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Julia's Reviews on Various Media

This review was originally written on August 5th, 2023.

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Rating: 65/100

Man, I really should be more excited for Tokyo Mew Mew New than I turned out to be. The first half of it definitely wasn't bad, but it was still a far cry from being as good as the 2002 anime. Granted, the manga isn't exactly a masterpiece by any stretch, and I've explained as such in my own review for it, but I still enjoyed it for what it was. TMM New, to its credit, did try to differentiate itself from both the old anime and the manga with the changes that it made, some of which continued in this second half. But now that I've completed this half of TMM New, I don't think it succeeded in carving out its own identity. Since this part takes place immediately after the first half of TMM New, I'm not gonna bore you with another summary of the series, as you can look to my review for the first half.

I've mentioned that TMM New's animation, while a valiant attempt to give the series a new coat of paint, wasn't as dynamic and sharp as the 2002 anime was, but it still did its job. Unfortunately, I think the animation really started to fall apart in this second part. There were no small amount of off model shots, stiff action scenes, and still shots bogging it down, making almost every scene feel sluggish and slow when it shouldn't be that way. The fight scenes are especially affected by this, as a lot of them consist of cost-cutting static shots that are meant to give the implication of movement while showing as little movement as humanly possible. I'm not going to say the 2002 anime's animation was a visual feast for the eyes or anything, as that had its own issues, especially when it first aired on TV, but the action scenes there at least had more dynamic movement and the fights actually felt palpable, and the producers at least tried to make do with what they had. Part 2's animation even loses the refinement that even the first half had, and I can count on both hands the scenes I saw where the girls' faces just looked really off, or one of their body parts, such as their eyes, looked smaller or bigger than the other.

Part 2 also carries over some flaws that Part 1 had, particularly not doing enough to flesh out the rest of the characters aside from Ichigo. It tries, it really tries, but the things they add to characters such as Mint and Lettuce don't really do enough to make them feel more three-dimensional or interesting. With the smaller episode count on both ends, this was inevitable, so I can't really fault the producers for trying to make do with what they had at least. But even some of the changes they did make seemed really odd. In one episode, Mint runs away from home and stays at Ichigo's place for a while, and has absolutely no clue what a middle-class house looks like, nor does she understand the concept of families sharing one bathroom. For as much as the series tried to make Mint smarter and more intelligent than she was in other adaptations, it feels jarring to see her act really dumb for what is ostensibly no reason and her behavior there goes against a lot of her established characterization. Say what you will about the 2002 anime, at least in that one, Mint's personality and behavior was consistent, and she wasn't suddenly retconned into not knowing certain really basic things! Bascially, all the characters, heroes and villains, don't change much and despite attempts to flesh them out, still come off as pretty bland and milque toast.

I won't mention the soundtrack a second time, as it's pretty much the same as Part 1, still pretty good but nothing groundbreaking. To TMM New's credit, there are some things Part 2 did that I did genuinely like. Remember Mint's brother Seiji in the 2002 anime? There, he was just a filler character and only appeared in one episode, but TMM New decided to not only have him appear more, but even have him be more active in the story's main conflict. I'm honestly surprised they decided to use him that way, and I'm glad they actually bothered to give him something resembling a character arc and plot relevance. Secondly, one thing I wish both the manga and 2002 anime had done was elaborate more on the aliens' lore. To my surprise, TMM New actually does just that, not only actually showing other aliens besides Kish, Pie, and Tart, but expanding on why they had to leave Earth and having one of the characters learn more about them. It even shows what happens to them after Ichigo and friends save the Earth from disaster, which I don't think the manga or 2002 anime ever did, which is nice. I also appreciate that TMM New actually bothered to show a bit of Zakuro's background by giving her a friend who shoots all of her videos. They still don't do anything like show what her family life is like, or if she even has one, but it's way more than the 2002 anime ever bothered to do with Zakuro. Plus, while the Mew Mews voice actors aside from Ichigo and Lettuce are still kind of green, Mint's actress really seems to have settled into her role, and her voice doesn't sound as awkward as it did in Part 1.

However, if I'm going to be honest here, I'm gonna say I still prefer the 2002 anime over both the manga and Tokyo Mew Mew New. For all the things TMM New tried to do, it's unable to break out of the source material's shadow, or even the shadow of the 2002 anime. It's a fine adaptation for what it is, but not every change it made benefited it, and in the end, it doesn't go beyond just average. But hey, Tokyo Mew Mew coming back into the limelight at all is still a miracle in and of itself, and is a fitting tribute to the late Mia Ikumi's memory. It's not going to bring the house down, but it's still a nice kids show to introduce your little sister, daughter, or niece to anime with, if you want a shorter alternative to the 2002 anime.
 
This review was written on August 20th, 2023.

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Rating: 85/100

The thing I love about anime and manga is that you never know what you'll find. I came across this manga, Yume no Hashibashi, on AniList because it was on the recommendations listing for another manga I was looking up. I got curious and wound up reading it in one sitting because it was short. The story centers on Kiyoko Itou, an old woman who is dealing with dementia and can barely recognize her own family members anymore, as is typical for any old woman in the twilight years of her life. One day, a woman named Mitsu Sonoda visits her, whom Kiyoko remembers perfectly even after all these years. Sadly, not a day after her visit, Mitsu dies from getting hit by car. Kiyoko looks back on her life, how she came to know and love Mitsu, and how their lives diverged and changed in the coming decades. Yeah, I'm not gonna sugarcoat this, this is an LGBT story about two women who fell in love but couldn't be their authentic selves because of the eras they grew up in and were made to live their lives separate from one another. This is your pretty typical tragic LGBT story setup, which goes as far back as the 19th century, though back then it was due to executive mandates that forbade LGBT couples from having happy endings or being portrayed as anything but either evil, sick, or cured of their homosexuality. Yume no Hashibashi was first written in 2018, and thankfully, it doesn't have that level of subtly homophobic tragedy.

