Puppet Princess (Karakuri no Kimi)

This is a typical OVA in some ways – violence and nudity (or the threat of rape being passed off as ‘comedic’), all predictable things about certain anime genres, some of which have certainly come to tire me after a couple decades.

Puppet Princess (Karakuri no Kimi) 2000

That isn’t to claim Puppet Princess is terrible, or that I think it’s impossible to take on serious themes in anime either, but Puppet Princess feels too casual with its application of that content for me.

I should talk about the story sooner or later – but first, Puppet Princess almost seems bit of a warm up for Karakuri Circus, especially when it comes to the puppetry (which was probably the best aspect of the anime).

An adaptation of Kazuhiro Fujita’s one-shot manga, it’s a straightforward but still at times exciting story of vengeance. Rangiku (the Puppet Princess) recruits warrior Manajiri and together they seek and eventually take on Lord Karimata, who murdered her family.

There are a few fun surprises, especially toward the end, and the art and animation works for me, though this 2000 OVA won’t deliver things you might be used to if you favour modern action sequences and techniques.

Is it worth chasing down?

Maybe if you’re a fan of Kazuhiro Fujita or the era of production perhaps, or just if you really love swords and shinobi.

3 Stars

Heaven Official’s Blessing (Tiān Guān Cì Fú)

I tend to be a little disappointed in romance anime that hold back on the developing the relationship onscreen – especially when it comes to homosexual relationships, but that’s probably not always fair.

Heaven Official’s Blessing (Tiān Guān Cì Fú) 2020

And I say ‘not fair’ not in terms of a discussion between chaste vs lewd content, but more a case that I wish the industry would treat the relationships of gay characters the same as heterosexual ones, though it feels like that’s changing slowly. 

Having said that, I think I should also add – I hope things continue to change in so long as it’s safe for the creators, that is. (Obviously, country of production has an impact).

But until things change, there’s still somewhat sweet shows like Heaven Official’s Blessing, based on the novel by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu and animated by Haoliners Animation League. I hadn’t seen many works from China at all, but this looks fantastic, with whimsical and menacing settings, fluid action and memorable leads.

Heaven Official’s Blessing feels like a balanced mix between supernatural action and almost cute romance, (with lead Xie Lian even taking on the clumsy ‘damsel’ role at times) and I enjoyed the mythological aspects as much as the character interplay across the 13 episodes, and I’m definitely hoping there’s another season one day.

I saw HOB on the soon to be defunct Animelab, and while the subtitles were far too small for my eyes, I’m glad they were there because without them I would not have been able to watch the show at all. (There were mythological elements and context that I missed too, especially those last few episodes I suspect).


The ending to episode 12 kinda demanded an OVA or a ‘special’ because while it wrapped the action plot, the relationship between Xie Lian and San Lang needed more screen time, which did happen with #13 thankfully.

Definitely recommended for fans of the above-mentioned genres.

4 Stars

Blade of the Last Phantom Master (Shin Angyō Onshi)

Blade of the Last Phantom Master (Shin Angyō Onshi) 2007

Here is another anime that has me quite curious about the manga.

Set in lands reminiscent of ancient Korea, Blade of the Last Phantom Master follows anti-hero Munsu as he roams around fighting tyranny. And while he is utterly committed to that, his methods often grant him that label of ‘anti-hero’, perhaps along with his curt manner which is tempered by compassion.

The film does pander a little to the fantasy/supernatural genre’s expectation for violence and I guess you could made a case for Chun Hyang’s costume being an expression of the same expectation, but it’s hardly constant. (As I’ve probably said before, endless fan-service tends to bug me but Blade of the Last Phantom Master doesn’t feel like that kinda movie).    

I don’t really have much to mention in terms of aspects I didn’t enjoy – but I could see the structure of the film being an issue for some viewers perhaps, as Blade of the Last Phantom Master is one part the story of how the two leads meet (Munsu and Chun Hyang) and one part their next adventure, combined into one film. In that sense, it’s an effective bit of marketing for the manga for sure but might not be to everyone’s taste.

