly disposed, be called self-serving. It’s a chain of events that seems almost tailor-made to turn Hachi-haters away from the series.

Which is a pity, since turning away means missing one of anime’s great narrative feats: the forceful insertion of audiences into the head and heart of a girl who must make one of the most universally reviled decisions in the cinematic repertoire. It is, not to give too much away, a move that has been variously villainized, scorned, and pitied. But the brilliance of NANA, and Ai Yazawa, is that they put us so far into the life and mind of Hachi, delineate her thoughts and feelings so precisely and humanely, that her decision seems not tragic or small-hearted but mature, genuinely painful…even heroic. It’s a work of masterful emotional and cinematic manipulation, almost Hitchcockian in its perversion of audience identification, but more human—and more heartbreaking—than much of what the Master produced.

And it’s not even the greatest of the series’ qualifications for greatness. At least, not clearly. The clearest victor is still the Nana/Nana relationship, a bond as difficult to summate as it is unique. It would be tempting to say that Ai Yazawa invented a heretofore unknown relationship for the two, were it not for the note of pure truth the relationship sounds when struck with a stressor. It wasn’t invented so much as discovered, or more accurately, extrapolated from real life. Brilliantly, painfully so. The stressor, for the curious, is that fateful decision of Hachi’s, which rends their friendship asunder, sending echoes of the tearing rippling all the way to the series’ final, ambiguous moments.

With the tearing, around the end of set three, focus shifts a little more to the Nana side of Yazawa’s tapestry. And with the shifting comes the music. Not in the soundtrack—though director Morio Asaka’s sparing, incisive use of ominously ascending strings and modern rock is a goosebump-raising treat—but in the lives of the story’s characters. Like everything on the series’ broad but intensely personal canvas, the musical lives of Nana and her cohorts (and enemies) are complex, powerful, and above all, real. The nasty, cutthroat vortex of muddily intermingling business, mass media and art would make an excellent series in its own right, even before it intersects with the masochistic, morally compromised romances of Hachi and the trauma of her dangerous untwining from Nana.

You don’t need to be susceptible to the rock mythos to enjoy the behind-the-music turn the series takes, but it helps. Particularly in appreciating the glamorous, dangerous sheen the musical myth-making adds to the series’ last leg. It also pays to be up on your rock history. Knowing who the Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious are is a necessity, and knowing what Yasu’s ownership of Incesticide says about his musical influences or what Reira’s fondness for “Layla” says about hers is nice, if not imperative.

And holding all this together—unflinching emotional realism, high-gloss rock ‘n roll living, localized Tokyo milieu—is Morio Asaka. Asaka isn’t an auteur in the individualistic, fiercely artistic sense that directors like Hideaki Anno or Satoshi Kon are. But neither is he some studio hack. You don’t turn out series like Cardcaptor Sakura by being a nepotistic parasite. What Asaka is, is an expert and flexible craftsman. One need only listen to him evoke a previous episode’s climax with a few strums of an acoustic guitar, or watch how his transitions link scenes even as they comment—sometimes wryly, sometimes sadly, sometimes forcefully—on the events they conjoin, to appreciate the power and nuance he brings to the tale he tells.

Most viewers will probably want to watch NANA subbed. That isn’t to say that Viz’s dub is sub-par, or that it hasn’t been improving. It isn’t the former and certainly has been the latter. As their roles have grown, most of the supporting cast has risen to the task, delivering consistently good and consistently faithful performances while the leads all stay strong. The dub even dodges a potentially hairy bullet with its solid, toned-down (and irritatingly uncredited) take on BLAST’s flamboyantly gay manager. But again, the English actors are faced with a monster Japanese cast that includes a goodly proportion of the cream of the seiyuu crop, and no matter how you cut it they haven’t the same emotional range. Think of it as the Polish mounted cavalry facing down the Blitzkrieg: valiant, commendable, and doomed. Which lends the already likeable cast an additional underdog charm. So, not a total loss.

Other than a pretty cool animated music video for one of the opening/BLAST songs on the fourth set, there are no extras of note on these releases.

There is a certain danger in championing NANA’s artistic merit. Doing so can give the false impression that the show is best appreciated by cinematic eggheads. While the eggheads will find much to appreciate, particularly on multiple viewings, it isn’t so high-minded that it forgets its primary purpose as entertainment. It takes refuge from the punishing strength of its emotions in rueful humor, and the thrilling, kinetic concert set-pieces bespeak a series thoroughly versed in the appeal of pure spectacle. Even the truths it speaks, about the spaces that separate people and the terrors and delights of bridging them, are components in a vicarious web of emotion rather than sterile observations to be appreciated for their intellectual acuity. The honest internal discussions, the silences pregnant with meaning, the germs of truth, the meticulously interwoven plots, the raggedly real characters, the powerful yet terrifyingly delicate central relationship, the deliberate spurning of distaff fantasies—everything that separates NANA from its peers is there, not for intellectuals to mind-wank to, but to fill us all so full of sadness, joy, regret and, yes, love that it leaks from our tear ducts. Surrender yourself to it; you won’t regret it.
Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A

+ Ambitious, wickedly smart, brutally honest, and artistically accomplished—the finest romantic drama to come down the pike in a long, long time.
− Not everyone will appreciate having to immerse themselves in Hachi’s thoughts and feelings; not for the kiddies or the anime=ninjas crowd.

Posted in Nana | Leave a comment