Rather, Yume no Hashibashi explores the lives these two women led in the aftermath of their first passions and how they came to be where they are, even as their time comes to an end. Interestingly enough, Yume no Hashibashi chooses not to relay the events of their pasts in chronological order. You know how in some stories, some begin with a scene of an older MC telling someone about their past, then focusing entirely on their younger selves until the very end? Yume no Hashibashi does things differently, actually starting from when Kiyoko and Mitsu are in their eighties, then going backwards: Showing them as older adults, then young adults, with the penultimate chapter showing them as high school kids right before the actual ending. I think this was a good move on the author's part, because the characters constantly talk about certain events from their past and how those events shaped who they are today, and some aspects are deliberately kept a mystery up until the end, rather than being revealed early on. I don't think I've seen many series do this, and doing it to preserve the mystery of just why Kiyoko and Mitsu did what they did until the end is actually a pretty smart move. It keeps the reader invested even as we see other events in their lives change things, like Kiyoko and Mitsu being pressured into marrying husbands or job hunting in the post-war period.

Kiyoko and Mitsu themselves are also very compelling characters who manage to carry the story wonderfully. The two of them are unique, interesting individuals with their own strengths, weaknesses, desires, and views on how they deal with the changes in their lives, both from not being able to be together as they want to how they change and grow as the decades pass. Yume no Hashibashi as a manga does a great job in gradually revealing just how these two women came to be where they are, why they made the decisions that they did, and how those decisions and mistakes affected them throughout their lives. Since the manga itself is pretty down-to-earth and realistic, nothing is dramatized or sensationalized, managing to avoid any needless melodrama. I do kind of wish we got to know some of the side characters a bit more, such as Mitsu's friend Masumi and Kiyoko's children and grandchildren, and they just felt like they were just there to advance the plot and talk to the main leads than really be fleshed out characters on their own merits. It's a shame we don't get to see more of them, but I did like what we did get, and they were still miles away from your usual anime stereotypes. The simple artwork helps in this regard as well. The backgrounds are all well drawn with no clutter, the usage of shadows, lighting, and gray space is well balanced, the character designs are distinct and down-to-earth, and I love how both Kiyoko and Mitsu are shown visibly changing and aging over the years with every chapter.

Considering the manga's overall premise, I'm sure LGBT people growing up in the modern era will take issue with the fact that Kiyoko and Mitsu's relationship ends tragically in and of itself, and I can understand why. For years, LGBT people from all walks of life were demonized, marginalized, and treated like crap just for existing, with offensive, unflattering portrayals in the media not always helping matters, especially the mandates that were forced on said depictions to begin with because of the outdated laws that were put in practice. The only scraps they could get were the stuff I mentioned above: Stories where LGBT people were only portrayed as either evil, met tragic ends, or were magically cured. For example, Americans born in the nineties may remember the movie Philadelphia, and the producers for that wanted to include explicitly intimate scenes between the characters Andrew and Miguel, but execs forced them to cut them out because prejudice against LGBT people and anyone who had AIDS was still prevalent, though that movie would be praised for being one of the first mainstream movies to normalize LGBT people. Now, in 2023, we have an abundance of all sorts of LGBT stories, from fluffy and lighthearted, to dark and angsty, to adventurous and blood-pumping, even with overzealous puritanical soccer moms complaining that the world is "pushing the gay agenda on their kids" or stupid shit like that. There's more variety, and many LGBT fans young and old are happy that they can tell their own stories, real or fiction, without fear of censorship. But this begs the question: With Yume no Hashibashi's overall nature as a story, does that make it homophobic? I don't know where I stand in terms of orientation, as I've never been in a relationship, so I'm probably not the best person to comment on this, but based on what I've read of both the manga and studies on how LGBT people were portrayed in various media across the years, I'm of the opinion that the answer is no in this case.

There's nothing in the manga that states that homosexuality is inherently bad, any homophobia Kiyoko and Mitsu do face is extremely subtle and more due to Japanese views on how women should be made to live their lives than anything, a product of the times they grew up in. Plus, Mitsu and Kiyoko do manage to live long, full lives even if they don't get to be together, and they even ask themselves if things might have been different had they been born today, with Japan now steadily becoming more accepting of LGBT people (Though not without its own problems when it comes to the journey towards getting there, as current events can tell you). I found an interesting Twitter thread last year detailing the differences between queer tragedies and stories about LGBT people being made by bigoted government/religious heads mandating that "sexual deviants" be killed off as a way of drilling into the audience that it's bad and wrong to deviate from society's values, and how some people decry queer tragedies as bad representation without taking into account the time period and contexts in which they were made. Yume no Hashibashi isn't on the level of, say, The Beautiful Skies of Houou High, where not only do all the other characters demonize the MC for her lesbianism, to the point where the MC's mother abuses her for it, but it's very much implied that the author for that series wants the readers to take the mother's side and agree with her. Gee, remember that shitshow? I don't know what Yumi Sudou's views on LGBT people are, but Yume no Hashibashi treats Kiyoko and Mitsu with empathy and sensitivity, never demonizing them for their relationship, just portraying them as people who made their fair share of rash decisions and showing how they live their lives. Yes, their relationship doesn't turn out the way they wanted, and they both die in the end, but the lives they lived were good, happy ones, and they still treasure the bond they share even if they went down different paths. So yes, while Yume no Hashibashi is in some ways a queer tragedy, it treats its characters with empathy and kindness, and doesn't make their being queer out to be an inherently bad thing.

So yes, while some aspects of Yume no Hashibashi may not appeal to modern readers, especially LGBT readers who are sick of tragedies no matter how they were made, I'm of the opinion that it's a sweet, understated drama that cares about its characters and deserves more love than it gets. It's not going to bring the house down, but I don't think it should be dismissed just because it happens to be a tragedy involving LGBT people.
 
