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.

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Three: Visual Comparison

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Three: Visual Comparison

I don’t have a particular plan or structure for this post – it’ll mostly just be me pointing out what I think are interesting differences in art styles and approaches between the two series.

Not every scene is an exact one-to-one comparison either, though more than a few are. There are a couple of instances where I’ve found a panel or two from the manga as well, just to illustrate a point. At times, I might broaden the rambling a little but I’ll mostly try and keep it focused on the comparison.

(And a final note – I’m obviously not an artist so I won’t always know or use the proper vocab).

Actually, here’s the real final note – this has turned into a crazy-long post!

Meet Tora (and the Beast Spear)

Here’s a quick comparison of one moment in the scene where Ushio meets Tora: the first thing I noticed was the shot choice – the OVA goes with a side profile but the 2015 series introduced a slight angle, probably to give the Spear more prominence in the frame. As fans will know, ‘Tora’ is named so by Ushio due to his tiger-like appearance but I think in the OVA he’s a little more dog-like in the face? I like the blue of his eyes matching the cellar’s light. Both scenes go with darkness but the extra detail of blue blood appearing purple in the dim light is a nice touch in the new series.

Family is the most important thing, right?

As I mentioned in the reviews, Ushio and Tora plays to its demographic. That means, as with most YA/shonen fiction, the parents kinda need to be absent to let the adventure begin. In a lot of shonen featuring martial arts, there’s a pretty stern approach to discipline – and both OVA and 2015 play that aspect pretty similarly though 2015 is usually more dynamic with is composition.

Ushio forgets to return Asako’s notebook but homework is not the only trouble he’s in here.

The storyline difference in the way the scenes play out is how Ushio’s ability to transform and use the Beast Spear is hidden from his friends – the OVA builds up differently, whereas the 2015 has the girls barricade themselves quickly but I think what’s similar is interesting. Obviously, the designs are really close but basically ‘cleaner’. Mayuko’s eyes have become almost grey rather than kinda golden brown from the OVA. The poses are different enough but also evoke the same character shorthand – Asako looks like the hot-head and Mayuko is obviously more happy-go-lucky.

… I think this is going to be a longer post than I first thought 😀

So, I’m going to jump around between episodes now (as the above all came from episode 1) and perhaps close with some things that aren’t directly comparable but are still something I wanted to highlight anyway.

First flashback – and for the 2015 series, one that establishes the visual style to be used thereafter.

Here there’s a flashback from the creepy Nukekubi episode, which in the OVA is a fair bit more violent than the 2015 series, actually. But let’s get focused back on the visuals – I liked the costume match between the two but the low angle shot from the OVA is a little more dramatic, I think. The blood-tinted flashback in the new anime is really effective too, that and what seems to be a film grain effect.

These Nukekubi jerks are bad, bad news.

Above, the Nukekubi have an interesting shot that is essentially mirrored, and both versions of the series have them appear in similar ways but I prefer the OVA simply because it has the nice bonus of appearing to ‘melt’ into view.

Below, a quick comparison of a scene near the end of the episode where Tora discovers the joy of hamburgers – I was a little disappointed that in 2015 we don’t get to see him take a bite but the OVA uses a heavily stylised look, almost a ‘pencil strokes’ visible moment. In both, there’s still those ‘comedy-eyes’ visible thought 🙂

Ushio and Chinese exorcist Hyou talk – also an example of the way the OVA gives Ushio more of a ‘uniform’ but the 2015 branches out more re: costume.

Again the OVA presents the scene in a more stylised look that’s almost Impressionistic but here I really enjoyed the inverse symmetry between the characters. In one, Ushio has his back to the audience and in the other, Hyou is facing away. I also thought it was interesting that both artists framed the shot in similar ways – OVA with shadowy plants and in 2015 with the shadows of plants.

It does make me wonder whether the MAPPA team at least watched the original before storyboarding, so as to put such little references within, or whether one studio simply went closer to the manga’s blocking? I should check, actually – because I suspect this is at least somewhat true, since other scenes are often replicas of panels from the source.

Hello, Hyou

In this case I know the 2015 plays this moment (and the entire scene) far closer to the manga but I have a soft spot for the depth of field in the OVA, the blue on blue, the classic ‘half-shadow’ face so you know the character could be a bit morally ‘grey’. Also, his jacket looks better here 😀 The light in the new U&T is great too but it doesn’t have the same menacing, low-angle shot from the POV of the ‘street trash’ that Hyou is hunting.

