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.
The Dawn of the Deep Soul film continues with the ‘let’s do unspeakably cruel things to cute kids’ approach that featured in the first season of the anime.
Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul (Fukaki Tamashii no Reimei) 2020
Now, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the movie – that would be a lie, but some scenes will probably be hard work for most viewers, so take note if you know you’re not up for that sort of thing right now (or ever).
To contrast all that was harrowing about the movie, I’ll say that the amazing perseverance of the kids who keep fighting, no matter what, ends up being uplifting.
Although, perhaps what I enjoyed most about the film was the expansion of the world featured in Made in Abyss, learning more specifics around its often twisted workings.
Another highlight for me was the first fight scene between Bondrewd and the kids – put me on the roller-coaster a bit, because I was well-aware that it was far too early in the film for a resolution.
I don’t really have much in the way of criticism, save for something that’s relatively unfair – which is that the sense of travel and encountering new wonders and horrors is somewhat reduced here. And of course – it’s one film, not one season, and one film focused on a very specific location, Bondrewd’s fortress of horrors.
And I’m not sure this is a criticism precisely, but there are times when it’s clear how the narrative is going to traumatise Riko and co, and even the seemingly more stalwart Nanachi, and so some scenes may or may not land as hard as intended.
Again, whether you experience something similar or are even bothered by it is probably not going to be a big issue, if at all. Sometimes anticipation heightens the suffering too, lol.
Other than that, the film was often harrowing, occasionally uplifting, and pretty much every minute of it compelling.
(And also – before season 2 happens during the ‘summer’ of 2022, I reckon this film is a must if you’re planning to keep watching the Made in Abyss series).
After a slow start that wasn’t actually slow – I was transfixed.
Agrento Soma (Arujento Sōma) 2000
Argento Soma feels like a bit of a rare story for me, where the pay-off definitely matched the mystery and tension that had built across the previous episodes. And in an industry littered by the cast-off bodies of so many unfinished shows only given a single season, it’s nice to come across a story with a conclusion.
In regard to the pacing, what was ‘slow’ for me was warming to most of the cast.
Without Commander Ines and Sue or Michael (and to a lesser extent Hattie), I wasn’t invested in anyone’s outcome precisely. At first. Actually, unless you were to count how much I came to want Ryu to fail, to receive his just desserts.
Instead, it was the central mystery of why the aliens attacked earth, why they continued to seek the mysterious Pilgrimage Point, that kept me going until I warmed to the cast.
Right off the bat I knew Ryu was a jealous loser, and even when he became tolerable later on – usually at the cost of the emotional well-being of others – I don’t think I actually wanted him to succeed. He was a fantastic character in that respect. Not quite anti-hero, not quite antagonist, and amusingly absolutely utterly unaware that he was not the hero of the story*.
*Trying to paraphrase something iniksbane brought to my attention with that last sentence – and also, thanks heaps for the recommendation 😀
So, now that I’ve got all that out of the way – what’s the anime actually about? Well, it’s about people trying to defend the earth from aliens. And:
[From MAL] In the year 2059, the earth has been plagued by aliens for several years. In an effort to learn more about these aliens, Dr. Noguchi and his assistants Maki Agata and Takuto Kaneshiro try to revive the professor’s experiment, a large Bio-Mechanical alien named Frank. During this process the alien comes to ‘life’ and the lab is subsequently destroyed, leaving Takuto the only survivor and the alien disappearing into the wilderness.
And further, there’s mecha, mystery, science-fiction and drama aspects all neatly woven together as events expand from the premise above – even a bit of mind-games, especially when it comes to Ryu and Mr X, whose scenes together often have interesting staging and lighting, really selling the duplicity.
If you like to compare things (as I do), there are clear classic science-fiction themes, something of a War of the Worlds feel here, and for some fans no doubt you’ll find that Neon Genesis comes to mind also, especially with the escalation of alien attacks used for some of the anime’s structure, but Argento Soma still stands quite apart from the two texts I mentioned.