This review was written on August 24th, 2023, before Rune Factory 3 Special came out. I've since bought RF3S, so look forward to a review of that in the future.

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Rating: 77/100

After getting hooked into Rune Factory 5, I decided to try my hand into the game that came out before it, Rune Factory 4, the Switch version to be more specific. Rune Factory 4 was originally released on the 3DS in America in 2013, but after that, Neverland's bankruptcy left the series' future uncertain. Then in 2019, Rune Factory 4 was announced to be getting a Switch port, which came out in February of 2020. RF4 has then gone on to become the best-selling and best-reviewed game in the franchise, bringing in new fans and a new surge of popularity for the RF series as a whole. A part of this might be because this was the only accessible RF game around to play, since the DS titles had fallen out of print, and fans wouldn't get a new RF game until 2022, a whole nine years afterward. Since Rune Factory 5 proved to be rather divisive since its release, it was inevitably compared to RF4, and rather unfavorably, which is understandable, since as much as I love the game, RF5 does have quite a lot of issues. Now having played Rune Factory 4 myself, I can say...while there are things RF4 does have over RF5, I honestly don't think RF4 is the untouchable masterpiece people are making it out to be, and it has plenty of its own issues to contend with in terms of both its game mechanics and how it goes about executing them.

The game begins with the protagonist riding an airship, carrying valuable cargo on their person. Before they reach their destination, they are attacked by bandits, and after losing their memory and their cargo from a blow to the head (How that happened is, I'm not gonna lie, really really REALLY STUPID), they are tossed overboard. Luckily, their fall is broken by the dragon Ventuswill, who guards the town of Selphia. She has been expecting a member of nobility to come and manage the town, and assumes that this must be them. The misunderstanding is cleared up soon after, but the protagonist decides to stick around in Selphia because they've come to like this little community and its townspeople. From then on, it becomes the job of the player character to attract tourists to their town, to have new festivals implemented or shops built, to start up a farm and raise monsters, and to investigate the strange occurrences of boss monsters taking on human forms after being defeated.

As far as the graphics go, considering this was originally made for the 3DS, the in-game sprites definitely show their age. Many of them have sharp angles and oddly-placed eyes, making everyone look really wonky. It's not as noticeable when they're on the overworld map, but when you look at them in your party menu, they really stick out. On the other side of the spectrum, the visual novel portraits don't have this problem, and are pretty smooth and clean, with a variety of different poses and expressions, even with some new added details exclusive to the Switch port. The enemy sprites are similarly jagged and wonky, but since they're all monsters and not people, they don't go deep into the uncanny valley like the human sprites do. The gameplay manages to make up for the dated graphics by giving you experience and skill points for pretty much everything, from mining to sleeping, so you're being constantly rewarded for the work you put in, and this includes farming, fulfilling requests for the townsfolk, fighting monsters in dungeons, and so on. The soundtrack is pretty good, and the opening song is nice, even if the animation could stand to be a little more...well, animated.

Similarly to previous RF games, you spend time getting to know the townsfolk in Selphia, which includes a dragon, surprisingly enough, and said dragon is a huge part of the central conflict. I found most of the characters to be fine. I will admit that they are stronger and more fleshed out than in RF5, especially since there's a ton of events—even non-romantic ones—that show them doing stuff. They're still not the most complex, but they're pretty fun to follow, with some exceptions (God, I don't like Illuminata). You don't really get to know the love interests too much unless you pursue them, though RF4 gives you the option of actually dating all of them at once (Unless you propose to one). I haven't done this, so I wouldn't know whether you can activate their post-romance events or not. I do think the way you have to decide your MC's gender is...really weird. The game starts out with your MC on an airship, and one choice has the MC react with excitement, which is the male MC, and one with hesitance, the female. Uhh...who thought that was a good idea? It just seems odd to decide your MC's gender like that. Thankfully, Rune Factory 5 did away with that. Also...I'm probably going to get lynched for saying this, but I didn't find Ventuswill to be all that interesting. For a dragon who is the center of the game's plot, and the game is about the MC's friendship with her, thereby making it extremely important, I couldn't really see why the MC would even want to be her friend since Venti spends a lot of her time just being an indecisive tsundere who acts pompous and even a little mean to the MC with little provocation.

Gameplay-wise, RF4 makes some noted improvements to the mechanics introduced in Rune Factory 3, building on them to make them easier for new players. In RF3, once you put items in the shipping box, you can't get them back out, and if you tried to interact with said box, all it'd give you is sales statistics on your items. RF4 does away with that and allows you to interact with the shipping box and take items out of it. While I'm still not a fan of the whole recipe bread concept, in RF3, if you bought some and ate it but didn't learn anything from it, the item gets consumed, so you not only not learn anything, but you waste money. RF4 makes it so that if you try to eat the recipe bread you bought but didn't learn anything from it, it doesn't get consumed. The farming mechanics are the same, but combat is much smoother and more fluid, and you're able to recruit NPCs to join you on your adventures, though you're only allowed to bring two at a time. One thing I admittedly don't like is the game's STEEP difficulty curve that happens when you unlock the third story arc. I played the game on the Easy difficulty, so I got through the first two arcs without much trouble, but from the third arc on, the game demands that you craft weapons and accessories built from materials specific to the post-game dungeon if you want to have even a modicum of a chance to complete the final arc, and let me tell you, that post-game dungeon is absolute murder to get through if you go in there unprepared. And no, being overleveled won't help you, because your strength doesn't increase by leveling up, but is ENTIRELY dependent on what equipment you have on. Making this worse is that the materials you need to build that kind of equipment are REALLY hard to make drop from the enemies that drop them. You could get around this by going into the Sharance Maze and raiding the treasure rooms, but that's only if you're lucky. I can understand giving players a challenge, but if I have the game on Easy mode, I don't want to have my ass handed to me just because I want to complete the main story, dammit! Say what you will about how short and easy RF5 is in comparison, but I was at least able to complete it and the post-game dungeon!

