Julia's Reviews on All Things Media

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So...hey there! You all know me as Julia or Juliko here, and you all know that I love anime, manga, games, books, all that good stuff. I also like dabbling into reviewing things and critiquing them. If you've been watching/reading/playing stuff for as long as I have, you become a bit more aware of what works in some things and what doesn't. Some media can be good, decent, fair, mediocre, average, bad, or outright terrible. I know some of you read Roger Ebert's critique of various movies or have watched reviewers such as The Nostalgia Critic or Todd In The Shadows. I've actually been reviewing stuff as far back as 2010, and I often post reviews on my Livejournal account here and on my account on My Anime List. Since the forum was revamped, I began thinking...why not post my reviews here so everyone can see them? And thus, I decided to start a reviewing blog here, which I call Julia's Reviews On All Things Media! I'll post my opinions on various things and encourage people to discuss them here if they wish. I hope you all enjoy reading my stupid, random ramblings!

Now, there are some rules you'll need to follow:
  1. These are just my personal opinions on the things I review. If you disagree with them or have something to discuss about my reviews, that's great! We can be free to disagree, and I encourage others to share their opinions and views as well. But please be mature and respectful about it. Don't bully, antagonize, or shame me or others on their personal opinions on things. I've had to deal with that before in other fandoms, and I'd rather that be avoided here. If you like or hate a show/book/game that I happened to hate or like, that's fine, too. Everyone's tastes are different, and that's good!
  2. Some of these reviews will contain spoilers, though they will be hidden and marked accordingly. Some works gave me a lot of feelings and opinions on certain things, and I feel that some of my feelings won't be made clear enough or given enough context if I don't actually explain certain things in detail, lest they make my comments more confusing. If you don't like spoilers, that's fine, and I make sure to hide them. But if you want to discuss the spoilers, please hide them under spoiler tags as well for others who aren't familiar with the material.
  3. Many of the subjects I'll look at are solely stuff that I've seen, read, or played, so if you're expecting me to review Cowboy Bebop or Haruhi Suzumiya, good luck, because I haven't seen them, nor do I want to. I also don't review live-action movies, so those won't be covered.
Here's an overall explanation for my rating system:

100/100: The perfect anime.
97-99/100: The absolute best of the best, my all-time favorite(s).
95-96/100: Truly amazing and outstanding series, the best of their genres. These series made a huge impact on me.
92-94/100: Simply fantastic anime. These series have many areas in which they stand out like no other.
90-91/100: Anime that achieved exactly what they set out to do. Incredibly solid productions with so many things to like about them.
87-89/100: Awesome series. These stand out in many different areas and provide a very solid experience.
85-86/100: Excellent series. They may have a few flaws here and there, but overall they remain wonderful series with quite a few memorable moments.
84/100: These series are greatly enjoyable with a lot of reasons to make them worth watching, although there are a few things holding them back from real excellence.
82-83/100: Series with this score are destined for greatness, although they may have a few flaws here and there.
81/100: These are very good series, who have a few highlights here and there that make them enjoyable and worth watching.
80/100: Very good series, worth the watch. They may lack highlights, but remain really enjoyable nonetheless.
77-79/100: Enjoyable series. While not the best of the best, they’ve got quite a few good points and are nice to watch, save for a few flaws.
75-76/100: Series that are either nothing special, or shows that could have been awesome, yet were plagued by too many flaws.
72-74/100: These series did quite a few things wrong here. They’ve got some nice parts, but overall they’re not worth it.
70-71/100: Very flawed series that are only enjoyable if you’re really bored.
65-69/100: The epitome of mediocrity. These have one or two good points, but mostly they’re just bad and boring.
60-64/100: The bad stuff. Some redeeming qualities, mixed with a whole lot of garbage.
50-59/100: Garbage, stay away.
40-49/100: Utter crap.
Anything below 39: Downright terrible.

Now without further ado, let's start this off with a review I just recently finished for Studio Ghibli's debut movie, Laputa: Castle In The Sky, which I give an 83 out of 100!



In the early 1980s, a man named Hayao Miyazaki was just hot off the success of one of his first animated features, Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind. With all the money that came in thanks to Nausicaa's success, he decided to make his own company. With lots of hard work and help from friends, namely Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli was born. The first movie Ghibli ever made was this one, Laputa: Castle In The Sky, or just Castle In The Sky, since Laputa is apparently an offensive Spanish slur, not that the producers knew that at the time. From all the information I could find, Castle In The Sky was a hit, raking in lots of money and helping to establish Ghibli as a movie-making force to be reckoned with, to the point where it inspired many other works that would come later, with many considering it to be one of the first modern steampunk classics. Hironobu Sakaguchi has gone on to confirm that Castle In The Sky had a big influence on early Final Fantasy titles, particularly the airship designs. But how well does the movie hold up now? Let's take a look!

The story begins with a girl named Sheeta escaping an airship, having been kidnapped by a group of military agents who want to use her magical crystal necklace. She is saved by a young boy named Pazu, who works in a mine. The two become fast friends, but both the military agents and a group of pirates led by a woman named Dola are still after Sheeta, and Pazu is determined to help her in any way he can. Pazu is also trying to find the mysterious floating castle known as Laputa, which some say doesn't really exist. But as it turns out, Sheeta has more of a connection to Laputa than anyone realized, and one man in particular, Muska, is dead set on finding Laputa and using it for his own evil purposes. Pazu and Sheeta have to work together to not only save themselves, but Laputa and the world below.

If you're thinking the storyline is rather cliche, what with a boy helping a damsel in distress princess who has a magical McGuffin that everybody wants and fighting an evil man who wants to use said McGuffin for whatever, then you're right. By today's standards, the story isn't really much to write home about, as a lot of these things have been done before, with some doing it better than this. But there's really no such thing as originality anymore, so it really depends on the execution. In that aspect, I think Castle In The Sky, while it does use a lot of tropes and cliches common in most stories we know off, manages to handle them very well with what it had. But it can't be denied that it does stumble and make a few missteps, so the movie's not without its flaws.

But I don't want to damper the review with the negatives just yet, so I'll focus on the good aspects first. I don't think I need to talk too much about Ghibli's animation because, well, everybody knows how great Ghibli is with their animation, so talking about how great it is would be redundant. I can say that the amount of creativity that Miyazaki and the animators put into the fantasy setting is really original. From the mining town to the Laputa castle itself and its mixture of technology and nature, the setting really draws you in. The lush colors, the fantastical creatures, the stone caves with lights that look like tiny galaxies and starscapes, and the hyper detailed airships really draw you into the movie and its world. I can only imagine that this movie must have been revolutionary for its time period, and in that aspect, Laputa definitely succeeds on this front.

The soundtrack is just as good, which is no surprise, since Joe Hisaishi worked on it. Every piece of music works in their assigned scenes, knowing when to hold back and when to let loose, and setting the mood and atmosphere for each part. The ending song by Azumi Inoue is also very nice and well sung. Oddly enough, when Disney got the license to the movie, they commissioned Joe Hisaishi to rerecord the soundtrack for the movie with an orchestra and adding more music exclusively for their release back then. I did watch the dub with the rescore, since that was what I had found at first, and I did watch the Japanese version later, and I like both soundtracks for what they are. Considering I heard that the rescore was lambasted and hated when it first came out, I couldn't comprehend what the problem was. I mean, the music still works and fits the mood of the movie, even with a bit of lull destruction here and there, but it doesn't overpower the quiet scenes or ruin the atmosphere. Hey, I think we can all agree that the rescore is far and away better than...I don't know, every single Saban soundtrack that's made for every anime dub they (Saban) work on ever (Digimon and the recent dubs of Smile and Doki Doki Precure/Glitter Force, anyone?). Yeah, those soundtracks can be guilty of killing or ruining quieter moments and trying to add unnecessary, obnoxious, unsubtle music to EVERY SCENE due to the so-called idea that kids will hate any kind of silent or atmospheric moments. even a millisecond of it. At least Hisaishi's rescore doesn't do that.

The characters, I'm a bit conflicted on. They're not bad or anything, far from it. The side characters--namely Dola's pirate gang--are all colorful, fun, and full of personality, even if we don't know them very well...except for Muska, who is definitely a stereotypical evil bad guy who wants Sheeta and her crystal necklace so he can take control of Laputa and use it to take over the world. He doesn't have a whole lot of substance, and we don't really learn why he's like that in the first place, so he's not a very interesting villain. Though, to be fair, Mark Hamil's voice for him definitely gives him a lot of charisma and makes him seem both cunningly charming and menacing, so I'll give him that. I like Pazu well enough, he's okay, but in the end, he doesn't really carry the weight of the movie, and he spends a lot of his time doing impossible heroic feats that no kid his age should be able to do. He's not a bad, poorly written character, but he could have done more. That said, I've seen people give Sheeta a lot of flak for supposedly being a useless damsel in distress, and I think those complaints are unfounded. She's not a super strong badass action girl, but she doesn't need to be. She's smart, she's resourceful, and while it's clear she's not a fighter, she at least makes an effort to get out of her bad situations when she can and tries not to let anyone walk all over her, as shown in the beginning when she whacks Muska with a wine bottle and escapes the airship, bites one soldier trying to catch her, and attempts other escapes from her captors. I'd compare her to Maya Fey from the Ace Attorney series. She's not physically strong, but they say true strength lies within, and I think Sheeta deserves some recognition for that.

So the movie is lavishly animated and scored and has a unique setting that feels intriguing, but falls into a lot of cliches. I guess you can say it's both timeless and dated at the same time, if such a thing is possible. The idea of a boy saving a mysterious girl who turns out to be the queen of an extinct race has been done to death lots of times over the past few decades, and while it is nicely done here, it still feels a little vanilla. Plus, there are some details the movie just forgets about in its quest to make heart-pumping action. Like, one character destroys a roof, and nobody bothers to fix it, and nobody complains about the damage that's been done to their mines and how they have to deal with the construction afterward. Heck, a wooden bridge for mine carts is destroyed, and then it disappears, completely forgotten. So in the movie's attempts to have a lot of action, it winds up not following up on some of the more minor details that would have added some realism to the movie. But some other details they add are really good, such as an entire mining town going way out of their way to stop a bunch of pirates from kidnapping a little girl they know nothing about.

In the end, I wouldn't call Laputa: Castle In The Sky Ghibli's best movie. Kaguya, Marnie, and Whisper of the Heart are my personal favorites, and I feel that they're better. But that definitely doesn't mean Laputa doesn't deserve the popularity that it's gotten, especially considering the impact it's had on the anime and game industry in general. If we didn't have Laputa, stuff like Steamboy and the original Final Fantasy games probably wouldn't exist. It's still a fairly nice, exciting, imaginative movie that doesn't insult the audience's intelligence and has a lot of heart. Flaws and all, I still consider this a movie worth watching, especially if you want to introduce someone new to anime as a whole. I'd give it a solid 83/100.
 
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Here's a slightly older review I posted a while back for Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. But...you're probably not gonna like what I have to say about it, especially if you're a fan. This review was originally made on my LJ on June 21st, 2018.



I give what's considered one of the greatest American novels ever written...a 45/100.

So I finally managed to read Of Mice and Men. After finishing it, I thought: Seriously? THIS is considered one of the greatest American novels ever? I'm sorry, but I didn't find myself liking this one. At all. I heard that this was Steinbeck's first foray into writing, and it shows. The story is about these two men, George and Lennie, who try to find work on a nearby plantation during the Great Depression. Times are tough, and work is very hard to come by. Luckily, after a bit of travel, they manage to find work at a farm in the town of Soledad, with the intention of earning enough to get their own land and start their own farm. But when Lennie accidentally does something he shouldn't, both he and George are thrown into a heap of trouble and have to make some heartbreaking decisions in order to get by.

For anyone who's wondering, I don't expect all famous novels to be full of purple prose or super pretentious or anything like that. Even novels with simple, beige prose can be well written if done well. Some of my favorite books such as A Boy Called Bat and When The Mountain Meets The Moon use their simple writing to great effect. Of Mice and Men, on the other hand, feels more like it's written in script rather than making any attempt to resemble a novel in any way. From what I've heard, John Steinbeck did this deliberately, intentionally writing it as both a novella and as a script for a play. While I admit I can somewhat understand his intentions in writing it that way, the prose is very simple and doesn't really engage the reader much. The only good parts of the writing were where he describes nature and the setting. Those segments were actually good and understandable. Unfortunately, the rest of the prose doesn't really work, and considering this was his first novel, it really shows how unpolished he was back in the day.

The story itself doesn't really offer much. It's just five chapters of some guys hanging out at a farm and doing work, that's it, with a few dramatic moments thrown in near the end. I like simple stories when they're told well and have something to offer, but this one didn't really do it for me. With the way everything was written, it felt like I was being made to sit at a meeting where a bunch of drunk guys talked to each other about stuff that was completely irrelevant to everything. Nothing changed, nothing progressed, and none of the characters really did much of anything of note other than work to make a few bucks. There's literally no conflict save for George trying to make sure Lennie doesn't do anything that'll get them fired, but even that isn't enough to really carry the story.

Honestly, I felt the worst thing about Of Mice and Men were the characters, especially George. Everyone was so one-note and uninteresting, only having one personality trait and not much else. But George! God, I could go on about how much I hate this guy. He's supposed to be seen as a diligent, hardworking man who cares for Lennie, but all I saw was a whiny, petulant, annoying, irritating little prick who never stopped complaining about Lennie every chance he got. In fact, the fact that he constantly degrades, demeans, and complains about Lennie like he's some kind of parasite is what turned me off to him immediately. Throughout the entire novel, especially the first chapter, George constantly bitches and moans about how Lennie is such an annoying nuisance who's always causing trouble, leeching off of George, and how his life would be so much better if Lennie wasn't around. Not once does he ever, EVER, show any kind of genuine concern for Lennie, and in the rare moments that he does, the writing made it seem like George was more trying to save his own skin than actually help Lennie in any way whatsoever. In the second chapter, when George lies to his boss about Lennie being his cousin, he later tells Lennie that if he really was his relative, he'd shoot himself.

