About ashleycapes

Ashley is an Australian poet, novelist and teacher. He's currently running a casual review blog called "The Review Heap" focusing film, anime, games, books and music - and (very) occasionally other stuff too. He is the author of half a dozen poetry collections and a few novels, some published traditionally and some self-published. He also occasionally publishes other folks too.

Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Aporon)

Kids on the Slope (Sakamichi no Aporon) 2012

No preamble here, just two (and a half) reasons on why this short series joined my top ten the other month.

Kids on the Slope is a great romance with very few instances of manufactured drama, which is really nice in a genre that sometimes suffers from such contrivances. In a way, the series is almost about the cruelty of youth, where the sweeter, coming-of-age elements are contrasted with the mistakes that are all too easy to make when you’re trying to figure things out.

I found myself quickly invested in the lives of Kaoru, Sentaro and Ritsuko, and I wanted them all to end up happy. (I was even able to almost remember how it felt to be that young and unsure).

The second reason will probably be no surprise: the music – both literally, and the way it forms part of the storyline and a bond between characters. If you enjoy jazz, especially (but not only) Hard Bop or the Cool sub-genres, along with the piano of Bill Evans, this will definitely appeal. And yep, Kids on the Slope is another collaboration between Shinchiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno, but the OST isn’t as eclectic as say, their work on Cowboy Bebop.

Instead, I think Yoko Kanno looks after most of the incidental music and motifs, whereas a pair of young (certainly back in 2012) musicians perform the jams and standards. And the rotoscoping really shows fantastic fluidity in the performances – I’ll share one of the highlights at the end, but maybe if you want to see this series skip the youtube clip because it’s far better in context. (Elsewhere, the story really captures what it’s like to play in a group, another memory the anime managed to activate for me.)

And finally the ‘half’ reason!

Most of what I’ve talked about seems to be nostalgia, but it’s not just my own I guess – Kids on the Slope takes in a historical setting: sea-side Japan in the 1960s, and is fairly dripping with a nostalgia that I obviously cannot truly experience, but which seems to be captured so well in the settings.

5 Stars

Unpopular Opinions – Tag Post

Admittedly, ‘unpopular opinion’ posts are not exactly my wheelhouse but I’ll try because I’m keen to take on the challenge!

Having said that, I suspect that if you’re seeking some saltiness here then I may well disappoint… I tend not to watch/seek/finish things I don’t like. Still, as I’ve already said, I wanna give this a shot, especially since it’s been too long since I’ve finished a tag post and I’m way behind on a few of them.

Thanks to IER for tagging me – check out Curtis’ answers too, especially the part on Blade Runner and Deckard.


Popular Series I Don’t Like

Immediately I found this harder than I thought!

I know plenty of shows that are or were very popular, and of course we all do, but with the ones that don’t appeal to me, I’ve rarely tried them out…and thus I don’t know what they’re really all about.

Wait!

I think I could use Death Note here. I didn’t watch a whole lot, so it’s impossible for me to attempt any kind of thoughts on the quality, but I can say why I set it aside: basically, too much screen time for Light and not enough Ryuk and the world of the Shinigami 😀

Popular Movie I Like, but Everyone Seems to Hate

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is not precisely ‘hated’ but I think it represented a disappointment for a lot of folks.

And I know the film didn’t meet the expectations I myself had built up for it, but it’s pretty unfair of me to judge a new studio against Ghibli. Still, I enjoyed the movie a fair bit – I mean, it’s not in my top ten, but I certainly don’t consider it to be a failure or anything dramatic like that.

It was sometimes exciting, other times endearing and always bright and vivid even where it wasn’t distinctive.  

Love Triangle where the Character Didn’t End up with the Character I Wanted (Spoiler)

Maybe Kids on the Slope for this one… but only for part of the series.