There is one more thing that really, really annoys me about Rune Factory 4, and it's something that other fans of the game have an issue with: the mechanics behind the town events and marriage. Now, the events in and of themselves aren't bad, and there's a ton of them to unlock. The problem comes from actually activating them. For SOME reason, somebody had the bright idea to have the town events and marriage events be determined by an RNG (random number generator) system, so you can't just manually activate the events yourself. You basically have to wait for them to happen, and not only is there no visual indication that an event is happening (Something Rune Factory 5 fixed), once an event happens you have to complete it before you can proceed to a new event, some of which can take over an in-game week to complete. Further rubbing salt into the wound is the fact that even trying to start a new event takes a ridiculously long time, as, again, the whole process is completely random. This can be especially grating if you want to start the third arc of the game or activate your chosen love interest's marriage event. Seriously, I beat the main story yet as of right now I still haven't gotten to hook up with Xiao Pai because one of her required event scenes just won't activate for me! And I managed to marry Priscilla just fine in RF5! Though it seems like the devs realized just how stupid this idea was and completely nixed the RNG system in RF5, and I hope to God this applies to the ones they're currently developing right now. I know Rune Factory 3 Special doesn't have the RNG system, so there's that.

So...while I can see why people would prefer Rune Factory 4 over RF5, I consider them both to be on equal footing. Rune Factory 4 definitely has mostly stronger characters, faster pacing, a more fleshed out story, and more content, but is held back by dated graphics, the unfair third act difficulty spike, and the awful RNG mechanics. Rune Factory 5 polished its gameplay, has slightly better graphics, and added a lot of quality of life features that RF4 didn't have, but is marred by slower pacing, slightly weaker characters, a weaker plot, and not having much to do after the post-game. The two of them have their strengths and weaknesses, and I don't think one is equally better than the other. I personally found RF5 to be easier to complete and deal with than RF4, but that's just my opinion. If you like Rune Factory 4, more power to you, and even with the issues it has, I enjoy it well enough. The fact that it managed to keep the RF fandom alive in light of the Switch port and the series' hiatus until RF5 came out certainly stands as a testament to its impact on the series, so we fans at least owe it that much. You can find the game for cheap pretty much anywhere, be it digital or physical copies. And now to eagerly await Rune Factory 3 Special so I can play that when it comes out!
 
This review was originally written on August 29th, 2016, long before any seasons past two were even in production. But based on what I've heard about later seasons, my feelings on the show itself haven't changed and I have no interest in revisiting it. Sorry, fans.

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Rating: 65/100

In 2012, a 2D animated, anime-esque video showing a ladybug themed superheroine and a black cat themed superhero took the internet by storm, and soon, people were clamoring for a series based on it. They got their wish...but the 2D style was dropped in favor of 3D animation, and whatever plans the creator, Thomas Astruc, had for the show were for the most part axed because the networks wanted him to sanitize it into a squeaky clean show. I like that it's become so popular with people and respect that people like it. Believe me, I want to like it more than I do. Unfortunately...there's no denying it, Miraculous Ladybug, or Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir, has problems. SERIOUS problems that really hold it back from being something truly incredible, which is a shame.

One of Ladybug's first problems comes from the storyline. Two kids, Marinette and Adrien, receive magical items that contain fairy-like creatures called kwamis, who claim they're the chosen ones and give them powers and the ability to become animal themed superheroes. They have to defeat an evil man named Hawkmoth, who uses his powers to corrupt people and make them cause trouble in Paris. A cliche setup, yes, but it can be done well. Unfortunately, this is pretty much the entire plot. The episodes pretty much all go like this: characters do stuff, Hawkmoth corrupts a victim of the week, heroes fight villain of the week for 80% of the episode, purify the akuma, Hawkmoth vows revenge, characters do more stuff, rinse and repeat. Now, this wouldn't be so bad if the show had another goal it was running towards. Lots of cartoons and anime like Sailor Moon and Pretty Cure, while having filler episodes, usually do manage to go against the formula in order to fight the big bad near the end. The problem with Ladybug's take on it is that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF ITS EPISODES ARE THE SAME!!! They're executed the same, the formula is the same, the villain's plans remain the same all throughout the show, etc.! I know people complain about Pokemon clinging to the status quo like it's God, but this show takes Status Quo Is Good to a whole new level. What little coherent storyline it has can barely hold it together, and since none of the characters even THINK to TRY and find the source of all the akumas and just focus on purifying the villain of the week, the entire series is basically nothing more than a gigantic gong show where nothing really happens. Because nothing of note really happens throughout the series, it leaves the audience to wonder what we should take from it and why we should care about the characters involved in the first place.

What makes this even worse is that out of 26 whole episodes, a grand total of THREE have ANYTHING to do with the plot. Yes, only three. The rest of the episodes are basically nothing but pointless filler, and any attempt to pursue continuity just gets reset at the end of whatever episode it comes up in and is never brought up again. You can pretty much watch the episodes Stoneheart Parts 1 and 2 and Volpina and skip the rest of the series entirely because the rest of the episodes have nothing else to offer. This might change when the second season comes out in May, but on the off chance that the second season turns out the same way, I don't see why a show that relies so much on formulaic filler and a complete lack of a compelling narrative can grab my attention.