No. NO. NO! You DO NOT say that to a mentally handicapped person at all! Ever! Not does saying those things hurt their self-esteem and self-worth (And it does hurt Lennie, as shown in the end of the book), they internalize things like that and contributes to the idea that disabled people are burdens who can't do anything right and who will always be bothersome little leeches. Sorry if this is kind of personal, and normally I try not to take stuff like this personally. I really don't. I know it's fiction, and it makes sense for the time period the book takes place in, and I get that. But if someone said this to you in real life, even as a joke, would you really just brush it off and try to say that that's normal? I know I wouldn't, because stuff like that is really hurtful and demeaning. That's like telling the parent of an autistic child that they'd shoot themselves if their kid ever turned out autistic, and considering most disabled people are killed because their caretakers either don't want to deal with them or feel their lives are being ruined with them around, without even trying to learn what disabilities are actually like and trying to understand the disabled people in question, it's especially bad in today's world. Even sadder is that Lennie actually believes all of the mean things George tells him. At one point, after a tragic incident, Lennie has daydreams about his aunt and an imaginary rabbit telling him that he's nothing but an idiot who hurts everyone around him and that the world would be so much better off without him, how everyone had to sacrifice their dreams and lives because they had to deal with him. That's not the kind of message writers should send to people of any kind, disabled or not. It felt like the entire book was shitting on poor Lennie just for the sake of crapping on him, nothing else. Honestly, Lennie deserved so much better than this.

Okay, I'm done ranting. Not gonna lie, I didn't like this one, and while I can understand and appreciate the impact its had on literature, especially during the time it was written, I don't feel it's one of the greatest novels ever written. No, not even close. I can name several books that I like way better than Of Mice and Men. Eh, who knows? If you like it, that's cool. But in the end, it just wasn't for me, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I guess not even revered classics are immune to having flaws. Then again, nothing's perfect, and we shouldn't expect things to be perfect.
 
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This review was originally made on February 26th, 2014. Now for a look at the very first video game I ever played!



I give my first ever video game...an 85/100!

Oh, the nostalgia! I can't resist! I have a very close and personal relationship with this game. In fact, this is my first ever video game! When I was young, my sister took dance classes at a local dance school in my old hometown, and I saw a boy older than me playing a GameBoy Color and one of the Pokemon games. I also remember seeing the commercial for the green GameBoy Color. Soon, on my seventh birthday, my parents surprised me with an actual lime green GameBoy Color and Pokemon Yellow, my first ever game console and video game! You should have seen how happy I was, as I was already a fan of the anime. But back then I was too young to really be addicted to games, nor did I properly understand certain concepts and mechanics, so I couldn't actually finish it. But now, 14 years later, I'm glad to say that I replayed the game from scratch on my GameBoy Advance and actually beat the game! I still own my Pokemon Yellow game, as it's WAAAY too important to me to throw away, and my green GameBoy Color is now dead beyond repair. Yes, I tried putting in new batteries but it didn't work. My sister's old blue GameBoy Color worked, but I sold it to a good friend of mine. I'm still keeping my green one, though! So what if it's broken and dead? It's my first ever game console!

The game itself was a big innovation of its time, and it kinda wanted to cash in on the anime's success by making Pikachu follow you around like it does Ash. But this came with problems: you couldn't evolve it unless you traded it to another game, and I don't think you can store it in the PC either. I don't remember if the second one is true or not, but I could be wrong. But anyway, you play as a Pokemon trainer with the task of completing the PokeDex. Along the way, you encounter an evil organization called Team Rocket who wants to make a profit out of stealing and experimenting on Pokemon. Yes, Jessie and James are in it. You have to capture all of the Pokemon in order to complete the PokeDex.

The game came out in Japan in 1998, and in the US in 1999, but I didn't get this until my 7th birthday in 2000. Now that I've finished it all the way through, I can see how this game was very innovative for it's time. It's the first Pokemon game to actually utilize a majority of different colors whereas Pokemon Red and Blue only used one color for everything. In Yellow, the cities change color when you go into them and the Pokemon all have different colors. For example, Pewter City is a brownish purple, keeping with Brock's Pokemon type preferences, Cerulean City is blue keeping with Misty's water type Pokemon, Cinnabar Island is red, various grassy routes a light green, etc. Not only that, while in Red and Blue all of the Pokemon sprites looked rather odd and were limited to just one color for everything, Yellow improves on the sprites drastically and gives all of the Pokemon different colors: Pikachu yellow, Squirtle blue, Bulbasaur green, Clefairy reddish pink, etc. The addition of color was very new to the Pokemon games back in those days, as technology was improving quite a lot. But the game itself is still in the 8-bit style, just like Red and Blue and later on Gold, Silver, and Crystal. I don't know much about the details of 8-bit and 10-bit, but it was still around in the nineties, even though games like Final Fantasy VII began utilizing 3D sprites and features, so in that way, it was a little behind the times, not that I mind. The 8-bit style is okay, but it is rather limiting in today's era. You can only move the player avatar in four cardinal directions, not diagonally. Heck, the Pokemon games in general didn't make the player characters be able to move diagonally until last year with Pokemon X and Y!

I will admit, the story itself is rather cliche and childish. It's as simple as making pie: collect monsters, defeat an evil organization, get stronger, battle trainers, and become champion. It's as simple as that. Granted, the Pokemon games were made with children in mind, so they couldn't do anything complicated with it unlike games of that era like Final Fantasy VII and Golden Eye. But I like it plain and simple, so it's easier for kids and adults to understand. This was before Pokemaniacs began caring about IVs and EVs and all that stuff. Just because something looks simple doesn't mean it isn't fun. There are some drawbacks to the earlier games, however. If your Pokemon learns a new move and you delete another one, you absolutely cannot relearn it. This was before Ruby and Sapphire came up with Move Reminders and Move Deleters. I remember when I was young my Pikachu learned Quick Attack and my sister replaced Thundershock, and I remember that made me mad as heck whenever I'd be up against Pokemon that required electric moves to defeat them. Also, you couldn't evolve Pikachu unless you traded it to another game so you could use a thunderstone on it. If you trade it back, Pikachu won't follow you around. On the flip side, if you make your player face Pikachu every once in a while and press the A button, it delivers a variety of absolutely adorable facial expressions depending on the situation. Unfortunately, they didn't bring those back in Heart Gold and Soul Silver, but they're still so cute to see.

Pokemon isn't a masterpiece, and Pokemon Yellow isn't even the best Pokemon game in my opinion. But it's my first ever Pokemon game, and it'll always have a spot in my heart. My game still works, so it's good!

(P.S, 2/6/2019: As of today, I've since sold my copy of Pokemon Yellow and bought it on the 3DS Virtual Console)
 
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Nice to see a big variety here.

One bit on Yellow, you can put Pikachu in the PC. Also people didn't care about IVs and EVs back then, it was all about DVs and stat exp. Though the latter is quite a bit simpler.

Aside, found it interesting that a little game called SaGa, better known as The Final Fantasy Legend here, was indirectly responsible for Pokemon in the first place. It was one of the Gameboy's first RPGs, and it's what convinced the creator that the console could handle those kinds of games.
 
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I never knew that about SaGa. I'd heard of it but never looked much into it.
 
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This review was originally written on January 21st, 2018.



I'd give it an 80/100.

Did you guys really see this coming? Okay, admit it. There's probably nobody out there that hasn't at least heard of the Wizard of Oz. A lot of people probably only know about it having seen the 1939 movie by MGM starring Judy Garland, and considering that's the absolute most famous movie adaptation of the story ever, that's no surprise. I've seen it a lot of times myself, whether on VHS and on TV when certain channels had it on reruns. But I haven't seen the movie in years (I might watch it again one of these days just to see what it's like), and I only just recently bought and read the book. To my surprise, I actually kind of like it. Love it, actually. Yeah, it's obviously a book aimed at children, what with its simple story, simple prose, and rather one-dimensional characters. But I still found it to be a very pleasant read and would definitely share it with any kid or reader looking for something nice to kill their time. With that, here's my review of the famous book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz! Oh, just for clarification, the copy I bought looks like this:



Yeah, I'm not even joking. Haven't read Marvelous Land of Oz yet, but I will later on. Just want to get the first book out of the way first. And it has pretty manga illustrations. What's not to like about that?!

Anyway, the story's pretty simple. A young country girl named Dorothy Gale lives a nice, pleasant life on a farm in Kansas with her aunt and uncle. One day, a tornado storms its way through their farm, taking Dorothy and her dog Toto into a magical wonderland called Oz. But the people of Oz see Dorothy as a wonderful sorceress, as her house killed the Wicked Witch of the East, who enslaved the Munchkin people. As happy as Dorothy is about seeing this new world, she's worried about her family at home, and the Good Witch of the North advises her to go to the Emerald City to see the great Wizard of Oz, for he can help her get home. Along the way she meets a few friends, like a sentient Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and a cowardly Lion, all of whom accompany her to the Emerald City for their own reasons. But the journey to the Emerald City isn't without difficulty, and for all they know, the Wizard of Oz may not even be able to grant their wishes. But Dorothy and friends are determined to get there by any means necessary.

Seeing as this is a cute fantasy story aimed at kids, of course the writing and the prose is going to be very simple. Everything is bluntly but simply described, with only the most basic of descriptions describing everything, without any embellishments, parables, or anything deep or substantial. While some may dismiss L. Frank Baum's writing style as being a bit too juvenile, at the time of its creation, many books, even kids books, relied heavily on excessive purple prose that sought to describe anything and everything in excessive detail, even about things that weren't necessary. Many kids books during the Victorian era, such as Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, were overwrought with nauseating sentimentality and cheesy prose that made you want to puke. Thankfully, as far as I've read, Wizard of Oz doesn't do that, going right to the point without straying too far. Sometimes, less is more, and for what it's worth, I think L. Frank Baum's prose is just fine.

Unfortunately, the simple prose also leads to one of Wizard of Oz's flaws. The characters are pretty okay, and admittedly a little bit cookie-cutter and one-dimensional in that they barely react much to what's going on around them. Since the books rely a bit too heavily on telling rather than showing, the book is peppered with sentences such as "Dorothy cried bitterly" and "The Lion was scared" without really diving deep into their psyches and showing us how they feel in greater depth and detail. Sometimes it kind of feels like I'm reading a script rather than a book. As a result of Baum's prose, the characters suffer in the process, and wind up with very little depth. That's not to say the characters are bad, per say. But since this was a children's story, the characters are either stereotypically good (The good witches, Dorothy and friends) or stereotypically bad (The Wicked Witches) without much in-between, so the audience is expected to love or hate one or the other without having to think too much. Yeah, the Wicked Witches are bland villains who don't do much except be evil and hurt people. Dorothy and her friends and everyone else stays the same throughout the entire book and don't change at all, so by today's standards, they're extremely bland.

Another problem that Wizard of Oz has is that all of its conflicts end as quickly as they start, which also hurts the characters. The Wicked Witch of the West has kidnapped you? Just throw a bucket of water on her to make her melt! Wild animals are attacking you? Just let the Tin Woodman chop all their heads off! Want to get somewhere but don't have the means to do so? Just call upon the flying monkeys! They can take you wherever you like without any trouble at all! See what I mean? With the bland characters and the fact that all conflicts are resolved way too quickly, there's no room for any real suspense or danger. If you want an audience to care about and sympathize with the characters, there needs to be some kind of danger. Nobody wants to read a story about kids eating cake at a carnival. Characters need to face challenges, put their lives on the line, and deal with their flaws in ways that'll make people care about them, if done well. In case you couldn't tell, this is not exactly one of Wizard of Oz's strong points.

However! That's not to say Wizard of Oz is a bad book. Far from it. I would much rather read this than, say, Homer's Odyssey or Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. For what it's worth, Wizard of Oz definitely has a lot of great ideas going for it. I found the land of living china figurines to be one of the better chapters of the book, and the idea of sentient china dolls and a world made entirely of porcelain to be really neat. I'm surprised L. Frank Baum didn't write any stories just about the dainty china country. The Emerald City in and of itself is a very neat idea, a green metropolis where everyone wears green and green 3D-esque glasses controlled by a wizard who doesn't take one single form. That's something that could really be an interesting idea if expanded upon! The characters also have interesting backstories that today would be considered absolutely amazing if L. Frank Baum really took the time to expand on them in greater detail.

Another one of Wizard of Oz's strengths is that the book always takes time to show us the various places and countries that make up Oz and the people that inhabit them. While the book doesn't go into a whole lot of detail about them per say, especially not places like the Winkie country or the china country, enough time is given to those places and people to show what a fantastical land Oz is. One book I reviewed earlier, A Wrinkle In Time, didn't bother to really develop its settings, especially not the various planets the kids and their friends traveled to, making them little more than pit stops than anything else. Thankfully, Wizard of Oz manages to avoid doing this entirely. Seriously, A Wrinkle In Time, you can take a page out from Wizard of Oz and put some effort into developing your settings!...and having a proper conclusion! Speaking of, one thing about the book that really boggles me is that there's a lot of casual murder and animals getting decapitated. I mean, the Tin Woodman chops animals' heads off on a near regular basis, though admittedly in defense of a third party. Plus, the head chopping scenes are rather bluntly described and have zero gore to them. Still, I'm kinda surprised Baum's publishers even let that get past potential censors! Meh, I'm not complaining.

Do I think Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of the greatest books ever? No. But I definitely like it and respect the impact it's had on popular culture. There are parts I feel that could have been either done better or expanded upon, but I do like it for what it is. Hey, I like simple stories just as much as I do hard, complicated, and more riveting stories, as long as the former are done well. Just because you've read the same story or trope time and time again doesn't suddenly make it horrible and vomit-inducing. Why else do you think it's endured for all this time? People have analyzed the Oz books left and right. Some say it's a perfectly simple story for children, and others say it's a political satire, an economic parable, or a critique of traditional American values. But one thing can be said for certain: The Wizard of Oz has definitely earned its place as one of the most famous children's books of all time.

If you're a fan of nice, pleasant fantasy stories that take you to faraway lands, then the Wonderful Wizard of Oz is definitely a book you'll sure find to be a delight.
 
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This review for the anime Jewelpet Twinkle was originally made on August 7th, 2014.



(Yes yes, I know it's official title is Jewelpet Tinkle, but I REFUSE to call it that for obvious reasons, and other dubs are doing it too, so why not?!)

I give this cutesy anime about talking jewel-eyed animals...an 84/100!