And I hope I can quickly explain what I mean. Basically, Ritsuko likes Sentaro for most of the anime, and so while I feel bad for our pianist Kaoru (who kinda pines for her during these episodes), I wanted her to be happy. I wanted Sentaro to sort of truly ‘see’ Ritsuko, but things don’t quite take that path.

Yet it seems that everyone does end up happy by the of the story, maybe it’s just that the narrative sets things up to make two of the trio appear as kinda ‘fated’, which is maybe a bit of a tell, huh?

Popular Genre you Hardly Watch

If you’ve visited The Review Heap a few times, you’ve probably noted that Romance is an easy target for me since I haven’t reviewed much at all… and it could indeed be my choice here, but I think I’ll pivot to Sports 🙂

I know Slam Dunk a little and I love Haikyu!! – firstly, for the reasons that I enjoy most shounen anime, but perhaps beyond that, because I play indoor volleyball and there’s plenty of realism mixed in with the drama.

Still, I’m not very familiar with sports-themed anime, and tend not to seek it out, rather than having any kinda specific dislike of the sub-genre.

Beloved Character you Don’t Like

I’m not sure if Rintarou Okabe is ‘beloved’ or just well-known?

But here we go – I’m including him here as someone I warmed to, rather than someone I didn’t care for at all.

At the beginning, Okabe’s insecurities led to so much over-acting and posturing on his part, that it was nearly enough for me to stop watching… but he did change and so I kept going. And I’m glad I did, because I ended up catching a great show and it was nice to see some character development.

And yeah, I know – I turned this into a positive answer somehow 😀

Popular Show or Series I Can’t Get Into

Ah, now I’m on firmer footing!

I do a series of ‘Abandoned’ posts here on the blog that seem to fit this question nicely, and so I have plenty of options choose from… lemme just browse a moment, here we go. For this one, I’ll quickly mention a darling of the 2019 line up, The Rising of the Shield Hero.

So, what happened?

Well, in a way there’s not much of a story. Back in November I remember almost finishing episode one… but I didn’t. Maybe I was worn out on Portal Fantasy at the time, or I didn’t have the energy for a double ep, but 8 months later I still haven’t gone back to this series and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Perhaps because it seemed like a lot of classic tropes but no little extra thing that made me sit up?

Popular Show or Movie I Have No Interest in Seeing

I could probably fill this section with a few options, I think.

Generally, if a series has 100+ episodes or more, I will never get around to such an anime. And I guess it’s not just the impressive time commitment that I can’t handle, but my suspicion that the shows will have poor or non-existent endings, due to the nature of their endlessness.

To be specific, however, I’ll mention something far shorter: the Neon Genesis rebuilds.

I definitely understand the urge to refine and improve something you’ve made in the past, but I’ve yet to give these films a shot and probably won’t. I understand that the storylines diverge… but the first Evangelion series is complete enough for me, even with that bitterly polarising ending.

Popular Show or Movie I Prefer Over the Book

Ah, I can finally sneak some Studio Ghibli into this list, with Howls’ Moving Castle.

Here, as promised, I’m landing on the side of the film… just. Ultimately, I think it’s kinda unfair to compare two starkly contrasting art forms, but it has to be done 😀

For me, there are many fun and also interesting differences between the two texts, and the movie tends to be about trimming out and combining elements in terms of narrative and character, but omits pretty much all the satirical elements that really make Dian Wynne Jones’ book fantastic.

In exchange, there’s Joe Hishashi’s beautiful score and the vibrant colours and Miyazaki’s comforting direction, along with a stellar example of CGI integration in a film that has now (suddenly?) been delighting audiences for fifteen years.


And done!

*wipes brow*

That was tough – but I appreciated the struggle and now I’d like throw to the Otaku Author and Lita Kino if they’re not too swamped.

And of course, if you’re reading this and you wanna jump in, lemme know as I’d be keen to take a look!