Some of what differentiates the show for me is because Argento Soma feels a lot like a character study before anything else, a vehicle for Ryu to become a better person – and it’s a long redemption arc too (if you’d want to go that far). And while most events and other characters often serve that purpose, Argento Soma shows a wider cast that is notable in its own right. (A shame that Sue’s past only sneaks into the OVA, however).
Another thing that I think separates Argento Soma from any cries of ‘Eva-clone’ might be the classic, big science-fiction ideas most commonly seen in 20 Century science-fiction cinema… but I won’t spoil them here.
I will say that the somewhat nose-less designs (courtesy of one of my fav directors, Shukou Murase) took me a little while to acclimatise to, but it’s definitely memorable. And also in regard to design, I definitely felt that Frank’s look was top notch. It had a less organic but more human feel compared to the other aliens, to my eye.
In addition to the above quibble, I will note that Ryu spends most of the show as a terrible person – not just ‘flawed’ but really, a bad dude. This means he abuses everyone around him, especially women, both before and after the tragedy that inspires his childish (but not surprising) drive for revenge.
But as I said before, he does (for the most part), have a redemption arc, and in the context of the whole series, his shitty behaviour is not front-and-centre. For instance, you’re not going to be confronted with an endless parade of graphic psychical or verbal abuse, but just be aware that he’s no hero.
(Also, Hattie can be a bit shrilly repetitive).
But finally, is this anime for you?
In short, if you want a twentysomething-year-old mecha show focused on adults, on revenge, with a great cast and a lead character that is far from ‘clean-cut’, then this could be for you.
It also has a deeply satisfying conclusion to its central mystery – another reason to give it a shot if you can find it.
it’s been a little while since I hosted a collaboration here, so I was really happy that Scott was up for working with me on Kiki’s Delivery Service – the famous Studio Ghibli adaptation of Eiko Kadono’s book (and top-grossing film in Japan for 1989).
If you’ve not had the chance to see this film, I hope we’re able to make you at the very least, curious enough to check it out!
Kiki’s Delivery Service (Majo no Takkyūbin) 1989
Ashley: Hey! Excited to start this collab, especially as it had definitely been a while since I’d seen Kiki’s Delivery Service and last time we worked together was on a mecha show, so this should be a fun contrast.
How long has it been for you? I wondered if you noticed different things about the movie this time around?
Scott: Hey Ashley! I’m excited too. It’s been way too long since the last time and I think this one will be a fun one to discuss.
Honestly, it’s been way too long for me. Over a decade and half I think. Ever since my high school marching band days when we watched films on these nice buses that have tv screens that we could watch movies from. Kiki was a staple for that.
To be honest, I can’t say that I really noticed anything particularly different. The screen I watched it on was small and with the length of time, it’s like watching Kiki’s Delivery Service for the first time.
How about you?
A: Cool, what a contrast from the bus tv and environment to a more controlled one at home 🙂
It’s been a few years for me and this time around I was reminded just how key Joe Hisaishi’s music is to the overall Studio Ghibli feel for me, how it really adds to the whimsy (or the drama in some of the flying scenes) but also the scene-setting.
I had also forgotten that Jiji is voiced by Rei Sakuma and her voice (and characterization) is obviously quite different to Phil Hartman’s, whom I had become really accustomed to. It’s an interesting contrast, especially in terms of their respective personalities in the original vs the dub – Hartman’s Jiji has a fair bit of that classic Disney sidekick comic-relief that’s not present in the Japanese release. I definitely love his performance but it was fun to see another side to Jiji.
S: Oh yeah, I agree with that feeling. The big question I have is if Joe Hisaishi didn’t do the OST for it, is it really a Ghibli film? I mean probably, but it wouldn’t feel the same.
I feel like there are always some localization changes like that in English versions of Ghibli films. Like, Princess Mononoke had a prologue narration while the Japanese version didn’t or how Spirited Away had San say “oh, it’s a bathhouse”, because that’s not a thing in the United States. So I suppose that going with that choice made sense for this film for western audiences.
So this film. Kiki is quite a film isn’t it?
A: Yes! I love coming of age films and so Kiki… automatically ticks a lot of boxes for me.