The total lack of an interesting narrative and the show's insistence on maintaining the status quo also has a really bad effect on the characters as well. All of them sans Marinette and Adrien are woefully cliche. Marinette is the shy girl who crushes on Adrien and can't speak to him for the life of her who becomes confident as Ladybug, Adrien is a lonely rich kid who's a teen model but his parents aren't around, Alya and Nino are the typical best friends, Chloe is the annoying little snob who's unnecessarily cruel to everyone for the sake of it and gets away with everything (Oh, and did I mention she has an annoyingly screechy voice that makes your ears bleed?!), Hawkmoth is a typical cartoon villain who does nothing but corrupt people and never actually does anything, etc.! None of them develop. None of them change throughout the series, and what little changes they do undergo are completely arbitrary since the show has no real cohesive storyline to allow them to actually show them changing from X to Y. Because they don't change much and any development they do receive just gets reset, it again gives the audience little reason to really care about them in the long run.

Two of the biggest offenders are Hawkmoth and Chloe. Chloe's problem is that she's just a cliche alpha bitch stereotype who continually causes problems and never learns her lesson even after twenty-something episodes, her screechy voice notwithstanding (And from what I hear she gets even worse in the sequels). As for Hawkmoth...there's no denying it, Hawkmoth is one of the worst and most pathetic cartoon villains in recent times. When there's a conflict, there needs to be an obstacle that the main characters need to get over. Villains are often thrown into media to be obstacles the hero needs to break down. Villains can be written well, but they're also prone to being written very badly. Hawkmoth is the latter, namely because he does absolutely nothing but stand in his hideout, send akumas out to corrupt people, and demand that they take Ladybug and Cat Noir's miraculouses. Now, this would be tolerable if he either had a reason for doing so and it didn't last very long (He does have somewhat of a reason: his powers only allow him to give people powers, as he doesn't have any of his own. But good villains know how to get around their flaws and weaknesses for the most part). But the problem is, not only does this method of villainy backfire on him more times than not, but HE NEVER LEARNS HIS LESSON AND KEEPS ON USING THE SAME STRATEGY OVER AND OVER AGAIN!!!! What's even worse is that NOT ONCE does he even consider trying something different or, shock horror, actually going outside and doing something about Ladybug and Cat Noir himself! And before you say, "But for all you know he might not have a lot of combat skills so how could he possibly take them on?!" That's also not an excuse because good villains are proactive, whether they know how to fight or not. Villains get things done. Good villains don't just sit around and make people thwart the heroes like they're butlers and maids. Example: Judge Frollo from the Hunchback of Notre Dame Disney movie! He was an old man and didn't fight, but even when he couldn't, he could still hold his own, and his villainy comes from his complete control over not only Quasimodo, but from the position of power he has thanks to his authority in the church and in Paris as a whole! Seriously, I can write a way better villain than Hawkmoth! You want to know what's worse? In the original 2D PV, Hawkmoth was shown to be a much more threatening and serious villain. I guess Hawkmoth could have turned out better had Thomas Astruc been allowed to go through with his original ideas for Ladybug. But the current Hawkmoth? Absolutely pathetic. Also...evilize? Seriously? That's not intimidating, that's hilarious, and not in a good way! Not only is that the stupidest name someone can come up with as a substitute for corruption, it further reinforces how horribly written Hawkmoth is as a villain.

To be fair though, not everything about the show is bad. The animation is superb even for a CGI and Western cartoon. None of the facial expressions fall into uncanny valley territory unlike most badly rendered CGI cartoons, the characters designs are very distinctive and no two characters look the same, and the movement is very fluid and symbiotic. Nothing feels stiff or rigid, unlike most cartoons. Considering this show has a VERY high budget, it shows that the animators took great pains to make the show look as good as possible. Plus, many of the locations are excellently rendered, like the Eiffel Tower, the Seine river, and even Marinette's house. Even the character's rooms not only have a whole lot to them, but show a lot about their character as well. Marinette's room is colorful and bright, but Adrien's is for the most part dull and dreary, showing his loneliness and dissatisfaction with his life of being confined to his house because of his father. The music is pretty good too, but nothing too memorable. I think the theme song either should have gone on for a little longer or the song itself be rendered better. Some of the lyrics are a bit strange, like "The power of love always so strong!" Shouldn't it be "Love's always" or "love is always" instead of that? I don't know. Maybe I heard it wrong. It's kind of hard to make out.

Also, among the sea of woefully bland characters is one who seriously stands out and needs more love: Tikki. I kid you not, Tikki is the best magical girl mascot fairy companion ever. Why? Most magical girl anime I've seen have the fairy mascots act bratty and annoying, show them scolding the main characters for stupid things that don't warrant scoldings, and act plain rude and childish. Tikki is absolutely nothing like that. Not only is she calm, smart, civil, and mature, she is completely understanding of Marinette and doesn't put her down for her failures or mistakes, nor does she treat Marinette like a perpetual troublemaker. Sure, she does scold Marinette for some of the things she does, but most of the time it's always justified, and it's always done out of genuine concern for her rather than wanting to put the blame on someone else or not take responsibility for when she herself does something bad, which is a problem most magical girl mascots are plagued with even now. She's basically a mini parent, but she's the good kind of parent who is firm, supportive, kind, and knows when to put her foot down and when to take a step back when needed. Seriously, why can't more fairy mascots be like Tikki?!

I know I harp on the lack of story in this show, and truth be told, there is a story in there trying to come out. Unfortunately, the show is so heck-bent on holding back anything even resembling a story, under the impression that if it focuses so much on comedy and filler it'll lose the kids' attention. Thankfully, a second season is coming this May, so for all we know, maybe the show will get a chance to finally break out of the filler and tell the story it wants to tell. But that can also be a bit of a bad thing, as I hear Nickelodeon is pretty notorious for not only cancelling good shows in favor of garbage (Remember how they treated The Legend of Korra?), but not allowing showrunners to be in full creative control of their product. It's a shame, because the reason most anime shows are successful is because they weren't afraid to go past the boundaries of what's considered acceptable in the US and didn't talk down to their audience. Even newer Western shows like Steven Universe, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Avatar, Voltron Legendary Defender, and LoliRock, while kid friendly, have attained success through their wish to...y'know, tell a story and develop its characters, even if they don't always succeed! Yes, I know ML aired in Korea and France before the US, so it's not entirely Nick's fault, but still, ML has so much potential that can be explored but it's not allowed to do so due to the show refusing to leave its comfort zone.