Elsewhere I loved the painterly, at times softer backgrounds, especially in the travel montage and throughout, I was surprised at a few of the turns the story took. And more, having so little knowledge about Korean myths and stories, I loved seeing some interesting magical elements – especially the way paper was used.

On that note, I believe not everyone was happy with the Youn In-wan’s tonal shift in this adaptation of the beloved The Legend of Chun Hyang and so I’m keen to read more about it one day.

Blade of the Last Phantom Master makes good use of its two villains too, along with the supporting cast. I should add, that even though master swordswoman Chun Hyang is a co-lead, she doesn’t really get many lines and so again, the sense that this is an opener to a much longer story is clear there too.

I can’t finish the review without mentioning the CGI, which is pretty well integrated to my eye, it definitely feels like both the Japanese and Korean studios (Oriental Light and Magic and Character Plan) put in a lot of care an attention there.

And finally, as a quick observation, I found it fascinating that Munsu seems to carry and use an inhaler – something I haven’t seen in a whole lot of anime.

5 Stars

BEM (2019)

Remakes of classic shows feel risky, since time can divest modern audiences of context, and of course tastes around art styles and technological advancements change the visual landscape so quickly.

And here we have BEM, a remake created as part of a 50 year anniversary, and so the characters have been around a little while 🙂

Doubly so, that risk I’ve been thinking about seems to stand true for an international audience unfamiliar with the original (which was definitely me) but I took a chance on BEM because I like the supernatural and science-fiction genres.

And while I haven’t seen the 1968 nor the 2006 versions of BEM, I’m quite curious to do so now.

At the core of the series is a struggle for identity and belonging, combined with the Pinocchio quest – a favourite plot in anime for decades.

Here’s a quote adapted from wiki on the premise:

Even though Bem, Bela and Belo (three yokai) are often abused and discriminated against by other human beings due to their appearance, they still strive to protect the human populace of their city from other monsters, one day hoping to become human beings in return for their good actions.

On that note, the theme of ‘becoming human’ is one I craved a little more of in the anime* but it’s definitely present, as the three leads each face doubts about their desire to change.

While they explore the dream, there is a ‘monster of the week’ episodic feel to the early half of the anime, giving us time to get to know the yokai, and I probably enjoyed these episodes better in part because when the ‘big bad’ was at last revealed and brought in to the narrative, it was maybe a little late. She had less impact for me.

On the other hand, the designs were memorable and the action was fun and the themes of discrimination were welcome (depressing as they could be) as it added another aspect to the anime. In this, I imagine there’s a clear link back to the original, surely.

But getting back to the idea of risk, another thing I noticed were the 1960s kinda character designs that remained.

I reckon the artists would have wanted to update things without destroying the original designs.

To me it worked overall for sure, but two things struck me – the most obvious being Bela’s change from adult to teen, and the second being the occasional character like the bowling ball bad guy, who felt kinda goofy.


Those issues aside, I finished the short anime interested in more and enjoyed it enough to seek out the film BEM: Become Human, which luckily enough at the time, AnimeLab had on hand.

3 Stars

*The movie definitely does explore this theme in more depth and the animation budget seemed a bigger too.

(Also, I enjoyed the OST from Soil & “Pimp” Sessions, the themes most of all I think).

Trese

Netflix feels reasonably hit and miss when it comes to anime and related forms but I’m glad someone at the corporation is putting money into projects I might never have had the chance to see otherwise.

Trese (2021)

Terese is one of those shows, and one I enjoyed a lot, finishing it keen to see more of her story.

Here’s a hint of the plot from Netflix: In Manila, where dark supernatural forces pervade the criminal underworld, it’s up to Alexandra Trese to keep the peace — but there’s a storm brewing.

Now, going in, I was curious about the ‘horror’ label too, because some animated horror doesn’t hit as hard as live-action, but there’s blood and gore (rather than a lot of suspense or jump scares etc), and plenty of creatures and dark magic.

Having said that ‘supernatural’ is probably more useful in terms of genre if you’re after a single word for the show’s focus, which meant I was on board pretty much right away. I guess you could argue that there’s a slight Buffy feel to Terese, but there are very clear differences – for one, there’s no teen drama.