Select scenes from the memories that haunt Hyou.

Now, I’ve been a bit selective here in what I choose to lift from each sequence and both are great, though I tend to prefer the OVA’s work for the most part. The 2015 sequence is subtler (which can be a real plus for sure) and darker in terms of the lighting, no doubt to fit in to the overall and previously established flashback-aesthetic but the OVA really spotlights his anguish with the stark red, white and black palette.

The beginning and end of a quarrel between Ushio and Asako.

Let’s lighten things up a touch – here the two scenes are pretty similar but in terms of character, I noticed the 2015 version had Ushio come to the realisation that he was being a fool while looking ‘off-screen’ to nothing but in the OVA he’s looking after Asako. Obviously, both scenes used romanticised colour and lighting but while the OVA features a bold gradient, the detail and lighting effects in the 2015 show are softer and offer more depth. You can also see again that while the new series keeps the hatching, it’s reduced.

Tora’s snack

So, apparently Tora gets bored and hungry enough to just bite the face off a shark in one of the ‘beach’ episodes? 😀 However, the 2015 series doesn’t have him get snacky before he encounters the monster of the week but again, the modern lighting techniques really sells the idea of a nice sunny day at the beach.

(Maybe this monster of a post should have been two? Oh well, I feel like I can’t stop now!)

The first four shots I use here are a little misleading because they suggest disunity via colour – the OVA will appear more unified at first glance but it’s not so pronounced in 2015. But the OVA does show that clash in detail common to older works, where the extra detail of something (the sea creature Ayakashi here) gives it the look of a static background piece, especially when compared to Tora and Umizatō. Later in the episode, there’s another ‘flipped’ moment and I like the way we’re told via the visuals, by the ‘muting’ of other holiday makers, that only Ushio can hear/see Umizatō.

Asako lays down the law.

The same episode also had some other interesting changes, this time in fight choreography. When Asako gets stuck in to some bullies it’s far more dynamic in terms of camera, cutting between close-ups, tilts and wider shots. Obviously I’m focusing a little ‘micro-level’ when I say the colour balance is great with the lifesaver. In the OVA it’s a bolder orange to contast with the paler background, whereas it becomes paler orange to contrast with the blue sky but also to pop against her swimsuit and his shirt in the recent adaptation.

Watching

Near the end of the OVA’s run is where Ushio and Tora meet the Kamaitachi Siblings. Their character design is tweaked among the most I think, especially Kagari – who in the 1990s has the ‘big hair/tiny mouth’ thing going on. A key scene near the end of the Kamaitachi arc is very similar but the hatching has actually increased in the 2015 version:

Ushio protects the siblings from being crushed. Tears feature in the 2015 one too but I have this screenshot instead, for some reason. I noticed his eye colour has changed too.

Okay!

That’s about it for the actual comparison part, hope there was some interesting bits in there, despite the long post (which hasn’t ended either!).

The next two sections are mostly just an appreciation of the character design and visual style of the villain, after a quick detour to check in with Hyou from the manga. I nearly screen-capped this fight as the final panel appears in 2015 but not 1992.

Here’s a few images, all but one from the 2015 Ushio and Tora, of the many disturbing faces of villain Hakumen – the effect of utter, utter unhinged weariness is achieved so well by the cross hatching and disproportionate eye and teeth, or the mass concentration of lines elsewhere. Enjoy – if you can!

(If you got through this post, congratulations – I am impressed you were able to put up with me for so long, but also thanks, since these last few posts took me three days :D)

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Two: 2015

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Two: 2015

Let’s jump forward 23 years (to what is now nearly 5 years ago actually) and land in 2015 for the proper adaptation of Ushio and Tora.

And I say ‘proper’ not due to any perceived importance placed on the notion of fidelity to source material, but because this adaptation is a complete story. There’s a beginning with increasingly mysterious set ups offered to the audience, a middle with a few dire moments where the hero seems defeated and also an ending, where plot threads are brought to a conclusion.

Ushio and Tora in 2015 is also far prettier and the action sequences more satisfying, benefiting greatly from modern animation techniques and palettes (though I do have a soft spot for the more muted colours often found in the 1990s). The 2015 version also dials up the ante when it comes to pacing, humour and vastly expands the scope of the saga that’s being told.

What it does maintain from the past is what I guess you’d call an ‘old school’ feel to not only the story beats and characters but also the visual style – you’ll doubtless notice that the hatching is often retained, which I thought was really interesting.