For years, there's a stereotype that boys don't like to watch cartoons aimed at girls and that all girls' cartoons are crap. Neither of those are true, even though they continue to endure to this day. Shows like Sailor Moon, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, The Legend of Korra, Littlest Pet Shop, Pretty Cure, and Jewelpet all have male fans who genuinely enjoy them, and the shows themselves are genuinely good. But companies don't believe that girl shows can make a buck here in the US. I say screw that! In fact, we need more girls' anime to come to the US and get dubbed (if unedited and uncut, of course). In fact, Viz Media just licensed Sailor Moon, and it's the number one most watched show on Hulu, and pre-orders for the DVDs are the highest Viz has ever received in history. Someone really needs to take a stand and bring many of these girls anime to the US so preteen girls can watch them and feel for the characters and find out what happens. Jewelpet Twinkle is definitely a gem of a girls' anime that really needs to be brought here. I'd love to see how the mainstream public reacts to it. Girls aren't much different from boys in that they love stories with solid conflict, characters they can identify with and root for, and good aesops they can learn from them.

Now before I begin, this is actually the second Jewelpet series that Sanrio made. There is an anime before this, but the problem is, fansubs for it are pretty much nonexistent, and the ones that are there aren't complete yet. So, our story is about a shy girl named Akari who wishes she could be more outspoken, and is sick of everyone comparing her to her super model big sister. But one day, she meets a cute white rabbit named Ruby, a Jewelpet from a magical place called Jewel Land. Ruby needs a human partner so she can study in the Jewel Academy. Although reluctant at first, Akari decides to befriend Ruby and study magic. Magical adventures await them and their friends.

I remember watching two episodes of this when it came out, but I never got around to finishing it until now. I have to admit, the super moe style and the animation aren't really much to write home about. They do their job just fine, but there's very few moments of facial expression. But I do like the colorful backgrounds, the (actually NOT clunky) CGI, and the visuals used for the magic spells. Those are really well done. The Jewelpets do look like they've had a bit too much plastic surgery but I'm sure the little kid watching it wouldn't notice that. The music isn't anything really special either. The opening theme is cute (but I think the French version sounds just beautiful), the ending theme...not so much. It's a bit too upbeat and moe for my tastes. The background music pieces are nice, albeit a teensy bit bland. At least they fit the atmosphere of the scenes they're supposed to be in instead of killing it (Nurse Angel Ririka SOS, anyone?).

The characters...to be honest, I think Akari is the best main character in a girls' show ever. She does start off as dull and bland, but she really becomes a strong, solid, well developed character. Gasp! She actually finds something she's good at! She actually manages to get better at everything she used to suck at before with lots of practice! She actually approaches things in a realistic, non cheesy way! I was blown away by the way the creators developed her and made her grow as a person. Honestly, I think she'd be a great role model for young girls. She's super girly, but she tries hard, has times of weakness, doesn't give up, and with hard work, she succeeds despite a few bumps on the way. But it's the other characters that come off as generic. They're mostly a bunch of stereotypes (the peppy girl, the bishounen, the ice queen, and the bratty kid who flaunts his genius), and while they go have days in the limelight, some of their development is admittedly a little predictable. Leon suffers the worst of this, as he's just a bit too perfect, and even in the episodes where he does discover a flaw, he still comes off as too perfect to me. The Jewelpets are pretty cute, though. But I absolutely ADORE the main villain. I won't say who she is, and to be honest, she isn't even a villain, but her development is awesome, and she's a far cry from typical anime villains. I even like the guy Akari has a crush on! True, he is a tiny bit bland and looks like he could turn into a brooding angsty kid, but he's actually quite nice and sensible, and he and Akari actually have genuinely good chemistry together, and work towards their relationship in a realistic, healthy way.

However, what makes this girls' anime awesome is the way it handles its fillers and aesops. Many anime fans decree that all filler episodes are garbage, but that's not true. If done right, fillers can actually be awesome, examples being Popolocrois and this anime. I find that I like filler episodes that focus on developing the characters and know exactly what message they want to send out, and that's exactly what Popolocrois and Jewelpet Twinkle do (although even Jewelpet isn't immune from a bad episode. I will forever hate episode 40 for having a massive idiot plot featuring an annoying panda). My favorite episodes are 13, 30, and 39, the first being about Akari trying to enter a manga competition but backs out due to writer's block, but she manages to find an alternative and she finds success. The third one is about Akari thinking her parents favor her sister over her, which turns out to be not true, and episode 39 is just full of heartwarming and scenery porn. Jewelpet Twinkle teaches a lot of great lessons to kids through its storytelling and characters in a sensible way, and many of those aesops are: It's okay to be insecure, work hard to get what you want, there's always another opportunity for everything, you can achieve your dreams if you never give up, having friends makes life more enlightening, and you can be as girly as you like and still be able to do what you like. Yeah, this anime is VERY high on cuteness and girliness, but it doesn't treat any of that as a bad thing.

There are some problems I'd like to address, though. One thing I never understood was something in episode 8. In that episode, Akari meets a girl from 12 years ago and it turns out she traveled through time. But they never explain how this is possible. Also...the ending. Now don't get me wrong, I like it for what it is. But without giving anything away, there's this REALLY random, out of the blue Deus Ex Machina that's just thrown in there for absolutely no purpose than to separate the two main characters. It just felt tacked on, and I felt like the episode would be better without said twist. I would have been fine with it if it had been explained in an earlier episode or something like that, but they just yank it out of absolutely nowhere for cheap angst. But those are my only main issues with it.

If you're looking for a genuinely good anime to show to your little sister, niece, or daughter, make it this one. It's got plenty of cute, good stories, and good morals...if you can tolerate diabetically cute and cuddly animals.
 
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I give this charming, heartbreaking movie about a boy and his dog...a 97/100!

I've watched many movies throughout my childhood. Namely the Pokemon movies, some Disney movies (namely Aladdin), and others. But none of them have really made a huge impact on me because of the limited time they have to get made. Characters aren't always developed, plots are too narrow, and some just turn out plain terrible. Before 2010, I had never even HEARD of anything called The Dog of Flanders. I only learned about it through this review from one of my favorite anime bloggers, and he considers it his favorite movie ever. When I first read it, I thought, "Can a movie really be this good?" Curious, I tracked it down and found it on YouTube...and I was absolutely not prepared for what I saw, and boy am I glad I followed his recommendation. This movie, to me, is a masterpiece on every level. This is my personal gold standard for not only animated movies, but for movies that are adaptations of books, and movies as a whole overall. I'll try to be as objective as possible, but I can't help but gush about it, as it's such an underrated movie that rarely gets the appreciation that it so deserves! But I'm gonna tell you all about it and I'm not ashamed to say it: Dog of Flanders is my number one favorite anime movie of all time, and movie of all time in general.

What's the story? A fairly simple one, really. In 19th century Belgium, a young boy named Nello lives an impoverished but happy life with his grandfather Jehaan, spending their days collecting milk from someone's farm and selling it to the townspeople in Antwerp. Sometimes when he's free, he plays with his best and only friend, Alois, who comes from a wealthy family, but her dad isn't too keen on the idea of his daughter hanging out with a low class boy. His dream is to become a famous artist or painter, just like his favorite artist, Peter Paul Rubens. One day, when Nello was young, he and his grandfather found a dog nearly dead by the river, knowing it had been abused by its cruel owner. Taking pity on it, Jehaan and Nello take the dog Patrasche home and raise him as their own. At first, things are relatively happy and peaceful. But despite managing to get by on the wages they have, hardship winds up befalling Nello and his family one by one, and he wonders whether he can survive it all.

The Dog of Flanders was originally a small novella written by a British/French woman named Marie Louise de la Ramee, aka Ouida. You can read it for free on the Project Gutenberg website here, and it's very short, so it's easy to get through. Having read it myself, it's hard to say, but the book is actually rather flimsy. The stories hardly have anything to really tie them together, everything moves at a breakneck pace, the writing is rather sluggish, and the characters are completely one note, barely doing much of anything. Needless to say, Belgians didn't take to the novel, so Ouida's sentimental tearjerker wasn't very successful. However, the Japanese absolutely fell in love with it when a diplomat read the author's obituary, brought the book to his home country in 1908, and shared it with friends. It was quickly translated, and it became one of the most beloved foreign children's books in the entire country, to the point where it inspired four different anime adaptations, this one included. I've seen three: the 1975 anime series, the 1992 anime series, and this one, the 1997 movie, which was dubbed and brought to the US by Geneon in 2000. But if the original book is so flimsy, how come every anime adaptation, this one included, is not only so successful, but compelling, awesome, and masterful? I'm here to show you.

Firstly, the simple story makes it rife for adaptation, and Nippon Animation has proven to really be great at making use of their run time to add in lots of things to make what they work on more rich, compelling, and substantial, truly bringing out the best in its source material, starting with its characters. Every single one of them is amazing and well-developed, full of personality, and with their own defined roles, even if you don't like all of them. Just looking at them, you can figure out what kind of backgrounds they have, and the movie trusts you to be able to figure it out without feeling like it has to spoon-feed you with backstories and flashbacks, except only when absolutely necessary. They're all likeable and easy to get attached to, without a whole lot of unnecessary baggage and complicated backstory to sift through in the process.

Personally, I found the animation to be very good, though by today's standards it's rather dated. I don't really think so myself, as the character designs are simple but they give the animators the freedom in communicating the characters' happiest and most desperate moments, and here, it works effectively. The backgrounds are highly detailed, looking like they came right out of photographs in some cases, and the character designs are plain but serviceable, faithful to the time period it takes place in. Plus, you have to admit, they're much more polished and realistic than the overly cartoony 1975 designs, though the movie does use that as a base, and is basically a compressed adaptation of that. The music is pretty nice too. I consider the OST to be one of my favorite soundtracks ever, though some other series managed to do better. I think now is a good time to talk about the English dub for this movie. When it comes to the voices and casting, I think I prefer the English dubbed version over the Japanese because some of them sound a bit shaky, like Mrs. Nulette. In the Japanese version she sounds like she has strep throat. Jehan sounded like he had a sinus infection. The only Japanese voices I liked in the movie were Alois, George, and Paul. They were perfect. But I hear that the Japanese version has scenes that were cut out of the dub, so in respect to that, I'll prefer the Japanese over the English version. But I feel the English dub is great, with all of the actors nailing their roles perfectly, and not a single line sounded stilted or badly dubbed. To me, this is the Cowboy Bebop of English movie dubs for me. Yeah, I said that. Fight me.

Despite the slightly old visuals and slightly shaky Japanese voice acting, these should be NO reasons to NOT watch this adorable, beautiful, heartbreaking, and awesome movie! This movie shows that life is fragile and not eternal, and it deals with serious issues such as death, poverty, and classism. It also emphasizes the benefits of honesty, friendship, work ethic, creativity, and knowledge, and how the ignorance of various people's actions and thoughts can really shape the person. All of you MUST see this wonderful movie! I would love to own it myself, but it's both out of print and appallingly expensive! It's the best movie I ever saw, and the best movie ever made! If you're interested in watching it, you can find the English version here. This is a movie that you NEED to see if you want to watch something that's genuinely good.
 
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Hooo boy. I have a LOT to say about this one, none of it good. This one was originally written on June 6th, 2018.



I give this book critiquing police brutality and injustice...24/100.

Update, 9/6/20: I decided to add a few points to my rating because a friend of mine and I had a discussion about it, and she made some good points about its message. Plus, I found a book that somehow turned out to be even worse than this, so I changed the rating a bit. I still maintain that the book is a hot mess, but it's okay if people like it as well.

I don't like this book. At all. In fact, I'm not afraid to say it: I hate this book. I think this is the first book I ever read to completion that I've actually hated. I tried reading Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and I didn't last ten pages before closing it. But I kept hearing about The Hate U Give on various websites and read both the positive and negative reviews for it. I rented it at my local library and read it to see if it was really as good or bad as people have said it is. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to agree with the negative reviews on this one: This book, while it does have a genuinely good message, is just a seriously bad, poorly written, terrible book that makes HUGE missteps in trying to give its message and just being a story in general.

The story centers on Starr Carter, a young girl who lives in two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives in and the fancy prep school she attends, which happens to consist of mostly white kids, save for a few minorities. For the most part, other than a few teenage problems she grapples with, her life is pretty normal...until one day, she watches her best friend Khalil be shot and killed by a police officer in the aftermath of a party gone bad. Not only does Khalil's death traumatize her and change her life forever, it becomes a national headline. People protesting his death are taking to the streets, and others are claiming Khalil deserved to die under the assumption that he was just a no-good thug, or even a gang-banger. It's up to Starr to tell the world what really happened on that terrible night. But in doing so, she may end up putting herself, and her family, in grave danger.

Now, just reading the premise, the book sounds like it could be amazing. Considering the tough topic it tries to address and how relevant it is in today's world, that's a great idea to explore! Unfortunately, there's just so much that holds this book back, completely marring what could have been an interesting, intriguing premise. First off: the prose. It wasn't anything special. It was easy to read, which is fine, but it was mostly very flat and not engaging in the slightest. It absolutely reeks of melodrama and trying way too hard to make me feel for Starr, and it failed very hard in that regard. A lot of it felt like I was just reading a script rather than a book. It also doesn't help that the characters are all talking in slang. ALL THE DAMN TIME! I'd tolerate it if it only happened once in a while, but having every single character talk in slang in every single page?! I'm pretty sure nobody spends their whole life talking in slang. I've met many African-Americans throughout my school years who were very articulate and never spoke in slang, at least not every single day, or if they did, they at least reigned it in when needed. Seeing so much of it for pages and pages without end just made me want to bash my head against the wall. Also, who the hell says "Bubble guts"? Is that even a real slang word? I've never heard anyone use it!