Another difference was my favourite element of Trese: which was experiencing aspects of Filipino culture, folkore and mythology. To me, Terese feels like a series made by a Filipino team for Filipino audiences, as they rarely broke the narrative or pacing to stop for exposition, which was great.

If you are on the fence about the show I think you’ll know if you’re going to like it after viewing episode one. For me, Terese’s role as peacekeeper between humanity and various creatures made sure there was variety but if you hesitate re: ‘monster of the week’ hints there are interconnected narratives where events from the past slowly bleed into the present.

As a stand out for me, I’ll mention (but not spoil) episode 3 – creepy indeed. (I should also note how much I enjoyed the settings, some of those establishing shots especially).

While not every action sequence dazzled in the way that some legacy studios might have produced, I was never pulled out of the moment. Some extra focus on Trese as a character beyond her role as protector might have been nice but aside from those two aspects I didn’t have much in the way of complaints.

I saw a fair few big names in the English cast, which seems like one measure of international support it had during production, and I so hope that there was enough interest in the show that more episodes are produced one day! 

4 Stars

Kokkoku

Kokkoku (2018)

This time, I want to start the review by saying that I wish there had been a bit of extra foreshadowing leading up to the ending to Kokkoku

….but that’s about it when it comes to aspects I remember feeling disappointed over.

Kokkoku: Moment by Moment is a mix of mystery, science-fiction and maybe even supernatural suspense, and is one that plays out in a relatively small setting; just a few homes and streets, really.

And that narrowing of place and space adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere that quickly builds as each episode raises the stakes for the Yukawa family. To contrast this sense of the ‘small’ is a somewhat large cast, with the intersecting goals of a fair few characters meeting and clashing in a supernatural cage of disturbing stillness.

But I’m jumping around a bit I think – to finally maybe give context to what I’ve said above, I’ll share a blurb adapted from Wikipedia:

The anime tells the story of Juri Yukawa, who during a kidnapping of her nephew and brother, discovers that her grandfather can stop time using a mysterious stone and more, that he can move freely when time is standing still.

It’s a premise that suggests the kind of child-like fantasy of youth – ‘what if I could go anywhere or do anything without anyone seeing me?’ etc etc but Kokkoku shows a far more lonely and troubling place at times.

And from that rescue attempt mentioned in the blurb, the audience gets to learn a lot about Juri and her grandfather especially. I wouldn’t say the show is a character study though, as there’s plenty of plot-based tension when the Yukawa family discovers that other, more unsavory people hold the same ability.

It was nice to see a range of faces and character designs too, compared to say the generic choice of only having young, flawless heroes (as in a lot of anime over the decades) but the thing I liked the most here was probably the uncertainty. I was rarely confident about exactly what would happen next, which was fun. 

Due to all the time the characters spend in stasis, I guess calling Kokkoku a ‘time-travel’ story isn’t quite right, but the principle is the same – the anime is exploring time and our relation to it.

Kokkoku also felt like it made room for a few moral questions but the speculative elements are the main focus. I also liked the kinda muted colour-scheme Geno Studio* used too, which added to the sense of realism within the unreal.

But I think I’ve rambled long enough – maybe I won’t watch this every year like some other favourites, but I’m glad I’ve seen it 🙂

4 Stars

* Perhaps best known for Golden Kamuy.

White Snake (Báishé: Yuánqǐ)

White Snake (Báishé: Yuánqǐ) 2019

As I’ve said before, my knowledge of animation from China is pretty limited but that didn’t stop me enjoying White Snake.

I do imagine that if I was familiar with the folktale the film draws from (Legend of the White Snake) I’d pick up a lot more subtext but I was never lost or confused because characters and motivations were clear and the same goes for the story.

Visually it’s beautiful I reckon; plenty of detail and space – and the vibrant colours that modern CGI is known for. I probably liked the settings and costuming as much as anything else, but there’s action and romance with a few surprises and some good villains too, and so White Snake is not just wonderful imagery.

Maybe for some folks the story might not be as complex as the animation with its ace action-sequences, some that are almost dizzying, but the romantic plot seemed to work really hard for the screentime.