Haikyuu!! (Seasons 1 – 3)

Haikyuu!! Seasons 1-3 (2014-2016)

My knowledge of sport-themed anime is pretty thin but I was drawn to Haikyuu!! because I play volleyball – not during a pandemic of course, but certainly when it’s safe.

Anyway, getting back to the anime – one of the things that struck me most was that while the moves that the boys manage to perform on court (outside of the purposeful exaggeration) tend to be Olympic-level stuff, it’s not unrealistic really. And more – parts of the show are explicitly educational in terms of explaining court positions and strategy.

In fact, I’ve had students sign up at our volleyball club, telling me they wanted to try the sport out after watching Haikyuu!!, which is pretty great.

So, putting aside my excitement to watch any form of visual media about indoor volleyball, and the enjoyment I got from understanding, even from an average player’s perspective, what was happening on court – I’m aware that I wouldn’t have kept watching Haikyuu!! if the storytelling or the characters weren’t engaging.

And they pretty much all are, even in such a big cast spread across many schools. There’s heroes and villains aplenty, including those I was happy to see succeed, and others who seemed to earn their defeat. On that note, I really thought the pain of failure is shown really well, whether it’s full-on tears, bitterness or in the case of that “piece of crap” Tōru Oikawa (to quote his teammate), irredeemable jealousy.

But getting back to the series overall, it feels like Haruichi Furudate (who I believe played middle in school) did a great job with the season-long tension, and the anime itself really uses all the tools of film to keep episodes exciting, even when a single match stretches across several episodes (or an entire season). And while there are times where you think – I just saw a similar shot a little while ago, I tended not to care. I was more invested in having Karasuno grow into a fantastic team.

For these seasons, I do wish the girls had their storyline sneak back in a few times, and that we were shown a few extra details of life beyond the court for the key players, but I still love this series – and it’s been pretty uplifting to watch while I haven’t been able to play myself.

5 Stars

And quickly also, Kim Yeon-koung, Captain of South Korea’s national women’s volleyball team, watched a match and talked about how generally realistic things were, which was fascinating.

No Guns Life (Nō Ganzu Raifu) (Season 2, 5)

No Guns Life (Nō Ganzu Raifu) 2020

Not the forward momentum that I was craving, but maybe this is a pause before a push toward the bigger things that must be coming.

The hyper-focus on the old pervert trope seemed to be the No Guns Life fan-service episode – or perhaps a critique of it – but I think it’s also clear that ‘x-ray eyes’ will be back, once he hooks up with Vincent and spills some secrets.

It was good to see Mary get fired up, but the highlight for me was another clue about Juzo’s past. I’m also pleased that the story is now bringing back a few characters that I’ve been curious about too.

Even if this isn’t my fav moment this season, at least the bloody nose exaggeration was funny. (There was also a refreshing change in the colour palette, as the greys and blues dominated the last few eps.)

DECA-DENCE (5)

Another short write up for today.

Deca-Dence 2020

Cliffhanger ending, nice!

Other than that fun moment – which is textbook ‘weekly’ storytelling – it was nice to see some satisfying action but also poor Natsume’s reaction to the big reveal behind the other big reveal.

I liked the slight ‘widening’ up of the world here, and so I remain hopeful that she will get the chance to explore later on.

It’s probably far too early in the series to say this, but I wonder if a few minor characters have been a bit forgotten? For instance, someone like Fennel. Is he relevant or not really? If he is, I’d like for episode 6 to check in with him, otherwise, I guess it’s all good 🙂

Read or Die (OVA)

Read or Die (2001)

Other names tend to grace lists of ‘favourite/best studios’ more often, but maybe it’s easy to forget that Studio DEEN can certainly pull out all the stops too.

And Read or Die has some cracking action sequences indeed.

On that note, everything really did feel fluid and vivid to me, with scenes usually full of exciting near-misses. I was usually glued to the screen, partially due to the direction, but also since ‘The Paper’ is a less typical heroine when it comes to action leads.