I'd talk about the characters, but...what's there to talk about? They're pretty much living, breathing stereotypes. The dad was an ex-gang member who slept with a bunch of women and has lots of kids, Starr's the teenager who whines about everything, Chris is her super cool boyfriend, Hailey's the bitchy one, Maya's the nice Chinese girl, and so on. I can't find myself liking any of them, save for Maya and Carlos, who are the only characters worth caring about since they're the most sensible people in the entire cast! Also, the book tries really hard to make me want to sympathize with Starr, but I can't. She's insufferable, whiny, petulant, she constantly jerks her boyfriend around and treats him like crap despite his being a very nice boyfriend, is easily offended by anything and everything, and has a victim complex so big, you can use it as fuel for a hot air balloon. Example: She gets mad at one of her friends for unfollowing her on Tumblr. Do I even need to explain how extremely petty this is? Also, do we seriously need her constantly talking about her Jordan sneakers in every single page? I hear that the authoress likes them too, and that's fine, but there's an art to knowing when to use and repeat certain elements and when not to, and what. Starr's obsession with basketball and sneakers don't contribute anything to the story, and the fact that there's so many passages about them makes the story feel extremely bloated.

Furthermore, everything is extremely over-the-top in this novel. It seems like the story's trying so hard to be dramatic and compelling that it feels it has to shoehorn in so many shocking events in order to make the audience feel anything. Starr watches her friend get shot. Another friend got killed in front of her when she was a kid. Drug lords try to attack the city. Her friend DeVante is on the run from said drug lord. Protestors destroy their town in a fiery blaze. None of this stuff happens in a seamless, organic fashion. Instead, the authoress piles them onto Starr and is using them to shout to the readers "BE SAD BE SAD BE SAAAAAD!!!" This kind of thing doesn't work, because so many of these plot devices at once not only bloat the story, but make it a huge slog to go through because there's little, if any reprieve, from all of the craziness going on. If the book had focused on just one or two of these things and not a bunch of them all at once, it would be much more streamlined and way less overly melodramatic.

But the book's biggest flaw? For a book that tries to advocate against violence and racism, the way a lot of this stuff is written makes it come off as condoning the opposite. I really don't like pieces of media trying to present an anti-racism message while making no qualms about having its characters be as racist as possible towards anything and anyone, even their friends! TVTropes refers to this as a Broken Aesop, where a book or movie or show tries to present a moral, but winds up doing things that espouse the opposite message from what they intended. Don't believe me? I found a crap ton of examples to show you:

"White kids love popping pills." Pg. 9
Oh. Since when did taking pills suddenly become exclusive to white people? People of all races take pills or do drugs.

"Now Black Jesus will have to save me if they find out I'm here." Pg. 11
Uhh...last I checked, Jesus wasn't black. Don't make things up.

"Why does it always have to be about race with you?" Uncle Carlos, pg. 53
I officially love Uncle Carlos. Best character in the book. Too bad nobody else can be as sensible and level-headed as him, and it seems like people in the book hate him as well. Seriously.

In chapter 5, Starr goes on this tangent that she has to be two different people: her so-called "hood" self when she's at home, and her "white-school" self when she's at her school, and pointing out all the things she's supposedly not allowed to do at said school that she feels she can do in her neighborhood. Why does she feel like it's a bad thing to be a black girl from a black neighborhood going to a fancy school that has mostly white kids? In this day and age, nobody cares about that sort of thing as far as I know. This isn't the 1950s, where the idea of a black girl going to a school for white kids is somehow a concept that makes people think the pope got pregnant. These days, even interracial couples are very common, so I don't see what the big deal is. Sure, I won't deny that some kids get bullied for being a different race by other kids. Let's face it, kids pick on other kids over everything, even things that are beyond their control. I know Thomas wants us to sympathize with her plight, and in some places, I do. But seriously, every time I read about how Starr's musings about herself and her place among white people, I don't sympathize for her, I feel like she's acting like a spoiled, overdramatic little brat who constantly looks for the bad in everything so she can have an excuse to complain all the time.

"Maya's boyfriend, Ryan, happens to be the only other black kid in eleventh grade, and everybody expects us to be together. Because apparently when it's two of us, we have to be on some Noah's Ark type shit and pair up to preserve the blackness of our grade."
Is Starr's school really like that? I find this really hard to believe. It'd be understandable if this was...I dunno, the 1940s-1960s, but in 2017/2018? I highly doubt it, and I especially doubt that an ENTIRE SCHOOL in the modern day would even think of deliberately trying to pair two black people together like they were some museum exhibit.

"I kneel beside my dead friend in the middle of the street with my hands raised. A cop as white as Chris points a gun at me. As white as Chris."
Really? Really? Your boyfriend is trying to cheer you up and genuinely make amends with you, and all you can think about is the fact that he's white? More than that, you're still fixating on the fact that the cop who shot your friend was white? Lady, stop focusing so much on their skin color, for God's sake!

"But that moment he grabbed my hands and I flashed back to that night, I suddenly really, really realized that Chris is white. Just like One-Fifteen. And I know, I'm sitting here next to my white best friend, but it's almost as if I'm giving Khalil, Daddy, Seven, and every other black guy in my life a big, loud "fuck you" by having a white boyfriend. Chris didn't pull us over, he didn't shoot Khalil, but am I betraying who I am by dating him?"
I'm sorry, but no. Just...no. NO. This sentence alone made me lose any and all sympathy I had for Starr and the book as a whole. Starr, stop being so whiny. You are NOT betraying your family and friends by having a white boyfriend. If your friends and family actually feel that way, then that's THEIR problem, not yours. Quit catastrophizing your relationship with your boyfriend and making it into something it's not! This is my problem with Starr and the book as a whole: It feels like the book is trying really hard to make the reader believe that EVERYTHING that happens in a black person's life has to do with their race. No. No it doesn't. Chris being white shouldn't be an obstacle in a relationship. The cop being white shouldn't automatically make him the villain, even if he did shoot Khalil when he shouldn't have. For example, I'm autistic and I have similar self-esteem problems, but do you hear me whine, question my relationships with my family and friends, and feel like I'm betraying the autistic community by having neurotypical family members and friends? No, because not only does that make absolutely no sense whatsoever, because I can't help being autistic, but doing that will obviously make me come off as whiny, pretentious, or trying to play oppression olympics, and I'm not shallow like that.

In chapter 9, Starr's boyfriend Chris visits her at her family's house to make sure she's okay and apologize for the thing she was originally mad at him about. Because, hey, that's what good boyfriends do, and he's being a really good boyfriend! But Starr can't bring herself to tell him what's wrong, and he's worried and getting angry. What does Starr tell him about why she can't tell him the truth? That he's white! He's white, she's black, he's rich, she's not, and even though he says that doesn't matter, that even though he doesn't understand, he wants to and wants to be there for her. Of all the things she had to use to hide the fact that she witnessed Khalil's death, why bring up their races? She could have told him something like, "It's too personal. I'm going through a lot right now, so I'll tell you when I'm ready. Would you mind giving me some space? I'd really appreciate it. It's not you, it's me." That easy! But nope! It's gotta be all about race! It's stuff like this that makes me think the book is trying to push an agenda, like "white people bad, blacks good and oppressed," even though the supposed moral of the book is that being good and kind is better than resorting to violence and hatred. Also, for those of you about to argue that Starr is having trouble articulating her problems to Chris since his life is different from hers, I present this counterargument: As someone who is autistic and has had plenty of difficulty articulating my thoughts and feelings on certain things in certain ways, I've been in that position. I too have felt misunderstood, and felt like no one understood my struggles. However! People can have trouble articulating their thoughts and feelings without using someone's race, orientation, disability, and so on against them. By focusing solely on Chris's race and rejecting his offers of help and support, Starr comes off less like a girl who's going through a genuinely hard time and having trouble expressing herself, and more like a whiny, self-entitled, egomaniacal bitch with a huge victim complex who always wants to start drama over the stupidest things, even towards people who haven't done anything but try to help her.

"According to DeVante, Chris's massive video game collection makes up for his whiteness." Pg. 284
So apparently for a black person to be friends with a white person, the latter needs to have "something" to make up for their whiteness. Uhh...is anyone forgetting Martin Luther King? You know, don't judge by the color of their skin but by the content of their character? Yeah, I think this book seems to want to do exactly the opposite. Saying someone has to have something to make up for their skin color is like saying autistic people have to have super awesome savant skills to make up for their being autistic, which is not only a really bad stereotype, but makes absolutely no sense. It doesn't help that in EVERY SINGLE PAGE OF THIS BOOK, every character is always making racist comments towards whites in some capacity! All the time! Imagine if someone was making similar jabs towards blacks. People would be flipping their lid. Racism goes both ways, and you can't espouse an anti-racism message when you're making your main characters act racist towards others on a regular basis and not enforcing consequences for such an attitude.

"White people assume all black people are experts on trends and shit." Pg. 294
No they don't. Stop jumping to conclusions, girl.

Seriously, there's so much in this book, I could go on all day. But one thing that especially threw me for a loop was that in chapter 10, Starr's father has this really crazy, stupid theory that the Harry Potter series is some kind of weird metaphor/symbolism for life in ghetto neighborhoods, where Harry, Ron, and Hermione never snitch on each other, just like gangbangers, and Voldemort is some gang leader and stuff. I'm sorry, but this is absolute crap. Why in the world would he even come to that conclusion about a freaking fantasy book series for kids? Why is he reading so deep into it? It's just a fun book series about kids at a magic school! This just tells me that the characters seem to get off on playing oppression olympics and have such a victim complex that they want to look for things in certain media that obviously don't exist. How does that make them any different from the self-entitled social justice warriors who get off on trying to make everything seem offensive, even the most innocent things?

Also, the book seems to believe that all white people are rich, live in big houses, and don't know suffering. That's not true. There are plenty of blacks who are rich and live in big fancy houses (Anyone remember Oprah?) and there are lots of white people, and people of any race, who are poor, don't have houses, and go through a lot of trauma. Starr frequently cites Chris being white and rich as a reason why they shouldn't be together...and at one point, Chris feels he has to apologize on behalf of whites for being white. No. This makes no sense. Your skin color is NOTHING to apologize for. You can't help being born a certain skin color. The fact that the author is making Chris do this makes it very clear that she wants the readers to see blacks as nothing but oppressed and miserable all the time whereas white people are automatically bad, rich, privileged, and so on, which is absolutely not true. This is why people claim the book is racist and can't stand its heavy-handed messages, because ultimately, in the end, everything is completely one-sided, even in its attempts to try to address police brutality. A good book that addresses racism in a sensitive, nuanced way wouldn't go way out of its way to make black people into pitiful little saints who are always suffering and white people into black-hating strawmen, or if not that, people who absolutely HAVE to apologize for being white! It doesn't help that the police officer who shot Khalil isn't even given any sort of character at all. We never know what kind of person he was before the incident, and I would have loved to see part of the story from his point of view, that way we could have seen how he felt about all of this. Not only that, what does everyone do when they find out he's acquitted of all charges? (That's not even a spoiler, by the way. Based on similar cases that happened in real life, the officer always winds up getting acquitted. It's practically a foregone conclusion) Why, they go apeshit and trash the entire town and completely disregard the law instead of actually working together to convince the court to give the cop some degree of punishment for what he did in a responsible, mature, rational manner. Yeah, real mature, guys. I'm sorry, but that's not a good way to write an anti-racism and anti-prejudice message at all.

And before anyone tries to say "The characters are supposed to have flaws! That's what makes them interesting!" But here's the thing: There's an art to giving a character flaws. Nobody's perfect, I get that. Human beings make mistakes all the time, intentionally or not. Nobody likes an overly perfect Mary Sue who can do no wrong, and that's okay! Characters with flaws, if executed well, can be absolutely amazing. But if you put the character's flaws in the absolute forefront and make them overshadow any good traits they might have, without addressing them in a nuanced manner that'll give readers reason to care about them and their troubles, then you have a recipe for disaster. Since every single character in this book is abhorrent and unlikeable save for only two, you know you need serious help in writing characters. Starr does change over the course of the story, yes, but the worst parts of her personality don't change at all. That's not how to write a character. Seriously.

Trust me, I don't want to hate this book. I really don't. I do applaud Angie Thomas for trying to bring these issues to light in the way she knows how, and if she wants to keep writing, sure! More power to her! More writers are always a good thing, and I'm sure she's probably a great person in real life. But I'm not gonna lie, this debut is NOT one of her better works, and I can only hope that any future books she writes improve with time. I honestly don't think this book deserves all the popularity its gotten, and I'm sure there are books out there that have tackled these issues in a far better, more restrained, nuanced, and substantial manner without trying to glorify or demonize one race or the other. Had this book been written in a less melodramatic manner, its characters less insufferable, and everything wasn't constantly coated with a racist agenda, it could have been amazing. Unfortunately, this is what we've gotten. Should this really be the standard for future books? I certainly don't think so. If you guys like it, that's fine. But bottom line, there are better books than this one, and I honestly wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

Overall, don't give this book the time of day. It's not worth it.
 
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Since my previous review was kinda...vitriolic, how about I post a positive one this time around? This review was originally made on October 1st, 2018.

115844

I give this surprisingly fun school-sim game about item crafting...a 75/100!

(Although I'm using the title for the PS2 version, I played the PSP version first, which was called Student Alliance, and since that version doesn't have a Japanese track, I'm using the English names)

As some of you may know, I grew up on Pokemon and Kirby games, and only played those games all throughout my childhood. Anything other than those games, I decided, was too hard for me. Plus, I was only limited to what my parents bought for me when I was younger. But only recently did I really branch out and expand my gaming horizons, whether due to reading about them online, having access to money I can spend on other consoles to get games I've always wanted (Tales of Symphonia and Child of Light, anyone?), or watching internet reviewers critique or praise games they've played. But if there's one type of game I never thought I'd get into, ever, it was item crafting games. One of my friends recommended that I play the Atelier games, but I'd never heard of it until recently, and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to get into it, especially since some of the games had...questionable content that didn't sit right with me. I bought Atelier Escha & Logy first, but I randomly found Mana Khemia: The Alchemists of Al-Revis on the PS store for five bucks, so I randomly bought it on my PS Vita. I hear this is one of the more popular Atelier games in the English-speaking world, and I think it's popularity is totally justified...on the other hand, it has plenty of flaws that prevent it from being one of my favorite games ever.

The story centers on a boy named Vayne Aurelius, who's lived alone all his life save for a friendly cat named Sulpher. One day, a man finds him in his home and invites him to attend the prestigious Al-Revis Academy, a school where people become alchemists. Although reluctant to do so at first, Vayne accepts his invitation and becomes a student at Al-Revis. There, he befriends many colorful people, like Jessica, a friendly girl with a habit of making things explode, Nikki, a cheerful beastwoman, Flay, the always loud and obnoxious slacker who's always flunking his classes, Pamela, a mischievous ghost girl, and many others. Although the setup seems innocent at first, Vayne soon learns the truth about himself and his existence through his schooling, and whatever choices he makes will determine whether things will end well or badly.