Actually, let me phrase that better – I thought I’d finish the film thinking our two leads didn’t share enough scenes together but a feature film only has so much time to show us what’s important. And for me Blanca and Xuan probably did get enough time for the ending to work, if I think back.

So, maybe if you like costume dramas – but ones with perhaps more action than romance, and ones built around the mythical and supernatural – then White Snake should definitely satisfy.

4 Stars

A-Z Challenge: “N” is for Noragami (2014)

Noragami

This is (another) show that I wanted to tick off my A-Z challenge list and so I’m glad I’ve made a bit more progress on the challenge there, but sadly, it seems that maybe Noragami is a show Bones has abandoned.

I guess the audience didn’t love it enough to buy the merch or other physical items, and obviously, the studio has to follow their cash cows in order to stay afloat in a crowded marketplace… but I left season two of Noragami ready for a third and it probably won’t happen, which bugs me.

Nevertheless, that’s the way it is.

And I should switch to the things I liked about those two seasons – while also attempting to complete a short review for a change 😀

Noragami mixes supernatural action with comedy and drama in an urban (but not grimy) setting that’s kinda shown via the rooftops and telephone wires as much as the shrines and streets, which I loved.

For me, the creatures and magic were always fun and I liked the designs for both them and the humanoid characters, but I think the characters themselves were my fav aspect.

The pacing and reveals (especially around Yato’s past) and storytelling did the work of keeping me hooked, and while I probably enjoyed the first season’s main storyline slightly better, I got a lot of satisfying answers in the second.

The contrast between Yato and Hiyori as leads works a treat for me but I think maybe I was drawn to the side-characters as much as those two – even the sullen Yukine, who is given a nice arc, and is actually a pivotal character that I could have really disliked, but I ended up pretty keen for him to succeed.

I haven’t said much in the way of specifics here perhaps… and so here’s one I wanted to mention: the hierarchy of Gods and the way they operate within the bounds of the human world was a big hook for me.

Hmmm, now that I’m just rolling off things I enjoyed, it might be time to wrap things up and just mention a few last aspects – Ebisu had an interesting close to his storyline, and while I would have loved more from Kofuku and Daikoku, I did get to know a reasonably large cast, which gave the show plenty of variety, I reckon.

If you like action, comedy and supernatural elements around Gods and related deities then this might just hit the spot.

4 Stars

[This is the latest 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].

Pet Shop of Horrors

Pet Shop of Horrors (1999)

I definitely would have watched more of these.

Pet Shop of Horrors is a great example of ‘episodic’ storytelling, with its sombre tales contained neatly within each episode. There are two links between stories – Count D and his LA pet shop, and detective Leon, who is trying to uncover the truth about the place.

Aside from the cautious friendship between the two characters, the mysteries here focus on Count D’s customers and their folly.

Perhaps in time, maybe Madhouse could have built successive OVAs into a series – but that was probably never the plan. I guess also, this show isn’t ‘horror’ enough for folks who want gore and shock? And sometimes when a show doesn’t easily fit into one genre, it’s hard to sell. I dunno, I should research its reception!

But my point is (finally!) that this Pet Shop of Horrors is more like supernatural mystery more than full-on horror, and even at times, tragedy.

And while there’s a clear structure to the episodes – meet a customer to see what dangerous creature D sells them, then watch that customer struggle with their choices, there’s enough variety with mermaids, rats, serpents and kirin, and the characters, that I enjoyed each tale.

It was also fun to see what felt like a nod to Gremlins (but may not have been, of course) re: Count D’s rules about his caring for his pets.

Finally, the question of whether and/or how the customers invariably broke those rules was where most of the horror came into play, and depending on whether they were meant to be sympathetic characters, so too, the tragedy.

This feels like a somewhat forgotten OVA from the late 1990s now, but I liked it a lot.

4 Stars

Heaven Official’s Blessing (More Impressions)

I wish I had more to say today, but basically – I’m still enjoying Tian Guan Ci Fu plenty and also finding it hard to wait between episodes.

The adventure feel is still really strong and what probably amounts to Xie Lian and San Lang’s first date is really cute, even if the scenes aren’t quite played that way onscreen.

One of the only seasonal shows I’m keeping up with this time around! (8 episodes in so far.)