Her ability to use paper as both protection and weapon was fascinating, and that’s another aspect I really enjoyed. Her fights were less about brute force and more problem-solving, in a way. And the anime really casts an unreservedly wide net for its historical villains and their powers too – more unconventional stuff that was most welcome, especially if you’ve seen a whole host of classic choices for weapons or powers.

Now, if you haven’t seen Read or Die (as I hadn’t until quite recently) and you’re getting a superhero vibe from that previous paragraph, then that’s not precisely inaccurate, but ‘secret agents with super-powers’ is probably better. Here and there, I was put in the mind of other action shows but rarely enough to pull me out of the storytelling.

I will note that at times, Yomiko sounds like a lost lamb, which you could argue is meant to link to her role as a ‘bookworm’, and it’s an interesting contradiction to her character. She’s pretty cool under pressure but kinda goes to pieces over books – something which is usually played for laughs, but the OVA does feature a certain book as a MacGuffin to kick things off too. So literature is not just a comedic element.

As is my way, I haven’t said much about the premise or plot, but it’s very much classic ‘save the world’ stuff but with fantastic animation and very few ‘stock’ characters or settings. There’s also a fun steampunk aesthetic – something else I loved a lot about Read or Die.

Decision time?

Well, if you want to see Mata Hari, Genjo Sanzo and Ludwig van Beethoven (among others), battling it out with secret agent heroes with inventive powers, in an easy to digest 3-part OVA, then this is worth finding.

5 Stars

A-Z Challenge: “L” is for Lily C.A.T

Lily C.A.T (1987)

I definitely enjoyed Lily C.A.T but I think if you want terror in space, then you will invariably be more satisfied by the film it owes the most to, which is of course Alien.

However, that doesn’t mean this longish OVA is not worth checking out if you’re interested in the genre. Or that it doesn’t have moments of tension. And for me, there were also parts that definitely ‘explored the human condition’, to borrow a phrase from literary fiction circles.

And as a bonus, I actually wanted some of the characters to survive!

As an aside that is actually a couple of paragraphs long, when I use the ‘Toys in the Attic’ episode of Cowboy Bebop in my classes, we talk a lot about the influence of Alien on the ep (and 2001: A Space Odyssey among others) but I think Lily C.A.T should get a mention too.

It feels like part of that famous homage episode (especially the blob itself and the blowtorch) are close enough to what you’ll see here, to warrant a mention at least. Certainly, my obsession with connecting texts to one another is something I might one day cut back on, but it’s out of my system for the rest of this review at least!

There’s plenty about the film that uses the typical ‘crew dies one by one’ structure, but the menace itself is something a little different. And when you do catch glimpses of a certain thing, you might recognise creature design by Yoshitaka Amano, with a Vampire Hunter D style, if a little more muted perhaps.

Actually… it turns out that I lied about the intertexual references, as I do have one more that I’ll get to in a moment:

So, there’s a nice layering of mystery in Lily C.A.T that I also enjoyed.

Generally, the crew is trying to figure out what went wrong to interrupt their ‘hypersleep’ flight. However, at the same time they learn of imposters aboard, and so while folks are trying to determine who they can trust amongst the humans, they’re also having to deal with increasing threats from the non-human.

It does add an extra dimension to the suspense, which I really enjoyed but if you’re looking for a really slick, vividly animated film then you might find Lily C.A.T a bit dated. However, that’s not to say it’s bad – for instance, the hanger door sequence was ace.

But back to the reference I mentioned – parts of that sub-plot seemed to echo They Were Eleven (an earlier space flight themed manga/anime) though obviously the idea of false identity is not new.

Worth it if you’re interested in ‘retro’ anime, I reckon.

3 Stars

[This is the first entry in a challenge (that I hope to one day finish), where I have set myself the goal of watching something for each letter of the alphabet – you can see the list over here if curious].