While at first the story focuses on getting to know characters within the framework of the ‘monster of the week’ it quickly expands the scope and the episodes begin to reveal arcs. As with the 1992 OVA, the strengths are the classic things that won’t convince folks who aren’t fans of shonen – action and humour.

But again, the interplay between Tora and Ushio as they gradually become friends is why you keep watching, I reckon. A lot of the humour is also derived from their relationship, which is very ‘buddy-cop’ in many ways, with Tora being the grumpy one.

Ushio one the other hand is a quintessential shonen hero, determined and kind, and like with most YA fiction, there’s a lot of ‘absent parent’ stuff going on at the start to give him a chance to land in hot water, though his father and mother both have significant roles to play. (Speaking of fathers, the screen time and tone of Asako’s father is pared back this one).

Due to the 39 episode count (compared to only 10 in the OVA) there’s a lot more time to get to know the secondary characters and sub-plots too, and while I really enjoyed 90% of them I think the best thing was probably being given time with the main villain – without which, an action text/heroic journey can too often fall flat.

If only you could hear the creepy sound in this scene 😀

And Hakumen no Mono is a memorable and menacing villain indeed – not in the least due to the voice acting of Megumi Hayashibara (no doubt recognisable as the voice of, among many others, Rei Ayanami, Faye Valentine and Atsuko/Paprika). Here, she delivers a rasping, unhinged performance that is miles away from the smooth tone of characters like Faye. It was a real highlight – though in terms of voice acting I occasionally heard Ushio as ‘older’ than his character, which pulled me out of the universe momentarily.

To wade a little further into the aspects that didn’t work for me I have to mention Nagare Akiba – I suspect compared to the manga, his storyline was compressed too much. This meant that his motivation for some actions seemed a little underdeveloped and then, his defining moment maybe didn’t play out so well.

Similarly, I found myself growing impatient with a ‘no-one’ remembers sub-plot because it broke momentum and bugged me a little, not in the least since it erased a whole lot of important character development but also because it felt like an unneeded way to extend the series.

However, when the show took time to step away and reveal back stories of other characters I was usually on board 100% –  especially with Hyou, his was one of my favourite aspects about the series. It’s probably only topped by Tora’s history too, his flashback episodes really land at a great time and provide extra emotional impact.

So, what’s left to say?

Well, I guess I’ll try a recommendation – Ushio and Tora should be a hit with fans of shonen and/or seemingly ‘oddly paired’ heroes, along with people who dig shows that go for (and achieve) a retro-feel.

Ushio’s ‘classic’ outfit doesn’t appear for a good while from memory

The supernatural themes are a really big part too, but at least for the first two-thirds the comedic parts are also important. I guess if you like light harem aspects then you’ll enjoy Ushio and Tora for that focus also. (And to sneak back the OVA – maybe, give it a shot if really want to compare the two).

5 Stars

Oh, I couldn’t leave the review without sharing this – Tora has to operate as Mayuko’s doppelganger at one point and it’s a highlight 😀

Part 3 (the comparison) is due tomorrow!

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part One: 1992

Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part One: 1992

Time to review one of my favourite shonen series: Ushio and Tora! (Buckle up though – because it’s gonna be three posts worth of rambling :D)

Okay, so I’m starting here with the OVA from the 1990s and then I’ll go on to the 2015 series, which is a far more complete adaptation, and then I’ll finish with a visual comparison (since I got a little ‘screenshot happy’ last week.)

Ushio and Tora is classic shonen, fitting neatly into the Supernatural sub-category. You can see the imprints of common themes and tropes that came both before the show and after it – but the buddy cop relationship between protagonist (youngster Ushio) and the (mostly) antagonistic Tora keeps the framework interesting for me. Both series are based on Kazuhiro Fujita’s award-winning manga but the OVA didn’t get a chance to go very far, sadly.

I like the attention to detail here, despite a smaller budget than modern anime – this tear drop appears during the stone oni episode

I’ve tried (and failed) to research why – maybe the audience response at the time wasn’t there, maybe the studio only ever planned to make a few episodes in the first place? In the early 1990s Inuyasha hadn’t exploded yet, and a few of the other big supernatural shonen action series not yet started… but maybe the first Ushio and Tora just wasn’t as clean-looking as the series that followed?   