I also really like how much dramatic tension there is in seemingly small stakes, such as those that come from delivering items, retrieving items or making the switch with Jiji etc, which is contrasted with the emotional beats of her quest for acceptance, self-discovery and of course, the bigger, action-based stuff in the latter half of the film.
S: I love them too, honestly. A well done coming of age story are some of my favorite things. So relatable and can be applied to so many scenarios to keep it fresh and interesting.
As for digging into details, there are so many of them in the story that just add so much extra fluff into it for me too. So many good little bits of micro attention that just makes the film a lot better then the viewer would first expect. I feel like that coincides with Kiki establishing herself because every moment is a little bit of tension.
A: I feel the same with those small details, like the work on the pastries or the slow warming of Osono’s Husband toward Kiki, or the stunning backgrounds, especially when it comes to the buildings. I feel like it’d be easy to do a whole post just on the scenery 😀
If you had to pick a high point for that tension around Kiki’s growth, what would it be do you reckon?
S: Exactly and there are just so many little bits like that to make the world feel so organic. Just like the bus driver given the time to actually close the door because he drives off. So many small things like that which add up and make the experience just so grounded.
Oh, the moment of tension? I feel like its centered around Kiki’s relationship with Tombo hits a whole point. Probably where she questions her magic. Very much where all the tension in the staying in that city suddenly explodes. I could be wrong about that though…
A: Same again! In fact, the questioning of her magic always made me a bit sad. The crushing, somewhat comparatively dull adult world pushing its way in?
Maybe that’s a little negative of me – Kiki certainly finds plenty of fulfillment doing things adults do as well. Her sense of purpose and confidence from her independence, which is earned through all those non-magical things.
S: Isn’t questioning her magic so relatable though? She’s a little too early in her own life to think that was though. Especially comparing herself to her mom. Maybe she is growing up too fast by doing the usual witch tradition.
Yeah, I think her finding out she doesn’t need her magic to be around people or just live is a good way to carry this story. I think that her magic coming back from that understanding feels completely natural because of it.
A: It really is, definitely – and it suits the overall uplifting tone of the film too, huh?
So before we finish, I wanted to ask what or whether anything didn’t work so well for you?
S: I feel boring in saying in saying that I don’t have much against it? In some cases I just felt a bit rushed at some times? Some scenes didn’t have as much room to breathe as they could? That’s about it for me.
I really don’t have much to say against it. What about you?
A: For me I thought I was going to say that the film was a touch long… and yet, is that even true? Do I even have any actual criticisms – I don’t think I do, either 😀
It really feels like the Studio Ghibli team firing on all cylinders, creating a really fantastic adaptation, and visually, nailing the match of theme to visuals, of character to expression etc. So I’m like you – loved it, can’t really find anything to complain about!
And finally, huge thanks to Scott for joining me for another collaboration 🙂
Devil May Cry is another anime based on a classic game franchise, but I can’t judge this one in terms of its merits as an adaptation, since I’ve not played any of the games.
And so I’ll focus on the anime itself.
Devil May Cry: The Animated Series (Debiru Mei Kurai) 2007
In terms of plot, our hero Dante runs a demon-hunting business, ‘Devil May Cry’, while struggling to get out of debt in order to afford more strawberry sundaes 🙂
I enjoyed Devil May Cry without being thrilled by every moment; there was some great action and memorable creature designs, especially in the first two eps, along with a few stories that stood out above the others.
One thing that I found perhaps more interesting looking back, was the way that the villain works to link together what appears to be ‘only’ an episodic format. And while he might be typical for his archetype, he’s probably not so typical as the Big Bad. (I guess that’s a little vague but I wanted to make an attempt to avoid spoilers).
To continue on with things I enjoyed, Dante stands out in part due to his character contractions, rather than only due to the very satisfying high-contrast colours he’s given. Lady and J.D were other favourites from a cast that has nice mix of recurring and new characters.