OWLS: Folklore Blog Tour – Witch Hunter Robin (Witchi Hantā Robin)

OWLS is a group of content creators who promote acceptance of all individuals regardless of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. We emphasize the importance of respect, kindness, and tolerance to every human being. Every month we discuss real-world topics through online tours, sharing personal experiences and analyzing pop culture, literature, and other forms of media.

Excited to (finally) get my second OWLS post up and running – we’re looking at ‘Folklore’ and the Supernatural for August – thanks again to the team for the opportunity to jump in 🙂

Witch Hunter Robin (2002)

Witch Hunter Robin was released right around a ‘heyday’ for live-action Supernatural television. In the late ‘90s, shows like Sabrina, Charmed, Buffy, Angel and the X-Files were reigning kings here (doubtless in the US too) and I think traces of those shows are clear in this series.

On the other hand, in anime, the Supernatural sub-genre has probably been more consistently popular, independent of US trends, but Witch Hunter Robin has plenty of European mythology and ‘US crime show’ mixed into its Japanese setting. You could argue, perhaps that it’s a bit like another Sunrise anime, Cowboy Bebop, in that respect (only).

And there are definitely a few production aspects that lock Witch Hunter Robin into that time-period too, but while one of them is a mark against the show, I’m considering most of them as drawcards, rather than issues 😀

Okay, so here’s a tiny note on the premise: the series follows young witch-hunter Robin of Italy, as she adjusts to the STN-J, a sophisticated and powerful organisation tasked with capturing rogue witches… and innocent people who have yet to manifest their powers.

Now, since I tend to think of myself as maybe slightly favouring Concept over Execution, I really enjoyed the PKD ‘pre-crime’ aspect to Witch Hunter Robin. And while what happens to witches and ‘seeds’ in the series is sadly similar to what authoritarian governments continue to do to minorities, I’d have loved a bit more critique of that system… still, it’s hardly glossed over.*

Visually, the anime makes me think of a slightly grimier noir. It’s an aesthetic that I could maybe argue that Grunge helped popularise, and which extended into the 2000s… or perhaps I’m reading too much into that, and it’s more apt to consider it as something director Murase Shukou likes to use?

In any event, if you enjoyed that and certain other things about his works (like Ergo Proxy, Gangsta and even Genocidal Organ) well, they also appear to varying extents here in Witch Hunter Robin. Especially I think, a fondness for shadow, of dark coats, mysteries and ‘slow’ pacing.

So, I just alluded to the pacing, and in terms of the ‘main’ storyline – you will have to wait a bit for it to really kick-in. There’s a fair establishing phase where ‘monster of the week’ plots provide the action and world-building, and only small hints of the big picture, interspersed with quieter moments for Robin and other characters.

The series does build up to something big, but depending on your general familiarity with science-fiction and supernatural tropes, I think you’d see most of those things coming. But I was hooked on the characters and the tensions between them so that was no problem for me.

Most folks in the team have their secrets and even some of the minor characters too, and so there’s definitely time spent there, which I liked. In fact, my favourite episode or moment was probably the one focusing on ‘Master’, the cafe owner – and if I think about it now, he probably makes a bigger impact than a few of the leads.

So, as I sometimes do – I’m switching to dot points in a hopeless token gesture toward brevity:

  • Unpacking and dealing with some of the issues and discoveries Robin and her partners faced did seem compressed toward the end, and so I can see that as a flaw, even if it didn’t bother me too much personally.
  • Robin herself is kinda morose, though she’s not without spark. But her (maybe) obvious depression is sort of echoed elsewhere in the series, and so I definitely consider it a feature rather than a bug.
  • It’s interesting how little in the way of dialogue Robin has in some episodes, you have to read into a lot from her expressions, which are also repressed.
  • While this isn’t a typical action anime, I noticed that the animation for those scenes at times didn’t always feel fluid compared to other shows.
  • CGI. Above any other issue here, I suspect a modern audience might have trouble with this one. It definitely adds to the general grimy and downbeat tone of the series, though most of it has aged quite poorly. Just two years later, things would be looking better in say, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, but neither anime resembles a new series with a high budget. Maybe it’s part of the charm for me, but it’s fascinating to note this would have been cutting edge in 2002. How fast technology moves, right?
  • The aspects around witchcraft, folklore and lineage was something I would have liked more of, and maybe that could have happened with a second season… but on the other hand, I like where Witch Hunter Robin ended too.
  • Character design stood out for me, as did costuming – even Robin’s courier moments. Mostly, I suspect I enjoyed all the ‘coats’ – not just your classic dark trench for the STN-J, but Robin’s more complex outfit or Nagira’s white fur, which really catches the eye.
  • Nagira himself quickly became a fav too, especially when Amon seems to occupy the role of ‘jerk’ for a little too long.
  • The opening song was pretty ace, very much of the era, and within the series itself I liked the sombre piano to Robin’s theme. While I mostly remember that piece, there’s also Flame which is plenty dramatic.

And finally, it’s recommendation time!

You’ll see that I’ve rated it the series a ‘5’ but that’s me – if you’re not me, which is pretty likely, then you might not enjoy this as much as I did.

Especially if you have trouble with old CGI or pacing that’s more Mystery than Action, or if you are drawn to more upbeat lead characters. However, if you like other works of Murase Shukou, noir-influenced supernatural shows, leads who are not precisely ‘open books’, then this might just appeal.

5 Stars

*[Bit of a spoiler perhaps] Nagira, who appears as the Yakuza lawyer, and who operates essentially as a criminal, is the one advocating for and protecting ‘seeds’ in Witch Hunter Robin.

And in an all too common reflection upon real life – you have a large corporation with government-level surveillance and a militant arm, which is obsessed with order and control, and thus ‘becomes’ the true villain.

And while Robin at first works for them, and maybe believes in their mandate, she eventually comes to rail against it all, with Nagira’s help.

Here’s a few examples of where the CGI reveals its age:

And now a few extra shots because I wanted to add them, basically 😀

The ‘album cover’ or promo shot for a crime show maybe 🙂

No Guns Life (Nō Ganzu Raifu) (Season 2, 4)

No Guns Life (Nō Ganzu Raifu) 2020

Again, I’m doing only a couple of notes for this episode, as I’m juggling a few things at the moment.

First off – I’m pleased to see Juzo has recovered, but it was a fun surprise as to how, and so I feel like there’s a chance our heroes can move forward a bit now. For most of the season so far, the team has been locked into a reactive pattern, as they deal with and learn about important stuff, and stuff I wanted to know too.

But it’s nice to see that other key characters are being drawn back into the picture again, and I wonder how that will play out now that Tetsuro is being (sorta) blackmailed.

Here and there I’m noticing the occasional moment where the CGI jumps out a bit – usually when there’s less shadow to do the work of blending, I guess. And since this is a show I believe I’ll grab on disc one day, I’m curious to compare a few scenes.

Anyway, that’s a bit of an aside – once more, I must ‘suffer’ through an entire week before another episode 😀

DECA-DENCE (4)

Very short post this time around, might do the same with No Guns Life tonight, actually, while I’m swamped with other stuff.

Deca-Dence 2020

Action aplenty and more intrigue too – things are building swiftly now, and I wonder if the story will expand beyond the confines of the current boundaries, a bit like Gurren Lagann did for example?

I’m not sure but it feels like those flashbacks with Natsume and her dad were also foreshadowing the idea that we’ll get to see the surface sooner rather than later?

The tension between Natsume’s idealism and Kaburagi’s cynicism and fear was great too – but of course, she’s a classic hero and so she’s pushing on against the huge odds that the story has set up with the snow Gadoll.

A long wait ahead to see exactly how she survives, I guess 😀

Got the flashbacks I wanted 😀