I have pretty mixed feelings about this game, but for the sake of wanting to be objective, I'll focus on the positive aspects first so I can get those out of the way, and for what it's worth, it does have a lot going for it. First off: the spritework is really nice. In the overworld, the sprites are mostly stagnant with some exceptions, but during battle, the characters' sprites are lively and full of personality. You know how in Pokemon Black and White, the Pokemon sprites move around and occasionally gesture every now and again in battle if you let enough time pass? Mana Khemia's sprites are exactly like that, but a little less pixelated. The battle animations for each attack are also very good, even straight up awesome during the big attacks. The 3D backgrounds, while a little polygon-ish for their time, are also very well designed for a PS2 game. I wonder what program Gust used to animate the battle sprites, because I'd love to know. More sprites like that need to be present in more games!

The gameplay, for an item crafting game, is surprisingly fun. Instead of leveling up traditionally, your characters gain action points in battle, which are used to unlock various skills and boosts on a skill tree called a Grow Book. Each character has their own Grow Book, and you can access certain attacks and upgrades if you have a certain amount of action points. But here's the catch: no matter how much AP you have, you won't be able to access those attacks and upgrades unless you synthesize certain items. So yeah, alchemy plays a huge role in allowing you to level up and get stronger. The more items you synthesize, the more skills and upgrades you'll be able to unlock, and it also rewards you for messing around with which items you can make by switching the ingredients to make entirely new items. Plus, depending on the ingredients you use, you can create weapons and armor that'll let you use certain attacks. For example, if you use an item with a fire attribute to make a weapon, equipping that weapon will give you fire attacks, but if you make the same weapon with an ice attribute, the weapon will only have the ice attack. Alchemy and synthesizing makes up the core of the game, and it is rather fun to experiment with creating stuff with different abilities, upgrades, and attacks with every synthesis.

The music and the anime opening sequence are very good, too. The opening song is epic, setting the game's tone perfectly. But the animation accompanying it...is actually kind of poorly done. Some characters' eyes are weirdly out of place in some scenes, the anime designs seem rather simplistic and dulled down compared to the in-game sprites and cut-ins, and it doesn't really do much to really establish the characters and show who they are. The battle scenes in said opening sequence are about the only good thing about the animation, save for the song.

Oh boy, I have a lot of opinions on the characters, so straps yourselves in, people. I found the characters to be kind of a mixed bag. I love half the cast and hate the other half. Several characters are genuinely interesting, varied, and well developed, especially when you play through their character quests. But there are a total of three who I outright hate: Flay, Pamela, and Muppy, with Pamela being the most annoying to me IMHO. She's a cute ghost girl who hangs out with the gang, but not only is she a spoiled brat who constantly acts childish and hates it when people say no to her, in one of her sidequests, she nearly kills several people with a poisonous potion she made (Not realizing it's poisonous), and when Vayne calls her on it and tries to get her to take responsibility, she plays the victim and cries and gets off scott free whereas everyone else yells at Vayne for not "talking to a girl more delicately" or some bullcrap like that, and he did absolutely NOTHING to deserve it! Am I the only one who hated that scene? It makes me wish that Anna had successfully exorcised her in one of her own character quests, because that would have been awesome. At least she doesn't put up with Flay or Pamela's crap! It doesn't help that Pamela's English voice is very grating and annoying, even though normally I love Brianne Siddall's work. But she was straight up miscast as Pamela. And Muppy's just as bad in that department, if not more so (In that he does bad things but doesn't get punished as much as he should have been). Muppy is also a terrible character in that he contributes absolutely nothing to the story. Honestly, he felt very tacked on. I know Mana Khemia doesn't have the best story in the world, but when it came to his character quests, the creators didn't even try with him. His episodes were really bizarre and contributed absolutely nothing to his story and overall character. You could have removed him from the game entirely and nothing would have been lost. Plus, Flay's an annoying macho dudebro who constantly acts like this hero of justice but constantly causes trouble for the main characters and makes them do the dirty work because he can't be bothered to do anything useful. God, I wanted to deck him every time he opened his mouth! Why do people like this guy again?

So yeah, the character writing can be very inconsistent at times, where even some of my favorite characters are written to act out of character to the point of being really mean-spirited in some character quests, which makes no sense. Plus, with the game being strictly set in a school environment, we don't really know much about the characters' personal lives outside of school. What do they do in their spare time? How did Nikki survive in the wild, what with being a beastman and all? What's Anna's life like? What contributed to Flay's behavior? I really wish the game had delved deeper into the characters' backgrounds. That would have not only provided many explanations for some of their behavior and personalities, but made them more varied and three dimensional. There are some in-game explanations for why the characters can't leave school, which are valid and reasonable, but I think the creators missed some opportunities to explore the characters in greater detail.

Now don't think I hate this game. I really don't. In fact, I've played it twice, and it's been an awesome, addictive experience. I'd gladly replay it again, mostly to unlock other characters' endings and sidequests. So despite my grievances about the inconsistent character writing, I can definitely see why people love this game. The story is interesting, even more so near the end, you can spend hours exploring various areas without being penalized for it (Several Atelier games had time limits, and this one doesn't), collecting and synthesizing a variety of items and exploring their different effects, the characters (the good ones, at least) are varied and fun, the gameplay is really addictive, and the spritework is amazing. I kinda wish more games were like Mana Khemia in this department, and I'm glad one of my friends recommended it to me. I wouldn't have touched this with a ten foot pole when I was younger, and while I don't feel it's a masterpiece, it's still a really fun game that I'd play any time I have some time to kill, and it's definitely one of the better games in the Atelier series.

Overall, if you're looking for a fun, engaging, addictive item crafting game that's just plain fun, Mana Khemia is definitely the game for you.
 
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This review was originally written on June 24th, 2014.



I give this nice little warm and fuzzy anime...a 84/100.

There aren't many slice of life anime I really like, and the ones I do like are extremely unappreciated. Thankfully, Isshukan Friends--also known as One Week Friends--is a great slice-of-life anime. It has some flaws, but it's definitely an anime you'd want to show to your family. Anyway, the story's about a kid named Yuuki Hase who wants to befriend the local outcast, Kaori Fujimiya. Later on, he learns that any memories she has of her friends disappear after exactly one week, and she expects him to forget about her. But he doesn't. Persistent and determined, he'll do anything to bring Kaori out of her shell and be there for her when she needs it.

The animation for this series is really nice. Faded, soft colors, fluid movements, detailed backgrounds, and it really does a good job fitting the mood of the series. The music is also really nice too, with soft piano tunes. None of the pieces are out of place, and the music also does its job of setting the atmosphere and mood without overdoing it. I especially like the opening and ending themes. So nice and simplistic, but they do say simplicity is beauty after all. The whole series just screams bittersweet slice of life, and I agree, and it's all the better for it. The premise is relatively simple too, and I find it odd that her memories all disappear after one week, since I took a psychology class and we studied memories a bit. But it's an anime, so I won't bother.

The characters are a bit bland, but I like their chemistry together. Plus, I actually like Yuuki as a character. Normally in slice of life anime, the main male character is a deep voiced, snarky kid who's quiet and usually has an overly cheerful best friend. Here, it's reversed. Instead, Yuuki is proactive and loud, whereas his best friend Shougo, who is easily the awesomest and most genre savvy character in the show, is deep voiced, quiet, and snarky, not to mention brutally honest. But I'm not quite sure what to make of Saki. I think she's supposed to be otaku bait, but when she acts moe, she comes off more like someone who's high on drugs or something. I don't know. But I do find her cute. I do like Kaori, but I feel like she feels more like a canvas trying to gather stray paint than a girl who's lonely and wants to be friends, but I liked it when she developed.

So yeah, this is obviously my shortest review yet. Why? Well...one reviewer's interpretation of Yuuki's actions kinda left a sour taste in my mouth. The reviewer accused him of being jealous and possessive, but I honestly never thought of him that way. Yes, he does have moments where he gets jealous, but he usually means well and never acts on his jealousy, unlike most cliche romance anime protagonists. Don't you just hate it when you want to enjoy a show but someone interprets it in a way that really makes you feel like someone just poured a bucket of pig's blood on you? Also, while I do appreciate the anime executing the friendship of these characters a lot better than just "meet, introduce themselves, and boom they're friends" and actually building on their chemistry, one other reviewer said that all they really do is study and share food together. I can agree on that, as it's become quite common and annoying in anime in general, but for what it's worth, they do do more than just study and share food. I especially liked episode 8, as it showed the characters just spending a day together, having fun and doing things that most friends would do, just like the times I'd hang out with my own friends.

If you want an anime that'll give you warm fuzzies, make this the anime to watch. Plus, it's a great anime to show your family!
 
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I remember One Week Friends. It's the kind of anime we haven't seen for a while - not based on a 4-panel manga, not trying to copy genre standards in painful detail, not even especially melodramatic, given the premise. I agree the characters are a bit anodyne, but that's kinda the point, I think. I don't agree with the "jealous, possessive" comment either. Jealous, yes, because jealousy is an emotion you can't just switch on and off
 
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I know, right? I liked it when it came out, and I ought to revisit it sometime. Which reminds me, I REALLY need to buy the DVD set and watch it in English. Maybe once I start my job again at Lowe's and save up enough, I'll buy it off Amazon or something.
 
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This review was originally written on April 20th, 2013.

116507

I give this one shot...a 78/100.

I heard about this manga on TVTropes, and read that it's known for having a character who is a woman but identifies as a man, and the manga portrays this character in a human, respectful, and sympathetic light. I wasn't sure if I'd have time to read this manga, but when my Modern Japan class got cancelled and I had nothing to do, I decided to go to the library and read this since it's only one volume long...and wow, they were right about this manga having a very respectful portrayal of the transsexual main character and the issues he (I'm going to refer to Claudine as a he since he identifies as a male) goes through...and the weird thing? This manga was written in 1978, the setting is in 20th century France, and the author of this manga is Riyoko Ikeda of Rose of Versailles fame! Why is this manga not more well known?

The story is relatively simple. Claudine de Montesse is the daughter of a French nobleman and the first child to truly resemble his father. He began identifying as a male at the age of 8, claiming that he was born in the wrong body, much to the surprise of his family. His well intentioned but confused mother takes him to a doctor, not knowing quite what to do. The doctor and Claudine become friends, though they hardly ever spend any time together. The only people who truly accept his sexuality are his father and his clingy childhood friend Rosemarie. Unfortunately, even with their support, Claudine's attempts to find love and be accepted as a man wind up ending in tragedy one by one, especially when he discovers certain secrets about his family and his loves that he may not be prepared for.

You may be surprised by the rating I gave this. You may be thinking, "If you really think this manga deserves a 7 out of 10, why are you gushing about it? Don't you like it?" Well, the reason I ranked this manga rather low is because there are quite a lot of things in this that sort of felt really forced or turned me off. The first of them is the melodrama. It places a bit too much emphasis on certain scenes, making them come off as very forced, especially the characters' reactions (though I think that's because of the way they're drawn). But then again, this was drawn in the seventies after all, so melodrama was the standard at the time. The second thing that really irked me were some of the twists that were revealed. I won't go into detail about them and the melodrama, as these twists happen to be VERY FULL OF SPOILERS and have a HUGE affect on the story afterward. What should be a good manga about the transsexual main character is somewhat overshadowed by a strange, convoluted, and unnecessary love dodecahedron that's much too complicated for even me to keep track of, and the actions of some of the characters really made me cringe. I feel that if the manga was a bit longer, it could have developed these things more and made them a lot more subtle. I wonder if the subject matter is why the manga is so short? Maybe Ikeda wasn't able to go beyond one volume?

However, even with the manga's huge and glaringly obvious flaws that keep me from rating it much higher, I still respect it wholly. Why? There's just so many little details about this manga that I really appreciate. For one thing, Claudine's father actually accepts her sexuality even though in the 19th century, transsexuality or homosexuality were considered mental disorders and maligned by everyone back in that time period, and he conveys this with this line: "God made an error in giving him a female body." If that's not a true sign of love and appreciation, then I don't know what is, even though he has his own issues later on. Normally, the fathers are the ones who are the quickest to hate their children if they decide to be homosexual or transsexual. It's just SO UNGODLY refreshing to find a fictional father figure who still loves his child regardless of what they decide they are! And in a manga taking place in the 20th century, no less!

Another thing I truly appreciate is Claudine himself. From what I'm hearing from other places, transsexuals have been portrayed in manga and anime as flamboyantly gay or just acting gay for the sake of showing off their sexuality, which is rather insensitive. Wandering Son is an exception to this rule, along with Claudine. Claudine is a wonderful and well-rounded character. He's not flamboyant or flirty or any other poorly executed gay stereotype. He's simply a human being who has flaws, makes some mistakes, is easily saddened by tragic events in his life, and who deserves as much respect, love, and acceptance as everyone else does, but most people he meets don't like him because he's "technically" a girl and not a man, which he claims to be. However, I will admit, the final thing about this manga that irked me was the ending. Not because it was rushed or not well done or anything like that. In fact, it's very well done and well worth it. But it's just plain sad. Sad sad sad. I won't spoil it, but let's just say that what Claudine does at the end is sadly reminiscent of what young gay and transsexual kids are doing after years of bullying drive them over the edge today. I wish it had a happy ending, but still, this ending is well done so I'll give it some slack.

Despite all of this manga's problems, this is definitely a guilty pleasure manga that I'll definitely keep reading. If the forced twists and love triangles were removed, it'd be a masterpiece. But I can wholly love it for what it does do absolutely right, and more people should too! As of this writing, Seven Seas Entertainment has licensed it in English, so you can buy it now!
 
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This is my most recent review, finished on February 17th, 2019.



I give this intriguing children's book about a girl living in Pakistan...an 85/100!