In terms of favourite episodes, ‘Rock Queen’ heavily features music and even record-collecting as plot points, so that was pretty ace. Some of the characters even got a happy ending too! I also really enjoyed the ‘Death Poker’ episode, as it was a little different to the more typical hack-and-slash of many from other plots.
Speaking of which, there’s plenty of demon-fodder in Devil May Cry, blood too, and some gore, though most (but not all) of it is focused on the monsters. Still, pretty obviously not the kinda anime for the young ones.
To quickly finish on something that bugged me, while Patty started off in brat-mode, she became far more tolerable as the series went on, but it’s a shame that in the end, Dante seemed to value her most as a bloody cleaner.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m planning to do one or two reviews per year (give or take) that end up longer than my usual ones, with multiple connected posts etc.
So far, as you can see from the menu above, I’ve got Nadia and Trigun complete.
Those links under the “Series Review” heading will take you to a landing/intro pages for each show, and that’s where I’ll be adding more when I can. Next up may or may not be Cowboy Bebop, and I’ve mentioned before considering others like Ghost in the Shell: SAC and FMA, or maybe even one or two anime I’ve already reviewed.
Actually, on that note, if you’ve got an idea for a show that’s between say 20 – 60 odd episodes long that you think I should review in more detail than usual, lemme know 😀
Shadowy syndicates, superheros and melancholy characters – tick, tick and tick!
Darker than Black (Dākā Zan Burakku ー Kuro no Keiyakusha) 2007
I feel like Darker Than Black walks a line between drama for characters who are under-powered and drama for characters who are over-powered.
And of course, while I use the word ‘superhero’ I don’t mean it in the Marvel sense. This is quieter stuff, but powers and the impact on both the people who use them and the overall storyline are definitely still the main focus.
Having said that, I was perhaps most compelled by the slow-drip of back-story for Hei/Li. That and the central mystery in terms of the gate disaster, especially since the setting and its implications really unified the episodic mysteries, in addition to fuelling that back-story.
It was also fun to see a structure of connected episodes that weren’t always finished in one 20-minute span. Not a whole lot felt rushed until maybe the ending of the series, though that’s perhaps debatable.
Now, it feels cruel to say that I have some fav episodes, since the others aren’t bad ones at all, but here they are anyway!
The Fallen Star of a Contract The Scent of Gardenias Lingers in the Summer Rain The White Dress, Stained with the Girl’s Dreams and Blood A Heart Unswaying on the Water’s Surface A Love Song Sung from a Trash Heap
I know I mentioned ‘melancholy characters’ earlier but the tone of the show is hardly morose. Elsewhere, for instance, Gai and his sidekick Kiko offered some lighter moments for contrast.
And while Amber perhaps ended up being a bit underdeveloped for me, I see why she had to remain at least somewhat mysterious. Hei was a great lead character – he was also quite the actor when it comes to faking shyness to fool those around him, and Yin has an interesting, slowly developing mini arc that was probably my fav aspect overall.
Classic stuff from Bones and folks behind shows such as Wolf’s Rain or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex among others, and including a distinctive Yoko Kanno OST.
Despite not enjoying the ending as much as rest of the series, I finished Darker Than Black without any desire to see the second season, which tells me that I obviously felt there was enough of a satisfying resolution to season one.
Occult Academy* charges out of the boxes with its first episode – really throwing punches everywhere and culminating in uber-tsundere Maya standing on her father’s coffin, interrupting the funeral (taking place in in a school auditorium)and shouting about everything being ‘staged’.
Sound over the top?
It definitely is.
But the anime is well-aware of that fact too, and so if you watch episode one it’s possible at least to contextualise what I’ve just mentioned. And if you’re like me, after you’ve seen the ep you’ll probably be 100% hooked on the premise and characters.
Occult Academy (Seikimatsu Okaruto Gakuin) 2010
So, on to the plot! Simply put, Maya and Fumiaki investigate occult occurrences, searching for a way to prevent the end of the world. To add a bit of complication, they’re uneasy allies and he’s a time-traveller while she’s a sceptic, somehow filling in as principal of the school she attends. From there, the show grows increasingly off-the-wall, while holding things together with the central threat of a terrible future that must be avoided.