So...yeah, Ladybug's flaws can basically be summed up like this: It's too afraid to try anything new or get out of its comfort zone! But I do like that it's becoming popular, so maybe its success will allow it to finally spread its wings. But that remains to be seen. I just hope to God the second season isn't a filler infested gong show. But really, if you want a good Western magical girl show, I'd recommend LoliRock, because it's more serious and ambitious and isn't bogged down by 95% pointless filler and actually has a story and characters we can care about! Miraculous Ladybug really doesn't offer anything new, nor does it try to do anything to stand out. But if you like it, that's okay.
 
This review was written on September 11th, 2023.

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Rating: 77/100

Man, the 2020s have been a great time to be a Rune Factory fan. Rune Factory 4 got a Switch port, Rune Factory 5 finally came out after years of being in limbo, Rune Factory 3 also got a Switch port that just came out, and two new RF games are reported to be in development, with one of them being Rune Factory 6. We RF fans are eating like kings and queens! As I just mentioned, Rune Factory 3 got a Switch port that just came out last week called Rune Factory 3 Special, a slight remaster of the Nintendo DS game from 2009, with the only changes being more polished graphics, some DLC outfits, the Newlywed Mode segments and extra episodes exploring the main cast. From what I've heard, Rune Factory 3 was the game where the RF series really began to find its footing and hit its stride, and it's considered the best out of the three DS games. If you're coming into this game after RFs 4 and 5, you'll notice that this game doesn't have a lot of the quality of life improvements that later games would have, such as choosing a female MC, interacting with your shipping box, and so on, but there are reasons Rune Factory 3 is still fairly beloved to this day.

On a dark and stormy night, a wooly falls out of the sky and into the town of Sharance. A girl named Shara takes it in, only to find that it disappeared the next morning. Unbeknownst to her, the wooly turned into a human boy, Micah, who is actually half-human, half-monster. Micah doesn't remember anything as to what happened to him or how he came to Sharance, but he is welcomed with open arms, given a place to live, and tasked with managing a farm. As he gets to know the townspeople, he learns that there's a settlement of creatures called Univirs in the desert, and the Univirs dislike humans. Upon re-discovering his half-monster heritage in light of this new information, he keeps his wooly form a secret from the townspeople, but surely there must be a way for humans and monsters to coexist in peace. Micah decides to take it upon himself to unite the two races just like they had once been many decades ago, and it might just prove to be key in helping Sharance.

Before I get into the review, I just want to put out a PSA real quick. I've been seeing quite a lot of people decry Rune Factory 3 for only having you play as a male character and romance only girls, claiming that Marvelous should have tried programming in a female MC, male love interests, or even gay marriage. There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting these things, and later games would deliver on those, but those people are forgetting that Marvelous made it abundantly clear that Rune Factory 3 Special is NOT a complete from-the-ground-up remake. It's just a remaster that only touches up a few things, that's it. Rune Factory 3 first came out in 2009, before Marvelous even thought of putting in female MCs or gay marriage. Rune Factory 4 would introduce the former, and Rune Factory 5 would implement the latter, and will likely carry them into future games. Any complaints people have about RFS's dearth of modern features is from a combination of ignorance on how making games actually work and setting their expectations way too high, especially if they're not familiar with the franchise's history. So please, don't lambast RF3S because it isn't what you expect it to be, especially since the marketing made it clear that it's just a cosmetic remaster and nothing more. Besides, any complaints about the game not having the features introduced in RFs 4 and 5 are completely moot anyway in light of the two new games currently in development. Tl;dr, do your research, pay attention to marketing, and don't expect an old game to throw in stuff it can't just because they want to respect its original format. You have other options available.

There is no denying that RF3, having come out before RF4, doesn't have the more polished features that the latter does. You're not allowed to interact with your shipping box outside of just putting stuff in, so you can't get stuff out, you consume recipe bread regardless of whether you learn anything from it so if you buy some without learning anything, you wind up wasting money, and the main campaign is really short. That being said, this was the game that really made combat mechanics a lot easier than the previous two entries, as from what I've heard, combat in the first two games was very clunky. The farming mechanics are pretty much the same as the later entries, with a few caveats: There's no way to prevent typhoons or make your crops resist getting destroyed by them. Everything you do takes up stamina and rune points, but you also increase your skill levels by doing everything from walking to crafting items, so you're always getting rewarded. Plus, the new mechanic of Micah turning into a monster, your Wooly form also has combat abilities, unique attacks, and a grappling system you can utilize when monsters are stunned. The graphics themselves are a product of their time, 3D sprites against 2D backgrounds, but the backgrounds, town, and the dungeons are all well designed, and the in-game sprites have been given a MASSIVE upgrade. The old sprites in the DS version were really janky and blurry, so Marvelous completely redid them, even the monster sprites, and the difference in quality is quite amazing. The sprites here look much better, even for the human characters. The visual novel portraits remain the same, and are still as charming as they were in the DS version.