Some people dismiss children's books as being little more than silly, light-hearted fare that don't have a whole lot of substance. But that's not entirely true. Many famous books that have continued to be popular over the centuries have been children's books. Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess, the Ramona Quimby series, The Wizard of Oz, Alice In Wonderland, A Wrinkle In Time, and so on. Children's books aren't always about cute animals having adventures and drinking tea and laughing over cookies all the time. If that was all they were, nobody would take them seriously at all. Books like that can help someone escape from a troubled life or find friends, and this is absolutely true. It's happened with me, and I came across a random post here while looking at another author's page. It resonated with me a lot, as I was also the shy kid who got bullied a lot, and my escape was manga and anime. Media can take you away to lands that aren't real, but some people IRL don't have that, nor do they have access to an education. Such is the subject of today's review, Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed.

The story centers on Amal, a 12-year-old girl who's pretty happy with her life in a quiet Pakistani village. She has a quiet life with her family, spends time with her friends like any typical girl, and loves going to school, as she dreams of becoming a teacher someday. But her education is put on hold when her mother has a new baby, and her depression afterward forces Amal to stay home and look after her siblings. One day, while she's out at the market, a man hits her with her car and tries to take a pomegranate she bought. Not wanting to give in, Amal tells him to buzz off before running back home. But the incident is far bigger than she imagined: The man she stood up to was none other than Jawad Sahib, the corrupt village landlord who's known for doing terrible things to people over trivial matters. As punishment for calling him out, Jawad takes Amal to his estate and forces her to work as a servant in order to pay her so-called debt to him, changing her world forever. Amal has to do what she can to survive in her new place, especially when she becomes more aware of her master's nefarious dealings.

Seeing as this is a book aimed at children ages 8-13, it's no surprise that the prose is simple. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as kids that age don't care for overly wordy prose or super long paragraphs about stuff that doesn't relate to the story at hand. Prose can either make or break a story, if done well or poorly. In Saeed's debut novel, Written In The Stars--which is a YA novel aimed at an older audience--her prose is simple as well, but it didn't work in the story's favor, as it failed to elaborate on certain events or expand on certain characters or really go into detail about certain events that were pivotal to the story but merely glossed over. Thankfully, the simple prose works better here, as not only is the scope of the novel much smaller, but with the story being aimed at younger children this time around, it also makes it easier for the audience to understand what's going on. Plus, the chapters are relatively short, and the story is always moving forward, so you won't find any filler or rut that makes the story stop in its tracks. The simple prose also helps slow down the pacing. In Written In The Stars, the simple prose made everything go way too fast, and it could have benefitted from slowing down a lot. Amal Unbound avoids this problem, thankfully. So in that aspect, I'm willing to give the book a pass on this one.

It helps that the characters are reasonably interesting and well-rounded here. It's easy to like Amal in particular. She's a nice, reasonably strong-willed kid who knows what she wants and loves her family and friends, but makes mistakes like everyone else. Her stubbornness led to her being taken to the landlord's estate, and while she does lament her position, she also knows she has to make the best of it until she finds a chance to escape. She feels like a real kid in Pakistan, and it's easy to relate to her regardless of your heritage or nationality or differing issues. The other characters have a lot of personality too, like Fatima, the youngest servant in the Sahib estate, and Nabila, a servant who at first dislikes Amal but they eventually forge a decent friendship. But one thing that definitely surprised me was how Saeed portrayed the villain, Jawad Sahib. It would have been really easy to make him into a typical Saturday morning cartoon villain with no redeeming qualities beyond being evil for the sake of it, but Saeed manages to humanize him. He's still portrayed as intimidating, merciless, and a nefarious crook who goes to whatever lengths possible to get his way, but the authoress peppers the book with some scenes that make him feel more human, such as the interactions he has with his mother, who he clearly cares for, and at one point he gets sentimental over a book when he finds Amal snooping through his collection. He's still not a kind person, not even close, but the subtle signs of humanity he has prevent him from falling into common pitfalls that people often hit when trying to write villains. Even his mother, Nasreen Baji, is a lovely, three-dimensional character who, while she is rather ignorant of what's really going on and what her son and husband have been up to, is still a kind person who sticks her neck out for Amal when she learns of her situation. The book also goes out of its way to show that she's just as much a victim of her family's schemes as everyone else is, despite being Jawad's mother. It's also a subtle way of showing that even Pakistani women who have some power and connections still don't have a whole lot of freedom or agency, especially in a country where strict gender roles are still enforced to this day.

My only real gripes with the book are more nitpicks than anything. For one, the book seems to expect you to just know right off what certain Pakistani cultures, clothing names, food names, and other things are, and doesn't elaborate on what they are in detail, such as what a shalwar kamiz is, what a pakora or samosa is, or even what a mehndi is or how the Pakistanis celebrate weddings. I don't know much about Pakistan or its cultural traditions or terminology, so a lot of this flew over my head. It would have been nice if there was a glossary at the end of the book that explained these things in detail. I know Written In The Stars had one, so I'm not sure why Amal Unbound doesn't have one. But that's just my opinion. I also wasn't too fond of Amal's parents. Her mother didn't do much, though she did get better later on, and her father was cold and unsympathetic at times, straight out blaming her for the incident even though it wasn't her fault, then yelling at his wife about it and berating her for getting post-partum depression after her pregnancy, which I'm pretty sure is something you don't just decide to get just because you're tired and don't want to do anything. Other than Jawad, Amal's dad Malik was the only one I didn't like. I wish the authoress made some effort to make him a little more sympathetic.

But those are just minor gripes more than anything. None of those things deterred my enjoyment of the book in any way. I won't spoil the ending, but I like how even though it was happy, it still had a tinge of bittersweetness to it, showing that while a situation may be happy for some, it can be a complete disaster for others. I love that Saeed didn't sugarcoat it and showed the situation and its aftermath in a nuanced way. Saeed also mentioned that Malala Youszafai and her plight inspired the book, and I can totally see why. Even now, most girls in the Middle East get berated, beaten, attacked, or even killed just for wanting to go to school and have their own lives. In her author's note at the end, Saeed any girls are still forced to live lives of indentured servitude, and many of them don't manage to escape or even have happy endings, but it's still important to fight against injustice and to do the right thing, even at great personal risk, because it's the bravest thing one can do, and I whole heartedly agree with that message.

Overall, if you want a genuinely good, uplifting, but not patronizing children's book to read if you have some to kill, check out Amal Unbound when you can. It's one of my favorite books, and I'm sure it's a favorite for others everywhere.
 
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I've been wanting to talk about this one for a while, and as of this writing, I've seen this three times, twice in Japanese, and once in English. This review of Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms was originally written on November 7th, 2018.

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I give this utterly beautiful movie...a 90/100!

When I first heard about Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms, I knew it was going to be something special. I mean, not to diss anime as a whole, but these days, a lot of anime seem more focused on fan service and putting characters in dumb, sexual situations for kicks and giggles over telling riveting stories involving compelling characters you can care about. Thankfully, though they're far fewer in number, they're still being made. Whether they're movies or TV shows or just short OVAs, genuinely good anime are still there, especially the ones that really remind you of what makes anime truly amazing. Maquia is definitely one of those anime. I admit, I'm kinda torn about this one, because it has everything I love in a good anime and is very beautiful, but it does have a lot of flaws that prevent it from being a true masterpiece in my eyes.

The story centers on a woman named Maquia, who hails from a clan of people who stop aging physically when they turn 15 years old. She lives a peaceful life in the village of Iorph with her friends and family. However, everything changes when an army from the Mezarte Empire attacks her village. Maquia manages to escape, but her friends aren't so lucky. One of them, Leilia, is kidnapped by the royal family for the purpose of creating an immortal heir, and others go missing. As she's lost in her grief, she comes across a newborn baby whose family was killed in the onslaught. Taking pity on it, Maquia decides to raise the baby as her own, naming him Ariel. But she knows full well that unlike her, Ariel will grow up and age, and in the process of learning to be a mother and raising him, she's intent on finding her friends and making it through the Mezarte Empire unnoticed by those who hurt her friends.

Full truth: Maquia was actually P.A. Works first feature-length animated movie, but you wouldn't know it just by watching. Seriously, the animation is absolutely stellar. The background art is lush and beautiful, from the light reflecting off of tranquil waters to antiquated stone buildings that depict the Iorphs' home as a land frozen in time. Everything absolutely oozes with vibrance and life. The way the characters move is so fluid that you feel like they'll pop right off the screen. This is especially true in every scene involving a tavern, and there's one part where some of Maquia's patrons slam their wooden spoons on bowls, cups, and tables like they're drums during a happy hour. To me, that part alone was the most well animated scene in the entire movie. Plus, the war scenes are very striking and hyper detailed, with no single character being little more than a gray blob in the background or a still frame used to save costs. There's always something going on in the background, making the world of Maquia feel so much more alive. The music also helps in not only capturing the medieval feel of the movie's setting, but setting the mood for every scene, especially the big, heavy, emotional parts that are sure to strike a chord in anyone. Each track feels distinctive and unique, even with similar instruments being used over and over again.

The characters are where things start to get kind of...mixed. Don't get me wrong, I loved the whole ensemble, and every character brings something to the table, so in that aspect, they're all great. Maquia herself is a very good main character, even if she doesn't look or act like it. She's a young, frail woman who's very sheltered and doesn't always know what to do. She's not snarky, sassy, physically strong, or even very complex, but she goes through some pretty bad things and still manages to be true to herself and be herself even in the face of adversity. The other characters are admittedly rather one note, and since this is a movie, there's only so much time you have to develop the characters. Plus, the movie's themes involving the passage of time means you see them change over the course of the film. Some changes are good, and some...not so much, what with Ariel being more sullen and moody as a teenager. Still, I loved all of the characters, though I did think the Mezarte family seemed a bit too stereotypically evil.

Unfortunately, as much as I absolutely want to exalt this movie as a full blown masterpiece, I can't deny that it has some pretty significant logical problems that really hurt it. First of all, the Renato dragons. What's their deal? The whole Red Eye issue was never resolved, the movie doesn't really explain what Red Eye is and why it makes them go berserk, and it seemed like the Renatos were just used as living props to move the story and characters forward rather than being characters in their own right. Plus, with the movie's themes involving the passage of time, it tends to jump around a lot from time period to time period without really clearing certain things up. For example, Ariel gets bullied by a girl named Dita early in the movie, but later on...out of absolutely nowhere, it's revealed that somewhere down the line, he met back up with her, married her, and she's pregnant with his kid. What?! This raises a crap ton of questions. How did he meet back up with her? What made them fall in love and get married? Why would Ariel want anything to do with her after she bullied him so long ago? This comes right out of nowhere with zero explanation, and the movie doesn't try to establish how they got together, and its haphazard pacing in this regard, and in other scenes, really hurt the movie.

However, I consider the film's biggest flaw to be this one scene in the end, where a certain character acts completely out-of-character despite her earlier depiction. I won't go into spoilers, as that's not allowed, but this character is repeatedly stated to love another person, but when they actually see said person again, they just leave and forget about them, like she never even cared about them in the first place. Not only does this completely go against her characterization in the movie, which is just bad writing IMHO, but her actions actually have a lot of really dark ramifications that I don't think Okada and the other writers caught on to when making it. I know a lot of people complain that Okada's anime tend to be melodramatic and heavy handed, which I can get behind, but I think those elements not only worked in the movie's favor here, but were much more reigned in this time around. That one scene I mentioned leaves a pretty nasty aftertaste in an otherwise great movie.

Specifically, the scene where Maquia and the Renato rescue Leilia, and Leilia, FOR SOME REASON, randomly decides to leave her daughter Medmel behind and tells her to forget about her. Uhh...WHAT?! Okay, first of all, from the very beginning of the movie, Leilia has gone on and on and on about how important Medmel is to her and how she wants nothing more than to see her daughter again, even though she's been forbidden from ever seeing her by the crap royal family that kidnapped her. Hell, when Krim asks her to choose between him and Medmel, she chooses her daughter, and he dies shortly after! The movie kept establishing Leilia as wanting to see her kid, but when she finally does and is freed, she just...suddenly decides to leave her behind and tells her to forget about her? Okay, I know people don't like Okada's writing because she leans into melodrama, and I can understand that, but the melodrama in this movie never bothered me all that much. This scene, THIS ONE SCENE, I feel, is the movie's biggest flaw, as it's the most blatant example of straight up character derailment I've ever seen. You don't make a character soapbox about how much they love their kid, and then randomly decide at the end that she doesn't want her anymore. That's bad writing!

Not only that, if you really think about it, Leilia's actions basically seal Medmel's fate. She could have taken Medmel with her to the Iorph village and given her some semblance of a happy life. There was literally NOTHING stopping her from doing so, especially since, by that time, Mezarte had crumbled to the ground. Instead, Leilia deliberately left Medmel with an abusive, neglectful family that has made no secret of the fact that they hate her guts because she's supposedly not immortal and that they use her as a means to an end. Not only does this seem really out of character for Leilia, her decision makes her come off as a selfish, dirty, lying hypocrite. Seriously, did the writers NOT consider these ramifications when writing this scene? I'm not even a professional writer, yet even I was able to figure all this out! I love this movie and all, but that one scene really left a nasty taste in my mouth, which is a shame, because the rest of the movie is great IMHO.

I often watch Doug Walker/Nostalgia Critic's reviews, and one specific moment in his Snow White mini-review for Disney-cember spoke to me. He described Snow White as being a movie that doesn't show you what you logically or ethically want to see, but what your emotions want to see. In that aspect, Maquia is basically this in a nutshell. You want to see these characters be happy, you want to cry with them when they're sad and share in their anger and frustration and relate to their struggles. The movie is absolutely fueled to the brim with emotion, practically bursting at the seams, often times at the expense of pacing, character development, and plot threads that really need to be resolved, so it's not always for the better. I think most of the movie's problems can be attributed to the fact that it seems like it'd be better fit for a TV series than a movie, that way many of its plot threads can be tied up and many of the subplots can get more screen time than the medium of films will allow. Is Maquia a perfect movie? No. Is there room for improvement? Oh, hell yes. But in all honesty, Maquia is still a genuinely great movie filled with a lot of heart that'll definitely resonate with anyone, whether they're a parent or not. I'd rather watch a flawed but still good movie over a straight up bad movie overall.

While not without its problems, for Mari Okada's directorial debut, I think she hit a home run with this one. If you're looking for a good movie that'll grab you by the feels, then this is the one for you. Just have a box of tissues handy.
 