I thought both Maya and Fumiaki were great lead characters, as their own issues complicate their present day lives nicely. Some of the supporting cast are good enough to be scene stealers too – I’m thinking Smile and JK, and Ami, though I wanted to see a touch more from Junichirou also, especially as we might have a somewhat unreliable narrator with Maya.
Throughout the series, I found myself surprised here and there by a few twists. I also enjoyed the occasional moments of straight-up drama, a great contrast with all the supernatural and humour elements. As much as anything, I really enjoyed the distinctive, varied character design too. Once again, I feel like I’m hammering modern anime a bit… but with certain genres, the character design is a bit same-same, and that’s not the case with Occult Academy.
Ready for the fan-service paragraph? Aside from the typical costume stuff, I was surprised to see some that was vital to plot and character. But I guess if I say too much more, I’ll inadvertently drift into spoiler territory and for some reason, I think this anime is a bit forgotten now? IS that even true? I don’t see the physical edition up with many retailers and can’t remember if it’s available to stream in many places? (And 12 years is a long time in anime).
In any event, Occult Academy surprised me with its mix of humour, heart and the supernatural and I’d recommend it to folks who enjoyed… well, actually, I don’t think I have a handle on shows that include this mix of genres or tone. Maybe if you like a bit of time-travel mixed in with your supernatural, science-fiction, suspense, action comedy?
*Part of A1 Pictures ‘Anime no Chikara’ which featured 3 shows that were originals (Night Raid and Sound of the Sky also), and which inspired me to seek out the other two, which I hope to review soon-ish.
(Imagine that my standard disclaimer about maybe coming back to these one day appears right here!)
Demon Slayer: Entertainment District Arc
Masters of the Universe: Revelation
Okay, I’m maybe very tired – but He-Man didn’t really appear in the first few minutes, so I found myself getting impatient, and just switched over to something else.
I was pretty keen to see how the mix of horror and comedy would go here and I liked enough about the show overall, but after a few episodes (3 or so, same amount I lasted with the new Demon Slayer) I just haven’t gone back.
(Some of the fan-service elements were shoe-horned in pretty hard – I was laughing at times, it was just that clumsy).
Dog & Scissors
This sounded wonderfully bizarre and it featured a bookstore as the primary setting, and so I was very curious going in…
… but I didn’t laugh or even smile much in the first half of episode 1, and so I’ve shelved it for now.
Boy, looking back on these I wonder if I’m feeling far more intolerant than I realised lately. Because of all of them, I’m thinking I’ll only try out He-Man again in a hurry.
I hope that Kino’s Journey is considered a classic beyond my limited sphere, since I reckon it’s a wholly compelling series from beginning to end.
Ideally, I’d launch into my reasons for saying why I enjoyed it so much – but I want to instead start with some of my quibbles. And since they include spoilers, I’ll just place a pic or two here first.
Kino’s Journey —the Beautiful World— (Kino no Tabi) 2003
The series is really sparing with details about Kino herself.
I suspect I know at least a few reasons why that would be so, but I still wished there had been time to learn more. Even the episode that introduced Kino’s namesake could have offered us a little more – perhaps a double episode? That would have been great.
(My issue here is obviously something that would have been mitigated by a longer series.)
Secondly, I’m not sure how much I enjoyed the text cards throughout – I liked their function as prompts but I don’t know how effective they were.
Of course, that’s not a bad ratio – two complaints only, right?
So, onto the stuff I loved.
For one, the world building is great – each destination is enthralling and usually pretty distinct, and having Kino’s three-day rule is a perfect way to keep things episodic, which is in turn, the perfect structure for a traveller.
In fact, I wanted another season, another set of surprises and moments that had me pause to think, moments that caused me to question what I thought I understood about any given situation presented in the stories etc.
I guess it wouldn’t be inaccurate to call Kino… a pretty cerebral anime, but it wasn’t a static talk-fest by any stretch.
There’s enough action, movement and lovely visuals to probably keep even casual viewers engaged too – and not just the Colosseum episodes, which came to mind for me first.