Now, for anyone who played later games, Rune Factory 3's main storyline is very short. Seriously, you can complete it before the end of the first in-game summer. There's also the fact that activating a character's events are completely reliant on fulfilling requests posted on the message board, which to me is WAY better than RF4's crappy RNG system. Getting married is also a requirement in this game, so you can't complete the main story without picking a girl to hook up with. But what RF3 lacks in longevity and new content, it makes up for with quality and charm, with a plethora of fun, quirky, interesting characters with their own unique strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. Seriously, there are reasons why many RF fans really like this particular cast of characters and wish later games brought over that same level of writing quality. That being said, the early DS era of RF games, this one included, had this habit of nudging you to go after one particular girl, considered the canon heroine, over all the other ones. Rune Factory 3 is guilty of this too, as it very aggressively wants you to marry Shara. Later games did away with this, as this practice had proven to be divisive, and the remake tones this down a bit by giving the Switch port new opening themes that gave all the love interests equal representation rather than shilling Shara all the way through, which is what the DS game did. I heard that Shara wasn't very well liked in the DS era because for some reason, Natsume, when they first brought the DS games over to North America, intentionally exaggerated some characters' personalities or added new additions to them that weren't in the original, such as having Micah be really mean towards the townsfolk and their quirks, and Shara becoming a jealous harpy the second you married her. XSEED's translation is much more faithful, doing away with the unnecessary exaggerations and personality changes, though some RF3 fans preferred the Natsume localization and the voice acting there. I've never played the DS version, nor do I have any interest in doing so.

Rune Factory 3's story in and of itself isn't really anything new either, as it just involves mending race relations between Univirs and humans with a big party and not much else. You're not gonna find anything deep or introspective here compared to other games tackling similar premises. But people don't really play Rune Factory in general expecting it to be like, say, The Witcher or Elden Ring. Sometimes you just want to kick back, grow some crops, raise livestock, and hang with some mermaids, elf girls, and bipedal sheep. While Rune Factory 3 may not be anything groundbreaking, and its Switch port lacking the quality of life features of later games, I still found it to be a fun, cute game that I was genuinely invested in, and it did introduce a lot of series staples in the franchise as a whole, so RF fans owe the game that much. And now to eagerly await news of either Rune Factory 6 or the newest spin-off game!
 
This review was written yesterday.

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Rating: 88/100

Unlike most people, I didn't grow up watching the Ghibli movies. My mom says I watched My Neighbor Totoro when I was a baby, but I have no memories of doing so, though I do remember seeing bits of it on Toonami at one point. It wasn't until I was in college that I began seeking the Ghibli movies out. I still maintain that Whisper of the Heart and The Tale of Princess Kaguya are my favorite Ghibli movies of all time, with When Marnie Was There coming a close third. I didn't see the more well-known ones such as Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa, though I did see the latter later on. One movie that I never got around to seeing until now was Kiki's Delivery Service. Not for any reason or anything, I just never got around to it. But the original novel it was based on did get a fresh new translation and North American release in 2020, and I bought it, read it, and liked it. I got bored one day and decided to finally sit down and watch the movie. Yeah, no surprise here, I totally understand why people consider this to be one of Ghibli's more accessible movies, and one of the best children's movies.

The overall premise is the same as the novel: Kiki is a young girl living in a quiet forest village with her witch mother Kokiri and human father Okino. Kiki just turned 13, and tradition dictates that when a witch reaches her thirteenth birthday, she has to strike off on her own for a year by way of moving to a new town that doesn't have a witch and find a job. But Kiki isn't too sure about finding a job, as she's really only good at flying. She and her cat sidekick Jiji find a seaside town called Koriko, and at first, they're discouraged by the townspeople's dismissive attitudes towards witches, but they are taken in by a friendly baker who lets them stay with her. She even suggests that maybe Kiki can be a delivery girl, since she's so good at flying. Kiki likes the idea and decides to take up the job, getting herself into all sorts of new adventures, from meeting new friends to to finding people that she grows to care about. Interestingly enough, the movie isn't a straight, faithful adaptation of the book. Kiki's Delivery Service still retains the book's laid-back, slice-of-life tone for 90% of its run, but isn't as episodic as the book is, and makes up new characters and events that weren't in the book, namely the famous blimp scene at the very end.

I don't think I can say anything about Ghibli's animation for this that hasn't been said already, and Joe Hisaishi's soundtrack. I do think the Yumi Matsutoya pop songs used for the opening and ending are cute and well sung. I haven't seen the 1998 English dub and its new soundtrack, Sydney Forest songs included, so I can't comment on those. I will say that Kiki's Delivery Service is excellent in its depiction of its titular character Kiki. The movie makes sure we see all sides of Kiki, giving her a wide range of emotions and personality, making her much more three-dimensional and nuanced than her book counterpart is while still having her act like a kid her age would, even though Kiki in the book is a perfectly fine character in and of herself. The other characters are pretty likeable and down-to-earth too, complete with realistic dialogue reflecting that, even if I wish some side characters could have gotten some more development, like that prissy girl Kiki delivered a pie to. But considering this movie's priorities, the side characters fulfill their roles fairly well. And yes, Jiji is a hoot, though again, I haven't seen the English dub yet, so I'm not familiar with the late Phil Hartman's take on the character.

If there is one complaint I have with Kiki's Delivery Service as a movie, I do think the anime original third act clashes with the tone of the movie. 90% of the time, Kiki's Delivery Service is a laid-back, low key slice-of-life movie with slight supernatural leanings, not interested in adhering to a regular three-act structure, but the last 10% of it is this big, sweeping action scene which, while I can understand the intent behind it, didn't seem like it fit with the rest of the movie, what with its very sudden tonal shift. It's not bad or anything, though I do think Kiki suddenly getting her flying powers back out of nowhere came off as a random Deus Ex Machina. I also feel like the movie could have run a little longer, maybe devoting some time to fleshing out some of the side characters or giving Kiki some more jobs to do. But that's more nitpicking than anything, and the movie is still pretty good on its own. Hell, even with the changes the movie made, the authoress of the novel, Eiko Kadono, liked the movie so much that she incorporated parts of it into sequel novels down the line, which is pretty high praise.