My personal, utterly unfounded theory is that a failure to introduce the Big Bad soon enough might have impacted audience enjoyment because there was no large scale conflict yet… BUT, shonen and action anime often live and breathe ‘monster of the week’ formats – so I don’t know if that’s on point either.

In any event, the OVA doesn’t get a chance to show how expansive Ushio and Tora’s story is, nor that some of the characters we meet across the early episodes are definitely going to come back and have an impact on events. I feel sad that when the switch between studios/production teams happened between those last few episodes, it’s clear there was a plan to finish the saga, because the new intro foreshadowed a lot of big things that they never got to animate.

But what about the actual show?

Well, it’s the regular mix between comedy and action, with supernatural (even horror elements at times) mixed in. As I mentioned before, the tension-filled interplay and growing relationship between the two leads is the main draw, but the creatures and supporting cast are good too. Overall, the OVA is rougher than the 2015 adaptation but it’s also a bit bloodier too. For me, I felt that the humour landed a little better in the new series too (though Asako’s dad was probably funnier – if odder – here).

One thing I suppose I preferred in the OVA, was that the episodes don’t cover enough ground to reveal the harem-like aspects of the storyline, it’s almost there with the vague love-triangle between Ushio, Asako and Mayuko, but that’s probably a minor quibble. There’s still a lot to like with this series because the key stuff is in place and it’s darker visually, more rough around the edges perhaps but at times, I preferred some of the direction.

And yet I think most folks will prefer the modern show: the action scenes are bigger and better, the setting is far more developed with more characters etc, and the pacing is generally spot on – and of course, best of all, it tells a complete story. (I know it’s cruel to compare an unfinished series to a completed one but I kinda have to :D).

3.5 Stars

I also noticed that while both OVA and 2015 series have fairly similar episodes and ordering, the water-wheel demon episode is unique to the OVA – as I don’t think it appears in the manga either. It’s a fascinating episode that forces Ushio to confront his feelings about Asako and includes a cute flashback too.

A lot of teeth in this show – actually, this is probably works as good shorthand for the show’s tone

Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba)

Demon Slayer Kimetsu no Yaiba (2019)

If I reduce shonen (at least in a partially tongue-in-cheek way) down to “shouting and fighting” then I’ll end up side-stepping the range of genres, storylines and characters that occur within the boundaries of the age bracket – although with Demon Slayer you’re definitely going to get those things in heavy doses, so if you’ve never come across the series then GET READY!

Still, just as important to shonen tends to be the idea of resilience and self-improvement and again, Demon Slayer has a focus there too. In fact, much of our hero Tanjiro’s appeal comes from that archetypal hero: he hates the idea of giving up, is principled, loyal and also kind. It’s a nice mix when you’re tired of morally grey protagonists and his quest to save his sister reveals that side of him fairly often, even if the show sometimes seems to get distracted by ‘upgrading’ our hero (and yeah, we need to see that stuff for sure but I missed that core motivator sometimes).

The main draw for folks who’ve seen a heap of shonen anime is probably going to be the visual elements, since they’re pretty wonderful and at times, dazzling. And not just the fighting, the costuming is pretty ace too – right down to Tanjiro’s hanafuda earings. Obviously the ‘great wave’ style of his swordplay is also pretty vivid, along with the reds and golds throughout. The show uses a lot of muted backgrounds to nice effect here too, giving those fight scenes effortless high contrast. (The early parts set in snow are just as effective too.)

As usual I haven’t mentioned much of the plot but it drew me in quick enough and while it didn’t keep up its tautness the whole way through, my main gripes tended to be with characterisation (and to a lesser extend, what felt like a bit too much recapping). Anyone who has seen the show probably knows exactly where I’m going with this too: Zenitsu.

Cripes.

I really wish there was a way to trim out some of his incessant screaming. That (and his cowardly nature) is usually played for comedic effect and to contrast when he does do something impressive (like his spider fight) but woah, it wore thin pretty quick for me. It’s not a deal breaker though – I’ll still watch the movie and any other series, but it does negatively impact the pacing for me and add little to his arc. Having said that, I think it’s clear there’s a chance of him having a character-development path at least.

Finally, it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that the main antagonist* Muzan is essentially Michael Jackson circa Smooth Criminal. Okay – costume-wise, at least, rather than mannerisms etc but I found it fascinating and odd, even though I was still able to put it aside and enjoy the show.

4 Stars

(*And for now, I’m including most of those damn puffed-up hashira in that category.)

Cool opening too