One issue I have seen mentioned here and there is Kino herself.
She has a somewhat restrained or even emotionally detached personality (and voice – a delivery that suits her well), though she doesn’t lack compassion at all, I can see times where I wanted her to grow more involved.
It’s also a useful way to give the audience room to insert themselves into the ethical dilemmas, to potentially avoid being swayed by the main character’s choices or beliefs.
I liked the choice and I now find myself wondering about it – was it something unique to the anime, or is Kino similar in the source material?
And perhaps above all, her personality really makes the impact of that last episode a lot stronger, to actually see something really hit home for Kino – where previously she’d been in far greater control of her emotions, she’d been perhaps a little too sure in her role as observer of all that ‘beauty’?
It does seem a bit like a shield for her, and considering her past, it makes sense that she’d be pretty guarded.
Okay, I think that’s about it from me – time to end this review with a few dot-points that I probably could have fit elsewhere, but didn’t:
I really enjoyed the muted palette and the occasional use of sepia
‘Persuader’ is an equally striking and troubling name for guns
Loved the Florence-like setting in the Land of Prophecies episode
Kino’s sense of self is strong, also being quite uninterested in labelling herself – simply claiming to be ‘Kino’ when asked at one point, which is an interesting contrast to her more impartial personality traits
Some other fav episodes were the opener and the finale, along with the Land of Wizards and also when we see the nod to Fahrenheit 451
I feel semi-confident recommending this to any anime fan. (Well, any one save for those few out there who only tend to watch a single, narrow sub-category of the medium, I guess.)
Maybe I ought to qualify that claim a bit more with a summary and a few extra bits… and so I think it’s time to bust out a non-essential table 😀 And so below there’s some reasons why I think Kino’s Journey is worth a shot, presented in a hard-to-read table format, lol
I know there was a remake/re-telling/another version of Kino’s Journey released in 2017 but I haven’t seen it. I’m curious… but maybe not enough to actually give it a shot in a hurry as I finished this iteration pretty happy, really.
Anyway, to finally actually wrap up this review, Kino’s Journey is another obvious contender for an update to my Top Ten list.
I’m a little annoyed that I’d never come across 009-1 before last year.
Written by Shotaro Ishinomori as a way to tackle stories beyond the shonen demographic familiar with Cyborg 009 etc, it’s an interesting premise where the cold war had continued well into the future. It gave me some Spy v Spy vibes (but with a bigger cast) and a more serious tone, as the futility of the war is very much front and centre across the series.
Right off the bat I’ll say that I was probably pre-disposed to enjoying this anime.
Not just because Ishinomori was behind the pen, but the 1960s-aesthetic (from OST to costume to architecture and weaponry), I loved it. Even things like the echoes of the space-race that appear across the episodes, right down to having (not only) Mylene’s pupils often shaped like little rockets.
Backgrounds and composition were two other highlights for me – it rarely seemed like a single episode passed where I didn’t enjoy some textured view of land or cityscape, or the choice of shot or framing. (Director Naoyuki Konno probably had some great manga panels to reference but I don’t know how close the series is to the source material).
I was also surprised a few times by the twists and turns here, and between plenty of action-based episodes there were some sad tales and stories that take-on big questions too, like perhaps Holy Night and POP or Exodus.
If you’re more well-versed with spy films and TV than I am, I think some of the moments that caught me off guard will be easier to spot.
Lots of fan-service too, mostly focused on beautiful girls and a lot of it fairly exaggerated, though sex and power (and to a lesser extent agency) are actually themes in 009-1.
But above everything else in this category, I cannot finish the review without mentioning the fembot ‘guns in their jubblies’ stuff, because in a pre Austin Powers world I can see it being a great twist but it ended up being comical to me, having seen Austin Powers before 009-1.
I will say that the opening episode does establish a bit of a false sense that the team of Agents will work together across the series, but the anime is mostly focused on 009-1 herself, and so if you’re expecting an ensemble show, this won’t do the trick.
Otherwise, one of my new favs and maybe a contender for the Top Ten. Maybe. Well, Top Twenty, certainly.