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This review was originally written on January 28th, 2019, though I only just finished writing it recently.

LizandtheBlueBird.jpg

I give this simple but beautifully profound movie...a 90/100!

Ever heard of the phrase "less is more"? Yeah, Liz and the Blue Bird is basically this in a nutshell. Now, I admit, I only have a passing knowledge of the series it's based on, Sound! Euphonium, and I haven't seen both seasons of the anime, so when I heard about this movie, I originally hadn't planned on watching it. But when I read the review of it on Anime News Network and found that you apparently don't need to have seen the TV series to enjoy it, my interest was piqued. Why not? So, I decided to watch it after all. The review I read was praising the movie up the wazoo, exalting it as one of the best anime movies ever. Having now seen the movie itself, while I personally don't consider it to be an all-out masterpiece, I did find myself enjoying it way more than I thought I would, and it's definitely one of my new favorite anime movies in recent years.

The film focuses on two young girls, Mizore Yoroizuka, a shy and quiet oboist, and Nozomi Kasaki, a cheery, energetic girl who plays the flute. They're both in their school's orchestra, and have been friends for quite a while. It's their final year of high school, and having endured quite a bit of drama and crazy events a year ago, Mizore's not sure if she's ready to graduate high school and potentially part ways with her first friend. Not helping matters is that they have a solo performance for a show coming up, but they can't seem to get the piece down. But in life, just like the piece they're performing, "Liz and the Blue Bird," you need to set that caged bird free some time.

For fans of the series, many members of the main cast appear, but either have very few lines or a few short cameo appearances, so chances are you won't see them play a huge part in the story, as it focuses entirely on Mizore and Nozomi, along with a few others. On one hand, this helps the movie stand on its own and carve out its own identity, focusing on its own stories and events rather than simply using the TV series as a trampoline to propel itself into the sky. As someone who hasn't seen both seasons of the TV series, I watched the whole movie all the way through, and not once did I ever feel lost or thrown off by what was happening, as the movie gently fills the audience in on what happened, in a subtle, overt manner, in an "Oh, by the way" kind of tone, not shoving it in your face or spoon-feeding it to you, which is definitely great. A movie that trusts its audience to put the pieces together while still managing to subtly show them what's going on is always a good thing. It's a delicate balance, and I feel Liz and the Blue Bird pulled it off spectacularly. On the other hand, since it focuses on two side characters and not the main cast that featured prominently in the series, it might disappoint those hoping for a more direct follow-up, especially since the main cast of the series only make a few appearances as background characters who don't say or do much.

Considering who did the animation for this movie, it's no surprise that Kyoto Animation's work on the movie is absolutely gorgeous, especially in differentiating Mizore's school and the imaginary fairy tale segments. The Liz segments are bright and eye catching, popping to life with beautiful watercolor backgrounds and light, pastel colors that give it a warm, fairy tale-like feel, and the characters move in a life-like fashion. There's nary a still frame in the movie. The segments focusing on the girls and their life in school are more subdued in color, but the animation doesn't cut any corners here. The movie puts a huge emphasis on showing over telling with animation: Facial expressions, hand gestures, feet movement, the way people walk, little details like that are brought to life and convey much more in subtle motion than words could ever do. The first ten minutes of the movie are nothing but silence, letting the audience soak up the atmosphere and showing two girls walking to class together in quiet tranquility. Mizore is a shy girl who doesn't say much, and gestures such as clenching a fist and tugging her hair speak to her anxiety and fear of change, whereas Nozomi literally bounces across the screen, with her ponytail flailing in the air and her arms and hands moving in all different directions as she talks. Naoko Yamada, the director, has always had an affinity for letting the animators show character and feelings through facial expressions, gestures, and body movements, and it's a good approach to take here, letting the animation speak for itself. I kinda wish more movies would take this approach.

With the movie's heavy emphasis on music, there's no way the producers would let the movie have a bad soundtrack. No surprise, the whole soundtrack, from soft piano tunes to a whole bellowing orchestra that explodes with vitality, the soundtrack absolutely sells the movie here, with each piece of music fitting their assigned scenes, setting the mood and bringing out the atmosphere and pure emotion. From what I've heard, the producers worked with a live orchestra while working on the film, and this choice was an excellent one. Plus, the music also links the characters even more, with the focus being on how Nozomi and Mizore can sync their flute and oboe solos during a performance. The flute and oboe are used prominently in the soundtrack, further emphasizing that this is their story. I admit I'm not a music expert (I hated it as a subject in school), so I apologize if I'm gushing too much about it and not being more objective. A good soundtrack can make or break a movie or show, and it works very well here.

Since the main cast of the TV series don't appear much, how do the focus characters fare? Honestly, I think the characters are great. They're nothing groundbreaking, but the movie's execution manages to make them feel real and relatable. Mizore's the shy girl who does want to come out of her shell, but fears change and losing her first real friend, and relies on her a lot, something she realizes is unhealthy. Nozomi is a cheerful, friendly girl who's friends with everyone, but knows when to shut up and listen when someone needs to vent, and even she has her own insecurities that she needs to deal with. They're down to earth, good-natured kids getting ready to step on the road to adulthood, but still have a lot to deal with. The few side characters that get focus are also pretty fun and full of personality. One thing I'd definitely like to talk about in regards to the characters is this: I am so, so, SO happy that Liz and the Blue Bird DOESN'T have its teenager characters constantly yelling or screaming at each other in a melodramatic fashion or constantly scheming against each other or generally acting like complete pricks. So many movies that focus on teenagers seem to think having teenagers act bombastic and catty and constantly arguing and having them make mountains out of molehills is establishing character development, which is absolutely not true. The kids in Liz and the Blue Bird are perfectly down to earth, just talking, sharing stories, consulting each other on their problems, and they all act civil, mature, and never acting stupid or like caricatures of teenagers. I really wish more movies with a teenage cast would focus more on subtlety like Liz does here. I'd much rather watch this than...say, The Breakfast Club or The Hate U Give or every Disney Channel kid sitcom ever made in the past decade.

Personally, I really liked this one and had no problem with it, but this type of movie probably won't appeal to a lot of people, for a variety of reasons. One thing I can say is that Liz and the Blue Bird is painfully predictable. The movie doesn't try to do anything new with this type of storyline, where girls get ready for the end of high school and have to resolve their issues. This type of premise has been done to death by many other movies, books, games, and shows since the beginning, and Liz doesn't make an effort to stand out in terms of its story. You know where it's going to go and what's going to happen, so expecting it to pull some awesome, unexpected twist is like asking Nintendo to change Mario's signature color from red to purple. There's no surprises to be found here. But the way the story is told through its animation, music, and other narrative choices is masterfully done in my book. But one thing I did notice and did feel detrimented the movie is it's extremely limited scope in terms of its setting. With the exception of the fantasy segments, the ENTIRE movie is set at school, and we NEVER see the girls outside of school. We never see them at home, or going shopping, or doing anything outside of school, and while I can respect Yamada's decision to keep everything set to one location for narrative purposes, I feel showing the girls outside of school and what they're like and what they do outside school would make them feel more alive and prevent the movie from coming off as dull to some people. But then again, that's what the TV series is for, probably.

Another potential flaw that the movie has is its pacing. It's very slow. Like, really slow. Nothing is ever rushed, and the movie likes to take its sweet time in showing what the characters are doing and little else. I personally liked this approach, as I feel the slow pacing adds to the calm, subdued atmosphere the movie is trying to set up. But this approach might not work as well for those a little more impatient, and some may complain it moves at a snail's pace. I had no problem with the pacing myself, as I don't mind a movie where I can just turn my brain off, relax, and look at pretty colors and images every now and again. Sometimes we need that once in a while. But again, it's a matter of taste for some. I can probably describe this movie with two words: Subdued and graceful. That's basically Liz and the Blue Bird in a nutshell, and there's nothing wrong with that.

If you have any appreciation for nice, relaxing, sweet movies with a lot of heart, Liz and the Blue Bird is a must watch, and I think I can call this Naoko Yamada's masterpiece. We're very lucky to have this movie, and more films like this need to be made. If you want to see it or own it, you're in luck! Liz and the Blue Bird is coming out on DVD and Blu-Ray on March 5th, so you'll be able to own it legally soon!
 
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This review was originally written on April 16th, 2015.



Ah, Full Moon wo Sagashite, one of the many manga of my childhood. I discovered this manga when I was young. It was around the time when volumes 5-7 hadn't been released yet, and while I finished the entire manga, I had only seen a few episodes of the anime and never got to finish that. I really ought to. But I don't think I ever attached to the manga despite liking it. I had the first DVD once but sold it recently, knowing that the dub would never be finished. I had put the manga in a box and hadn't touched it in years. Only very recently did I get back into it. I liked it when I was a kid, but...reading it now, I'm utterly convinced that it's a heck of a lot better now than it was when I first read it, and was extremely surprised by how bold and daring it is, which made me fall back in love with it!

The story is about a young girl named Mitsuki Koyama, who's been through a lot. Both her parents died in a car accident when she was a baby, she was raised in an orphanage for ten years before being adopted by her strict, traditionalist grandmother, who doesn't approve of her dream to become a singer, has never been to school, and worse than that, she has a tumor in her throat that'll not only jeopardize her vocal cords, but kill her. One day, a duo of quirky shinigami (Gods of death) come right through her wall to try and take her life, but she uses the opportunity to ask them to make her fulfill her dream. They give her a pill that not only turns her into a teenaged version of herself, but heals her body so she can sing without hurting. Mitsuki manages to get scouted and learns the ups and downs of the music industry. But the quirky shinigami have their own baggage, and Mitsuki might end up unknowingly jeopardizing their lives.

Considering its a shoujo manga, everything is redonkulously sparkly, with the characters having big, shining eyes, chibi faces every once in a while, love triangles, etc. However, one aspect of the manga's art surprised me as a kid, and continues to surprise me now: the meticulous attention to detail on just about everything, from the folds in people's clothing, to their hair, to the environment, everything is just absolutely loaded with almost life-like detail that we just don't see anymore in today's era of anime. The faces are very much expressive, the emotions are raw, no character is wearing the same outfit all the time, etc. Plus, I'm no expert on the music industry, but for the most part, the depiction of someone in the singing business is for the most part very accurate. Mitsuki has to deal with fans, both good and bad, rivals who don't always have the best of intentions, commercials, deadlines, money problems, etc. Fancy Lala did something similar, though I think both Fancy Lala and the Full Moon manga depict the singing industry rather well. They both depict the singing business in a pragmatic light, as in while the music industry has good points, there's also a lot of bad to come with it, but that's normal. Everything has its pros and cons.

At first, the characters come off very stereotypical. Mitsuki is the shoujo character who wants to do stuff, Takuto is a brash, reckless, audacious boy, Meroko is the annoying and indecisive love interest, etc. You'd think they'd be nothing but black and white characters with only one character trait with predictable development. Nope! Tanemura isn't stupid, and she develops her characters very well. Everyone's quirks, personalities, and good/bad qualities are all connected to things that happened in their lives, and helped shape them into what they are now, even after death, and let me tell you, it is glorious. When I was a kid, I didn't really connect with the characters, nor did I really understand the gravity of the things that happened to them. Now, I completely get it, and it hit me right in the gut, and it made me keep reading, just to see them succeed! Even the characters whom you think are going to be completely evil for no reason have valid, even tragic reasons for their behavior, though none of it excuses what they do, and the manga KNOWS it. They're very complex, and the kind of people whom you want to root for and see them succeed.

However, as fangirly as I am about this manga, even I have to admit that it is not without its faults. Some of them are pretty small and not worth mentioning, but there are a few that do annoy me, and they do involve spoilers, so I'll hide them under the tab here:

If Mitsuki spent most of her life in an orphanage, and two of her grandparents are the only living family members she had, how come, after ten whole years, they never claimed her? There is no explanation given for this. Did they just not know her whereabouts? Did they not know Hazuki even had a child? Did neither grandparent want her? Did her parents not have identification or contact info on them when they died? These explanations would have been plausible had they been there, but this is never explained, and after Mitsuki spends ten years in an orphanage, her grandmother just pops up out of nowhere and reclaims her. It just feels so jarring to me knowing that Mitsuki had living relatives yet still spent most of her life in an orphanage. Also, how come Mitsuki spent a whole year with a tumor yet she never took any kind of medicine for it? I mean, there had to be SOME kind of medicine for sarcoma, right?!

Non-spoiler version: Mitsuki's backstory has a lot of inconsistencies that make me question certain parts of her circumstances, which could have been avoided had the author addressed said plot holes. Also, I found that the characters' thoughts come off as WAAAAAY too purple prose-y. There is sooooo much purple prose in the narrative, and although its deep and meaningful, I got tired of it after volume three. I like mystical imagery and all, but I think Tanemura relied too much on ridiculous purple prose when conveying the characters' thoughts. Also...what twelve year old even thinks in purple prose like that?! None.

Even so, despite its glaring flaws, I still hold this manga in high regard. Why? Because it's bold and doesn't give a durn. It knows what it wants, it'll do anything to get there, it isn't afraid to go dark in order to tell its story. Seriously, this is a shoujo manga for young girls, yet it contains so many adult themes, such as suicide, illicit affairs, cancer, loss, existential crises, and even rape (it's not explicit, but still blatant enough to warrant a 13 and up rating). But none of them hold the story back. In fact, they make the story so much richer, and seeing the characters struggle makes you want to root for them and see them overcome their trauma and make peace with both themselves, the people around them, and the demons that torment them...and it is GLORIOUS. One time, years ago, I received a lot of flack from an abusive fandom because I dared to write a scene of implied rape in a fan fic (it was MUCH more tame than what Full Moon showed), and they all attacked me for it, claiming I'm a bad person who doesn't care about myself, that I need to warn for this stuff (Isn't the T rating enough?!), that I don't care about my readers, that I shouldn't have written it in their precious kids show, that I absolutely have to write my story in the show's spirit, that it's not appropriate, blah blah blah. For a long while I was convinced they were right...until I read this manga again. It helped me out of my writing crisis and got me the answer that I needed. Also, I don't see anyone complaining about Tanemura writing an implied rape scene in this manga! If she can do it, then why can't I?!

Sorry about that. If I were to give this a rating, I'd give it a 92 out of 100, because it's just that good, occasional flaws and plot holes not withstanding. Anyway, if you're looking for a gripping, rich story about life, death, moving past your mistakes, and moving on, then Full Moon is the story for you.
 
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This review was originally written on May 21st, 2018. Also, it's a...yaoi?!



I give this dark, twisted, utterly INSANE yaoi manga by the author of Fushigi Yuugi (No, not kidding)...a 76/100.

So...I read about this on TVTropes and decided to read it on a whim. Not gonna lie, if you're expecting a sweet, fluffy shoujo romp full of warm feels and heartwarming moments, you're in the wrong place, because this manga is dark as all hell. Considering Yuu Watase, the mangaka behind manga such as Fushigi Yuugi and Ceres: Celestial Legend made this, it's honestly quite a shock. Normally, I'm not a fan of yaoi or shounen-ai, namely because many of the ones I've encountered were either too melodramatic, too silly, have weird views on romantic relationships, or pretty much have no plot and nothing else except sex. Thankfully, Sakura Gari avoids that one last pitfall, being a strong, gripping, complex story with many layers and mysteries behind its beautiful facade. To put it simply, in a more vulgar manner: It's fucking insane.

Sakura Gari takes place in the Taisho era (the years 1912-1926), and a young high school boy, Masataka Tagami, the eldest son of a librarian from a small village, goes to Tokyo to try and find his place in life. While trying to find a job to support himself as he prepares for his university entrance exams, he finds employment when he meets a man named Souma Saiki, who lets him stay at his house on the condition that he work as a house servant. At first, Masataka is happy to be able to make some good money and support himself through school. As time goes by, however, he starts to learn, and then become unwittingly involved in, the Saiki house's many dark, disturbing secrets, and things get even worse when Souma's dark secrets come to light.

Now, Yuu Watase is known for her bright, cheery, shoujo-style artwork, giving her female characters sparkly eyes, youthful expressions, and comedic superdeformed chibis. Fushigi Yuugi, her most famous work, has all of these. But seriously, if you look at the art style for Fushigi Yuugi and then compare it to Sakura Gari, the differences are like night and day. Sakura Gari has very clean linework, softer shading, impeccably detailed backgrounds that fit well with the manga's time period and setting, and the characters are drawn much more realistically, with very little exaggerated features, and it's less...cartoony. If you looked at this picture here and this one here, I wouldn't blame you at all if you thought they were done by two different people. Seriously, Watase has come a long way as an artist, especially since her Fushigi Yuugi days. If anything can be described as beautiful, Sakura Gari definitely fits the bill, no question. Some say this is her best artwork yet, and I'm inclined to agree. Also, I really need to say this here: Watase has gotten REALLY GOOD at drawing facial expressions. Seriously, look at some of these! They're so awesome and amazing and well drawn! Some are even downright scary in how well drawn they are!

On the other hand, its characters are kind of a mixed bag. Let me say one thing first: I LOVE complex characters who have more to them than meets the eye, who have equal amounts of good qualities and bad that make them fully human. However, if a character's bad qualities outweigh the good, it can be difficult to sympathize with them in any way, especially if they do genuinely bad things. Souma (the one with the ponytail) is one of those characters. The thing with Souma is that he starts off seeming like a genuinely good person who cares for Masataka in his own way...but when Masataka learns his dark secrets and tries to run, Souma goes way too far in trying to make him stay, and does some pretty horrible things to him. If you're familiar with standard yaoi tropes, then you'll know that Souma's one of those "rapist semes" who sexually and mentally abuses poor Masataka, and it can't be denied that raping someone is a horrible thing to do, even if you do have your reasons for it. Watase loves giving her villains or troubled abusers sympathetic backstories to explain their behavior, and while sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't (Nakago, anyone?), namely when it tries to use said backstory as a way to handwave or justify the bad things he does. You can make your villains sympathetic, but there are ways to do it without coming off as justifying or handwaving their bad behavior. Dilandau Albatou from Vision of Escaflowne and Claude Frollo from Disney's version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame are perfect examples of this. But...to be fair, the manga actually acknowledges this. Souma KNOWS he's done horrible things to Masataka and how serious it all is, and not only does he feel genuinely remorseful, especially when you learn his backstory, he actually does make an effort to make amends with Masataka, even if he doesn't go about it in healthy ways. The manga doesn't deny that Souma's done some pretty awful things in an attempt to keep Masataka with him, and while Watase does go out of her way to explain why he does what he does, showing that he's the product of a very, VERY toxic environment from which there was basically no escape, she also acknowledges that the people around him are just as guilty for the bad things they've done to him and unwittingly contributing to his behavior in the first place. Granted, the ending may still leave a slightly bad taste in one's mouth considering what inevitably happens, and your liking of the ending will depend on whether you actually want Masataka and Souma to get together or not...and considering Souma actually rapes Masataka several times...yeah.

Wow, that sure was a long paragraph on just one character. Now onto the others! Everyone else is just as complex, intriguing, and fascinating as Souma is. Everyone involved with the Saikis has their own story to tell, from the doctor who helps Souma's father and Souma himself from an unnamed maid who only appears for a few short pages and never again. Even characters who are completely, unambiguously evil and downright monstrous have reasons for doing what they do, and while some of them don't always get developed or fleshed out, the complex, twisty nature of the series really made me want to know just what these characters are going to do next, even if they seem like they're just thrown in there just for the sake of angst and losing their sanity. Plus, if any of you are concerned that Masataka is just going to be another Miaka, or just a simplistic uke stereotype, fear not, for he's not a helpless, useless kid whose sole purpose is to be cute and spineless and be Souma's toy. He can be nice and kind when he wants to be, but he has his limits and won't hesitate to call someone out on their crap if pushed hard enough. He has flaws. He doesn't always have the best relationships with his family members. He's insecure and can be a little resentful. He gets angry, he gets sad, he actually does make an effort to escape his situation (though it fails), and while bad things do happen to him, he isn't such a spineless wimp that he can't make an effort to help those he loves and fight to survive. Most importantly, he fights back. That in and of itself really makes him stand out and above every yaoi uke stereotype in existence.

The story is where some people might get divided, and I can understand why people might have grievances with it, especially in regards to its content. This manga is pretty much a gigantic soap opera: Sensitive issues such as rape, murder, child abuse, child molestation, and sexual exploitation are constantly used as plot devices like they're going out of style, so liberally that it really lays it on thick. Almost none of the characters are genuinely good or human save for Masataka, and there's little, if any reprieve from all the craziness, like comedy scenes or chapters where you're allowed to just breathe or take a break from Sakura Gari's insane, twisted, messed up world. Some people say this is the manga's strong point: There's always something going on, there's very little filler or rut, and the story is always moving forward. It helps that the manga is short too, only nine chapters long in three volumes, so it's a short read. A very, very hard short read. On the other hand, many others are bound to take issue with Sakura Gari's content and how it handles a lot of sensitive issues, and that's understandable. Even I thought some parts were way too over the top, even in context, and some parts could have been handled much better than they were. Not only that, there's a LOT of graphic, detailed nudity, but it never goes out of its way to show any genitalia, surprisingly. Half the time I was reading it, I kept feeling like Watase wanted to go farther than she did in showing the sex scenes but didn't, to the point where I was like, "Come on, Watase! Just go full-on porn! We know you want to!" I have to wonder if it was because of executive mandate or because she wanted to be kind of coy about it and maybe feel like she trusted her readers to figure out what was going on without going all out. Who knows? But honestly? I'll read this over Fushigi Yuugi any day of the week.

Bottom line, if you want a deep, complex, genuinely intriguing yaoi that's also utterly bonkers, give this a shot!...but it's not for the faint of heart. Seriously.
 
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This review was originally written on December 23rd, 2017.



I give one of the most beloved fantasy books in American history...a 75/100.

Alright, I'll be honest with you guys here. I've never read a lot of beloved classic books as a child, especially stuff like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby or anything by people like Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy. I have been trying to rectify this as of recently, namely through renting a lot of books from my local libraries and seeing if I like them or not. But a lot of the time, I can't bring myself to like a lot of books that people love so much. I mean, I can like them and certain aspects of them, but they often have something that keeps me from seeing them as absolute masterpieces. I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and while I like it and its overall message, its slow pacing and a bunch of really annoying, despicable characters kept me from seeing it as a masterpiece. I was forced to read Lord of the Flies in high school, and I hated it. I thought it was too pretentious and boring for its own good. Same with Great Expectations, and I thought it was just an annoying slog to read. I thought most of Shakespeare's works were boring and melodramatic. I wasn't able to read much of Jane Eyre, so I don't have an opinion on that (Though that'll be rectified later). I've never read books such as The Grapes of Wrath, Gone With The Wind, The Great Gatsby, 1984, Brave New World, etc. Don't even get me started on Homer's Odyssey. That book can go jump off a cliff. But that's not to say I'm completely averse to classic books. Some of my favorites include Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess, Little Women, Bambi, Kitchen (by Banana Yoshimoto), Watership Down, and a few others. I finally managed to sit down and read A Wrinkle In Time last night, and while it's not perfect, I can definitely include it as a new favorite.

At first glance, the story seems rather simple. Margaret "Meg" Murry is an eleven-year-old girl who doesn't feel like anything's going right. Her father left some years ago, she and her family are shunned because of their intellectual careers and pursuits and for not being like everyone else, and Meg herself is prone to losing her temper and getting into fights. One day, a mysterious neighbor named Mrs Whatsit appears on their doorstep during a bad storm. They take her in so she can rest, but in doing so, Meg learns that there's more to her father's disappearance than anyone could have imagined. She, her young brother Charles Wallace, and a classmate named Calvin O'Keefe are taken by Mrs Whatsit and her friends to other worlds via traveling through time and space, and have to face off against an evil force called IT.

For what it's worth, the prose is fairly simple and easy to understand, even as it goes into more complicated topics such as God, tesseracts, mathematical things, religious themes, etc. Kids can probably read it without much trouble, and if they have trouble reading some of the more unfamiliar words, they can always ask a parent or teacher to help them read them. However, I think at times the simple prose can actually pose some problems for the book, especially in regards to its worldbuilding...or lack thereof. The characters travel to various plants, none of which are described beyond a few simple sentences. One planet is just a field of pretty flowers and a big mountain inhabited by winged centaurs, whereas another planet has faceless creatures living on it and not much else, and another planet is described as a winter wonderland kind of place, with nothing else to develop them further. Yeah, L'Engle choosing not to develop the settings really hurt the book a bit, especially since it's touted as a great sci-fi/fantasy novel.

The characters are also rather...one-dimensional as well. I thought the three Mrs W's were interesting, especially Mrs Who and her constant need to quote other people due to having trouble verbalizing her thoughts, feelings, and opinions on her own. However, everyone else was kinda...meh. Meg could be kind of whiny, but for a kid her age being thrown into a whole bunch of craziness and not being able to do much about it, I can let that slide. What I cannot let slide is how clumsily written her friendship with Calvin is...when they first meet, all they do is look at each other, and then he says he's glad to be friends with her, even though they had NO interaction before that. Heck, they don't even cultivate any kind of meaningful friendship or spend time together until after he goes to her house. I think maybe the part where he says he's glad to be friends with Meg would have been more fitting had he said it after he spent some time with Meg at her house, that way their blossoming friendship would be more believable. Speaking of unbelievable things, Charles Wallace was basically an adult in a five-year-old's body. He speaks and acts like an adult. No kid I know of talks and behaves the way he does. Plus, we're never given any insight into his powers and why IT wants him so bad, and the book keeps claiming he's gifted but he doesn't really do anything special other than talk like an adult. Calvin doesn't really get to do much either, and all we really know about him is that he likes basketball, is popular in school, and comes from a big, abusive family that often forgets he exists. I did think Meg's parents were interesting in that while they meant well, they didn't always make the best decisions and admitted that they're flawed people.

Unfortunately, undeveloped settings and one-dimensional characters aren't the book's biggest flaws. The main conflict, everyone going up against IT, never really gets resolved in the end. More in the spoiler tag for details.

At one point, Charles Wallace gets brainwashed and kidnapped. Meg saves him by telling him he loves him a lot, and...suddenly they're back home! Completely forgetting the fact that a giant dark cloud is still harming space and IT is still in control over the overly conformist planet of Camazotz. It seems like L'Engle forgot that she set up all these various storylines and conflicts and just hastily ended the book the second the Murry family reunites and has their happy ending, with nothing ever being done about It and the Dark Thing. I enjoyed the book and even I thought the ending was complete and utter bullcrap.

I do feel kind of bad for harping on this book as much as I do, because for what it's worth, it does have a lot of unexplored potential and very neat story ideas, especially the planet Camazotz, where conformity is strictly enforced to the point where if a child doesn't bounce a ball in perfect rhythm with anyone else, he's considered defective and needs to be destroyed. Many scholars have interpreted Camazotz and its strict rules as being a critique of suburban 50s values, where rigid conformism and suspicion of outsiders in the wake of the Cold War reigned supreme, along with Stalinist Russia's equally rigid state attempts to control the lives and minds of its citizens. I do like the book's messages, that these values are not only wrong, but extremely stifling and toxic, and that individuality, free-thinking, and love should be celebrated. For what it's worth, I'll definitely give L'Engle credit for going against the grain during her time period.

But even with all the book's flaws, I can't bring myself to hate it. It's obviously not perfect, but nothing ever is, and I still read it and re-read it when I want to kill some time but don't want to read other books I've read. It's a nice, serviceable book that's definitely good for entertainment and light sci-fi without going all overboard with the technobabble. Honestly, if you tried to make me choose between this and The Odyssey, I'll go with A Wrinkle In Time. I'll gladly take a flawed but still decent and entertaining book over a nigh-incomprehensible sprawling stream of Greek hero consciousness any day of the week. I'm still on the fence about whether I'll read the sequels or not, so I'm not sure what I want to do about those. Maybe I'll rent them at the library and see if I like them or not. I do hear L'Engle's Meet The Austins series is good, so I might try that next, especially since the first book is pure slice-of-life.

Overall, A Wrinkle In Time has many flaws that prevent it from being a masterpiece, but it's still a fun and entertaining children's adventure...though the ending needs a LOT of work.
 
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