Now that I've finally seen Kiki's Delivery Service, I can definitely see why people who watched it like it so much. I've heard that it's especially popular among the art community for the fact that Kiki's struggles with losing her flying powers can be interpreted as an allegory for creative burnout, and I can totally see that, and can relate since I've dealt with that myself. So while I don't have the nostalgic attachment to Kiki's Delivery Service as others do, I can definitely agree that it's a cute, wholesome movie that you can absolutely show to your kids. As far as obtaining it legally, it's fairly easy to do so, with GKids releasing new Blu-Rays for it...with a caveat. Apparently, at some point, Disney decided to make changes to their old 1998 dub to remove some ad-libbed Phil Hartman dialogue and change the Sydney Forest songs back to the Yumi Matsutoya songs to make their 2010 home video release more faithful to the Japanese version, since nowadays they don't make as many changes to Ghibli movies as they did before. But apparently somebody really screwed up in the audio engineering process, as they did something to the dialogue in the mix, resulting in the characters in the English dub sounding like they're talking through fans all the time if they talk too loud. Unfortunately, this problem didn't get fixed even in the GKids re-releases as far as I know (Do correct me if I'm wrong though), which is a shame because I want to watch the English dub and show it to some child-aged family members. I know the Streamline English dub exists, but that's hard to find and not available on any English home release. The Japanese version doesn't have this problem as far as I know. But whether you grew up with the movie or are seeing it for the first time, Kiki's Delivery Service is a delightful children's adventure that continues to be beloved to this very day, and now I've officially joined the bandwagon.
 
This review was written on September 21st, 2023.

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Rating: 78/100

So...Skip and Loafer. I heard about it through Amazon recommending the manga to me quite a bit, and I skipped out on the anime version when it came out because I was busy watching other things. Then some of my online friends were praising it up the wazoo. One day, I was bored and decided to sit down and watch it. I will say, while I do like the anime, and it even does a lot of things I wish more romance anime would do...I feel like it could have done more. The premise goes as follows: 15-year-old Mitsumi Iwakura is moving to Tokyo from her rural home in Ishikawa Prefecture so she can go to the elite high school Tsubame West Academy. She dreams of becoming a politician so she can make her hometown more prosperous, but for all her studying and ambitions, she is woefully unprepared for city life. Luckily, after a rough start, she manages to make some friends, with one of them being popular student Sousuke Shima, and manages to make the most of her school days with confidence.

I've mentioned multiple times before that I'm not really a fan of the romance genre, mainly because a lot of the stories feel like they've been copy-pasted from each other, and I especially hate stories that rely way too much on contrived misunderstandings to move the plot forward rather than just having the characters talk to each other like human beings. Thankfully, Skip and Loafer doesn't do that, and whatever problems that do come up between Mitsumi and Sousuke is because they're from entirely different backgrounds. Plus, Mitsumi, for all her confidence and occasional ditziness, is a lot smarter and more emotionally perceptive than most shoujo heroines, and has a lot more depth than most of her caliber. The characters in general are the best thing about Skip and Loafer, because even though they may start off as one-dimensional archetypes at first, their personalities can't simply be summed up in just one sentence. Even the characters who might seem like your typical alpha bitches in a teen romance are given much more nuanced motivations and and a lot more self-awareness than most can even boast.

And yet...I feel like Skip and Loafer's plot leaves a lot to be desired. It's not trying to break any new ground, as it's mainly just "country girl moves to big city, makes friends, has romantic tension with a cute boy, some other drama, etc." and while I don't mind series that are light on plot, Skip and Loafer's premise doesn't seem like it can really carry the series. Even as some drama involving Sousuke and his backstory comes up near the end, which I think is the better part of the series, it's still very subdued and feels like it just...drifts off without really making an impact. You're probably wondering "Hey, wait! You like other shows that are slow-paced and are light on plot such as Insomniacs After School, Summer Ghost, and Do It Yourself! What do they have that you think Skip and Loader doesn't?!" But here's the thing: All three of the anime I mentioned, while they're also about characters in high school, have a bit more meat to their plot than just high school antics. Insomniacs had its characters take part in astrophotography as a way to deal with their insomnia. Summer Ghost was all about unraveling the mystery behind a girl's untimely death, and Do It Yourself was all about exploring the benefits of building things by hand, whether it be a treehouse or small things like a wooden shelf. All three of them have a backbone to their narrative that makes them stand out from other shows of their ilk, with their execution reflecting that. Skip and Loafer, while it does do a lot of things right, doesn't have that backbone, and its overall premise is so thin and by-the-numbers that it borders on being predictable.

Even the animation seems to reflect that. For as much as PA Works gets praised for their animation, there isn't a whole lot of it here. It's faithful to the manga's art style, which is definitely a point in its favor, and it does save more kinetic movement for scenes where it matters, but a lot of the time the animation itself consists of still images and shoujo sparkles. I did find the soundtrack to be pretty unmemorable. I mean, I liked it, but I couldn't tell you the first thing about it. But please, don't think all this to mean that I hate Skip and Loafer, because I don't. I like it, but I feel like it needed some extra pizazz, that's all. I think a part of it is because the manga only covers up to a certain volume, and I'm sure the later parts of the manga build on what was covered in the anime. Maybe I might have liked this better if this had come out when I was younger. I'm not sure. But Skip and Loafer, while fairly light on plot, is perfect for people who want a sweet, saccharine romance series that avoids a lot of the genre's more annoying cliches and pitfalls.
 
This review was written on July 18th, 2023.

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Rating: 81/100

As someone who isn't normally a fan of romance media, I love it when I manage to find one that actually manages to appeal to me. Insomniacs After School is a manga I only learned about upon reading about its anime announcement on Anime News Network. The premise seemed interesting, as I'm a sucker for media involving people who bond over something they have in common, so I figured I'd check the anime out when it aired. Now that I have, I'm glad, because Insomniacs After School is a really good, down-to-earth romance that actually manages to subvert quite a bit of cliches that are all too common in romance anime. The story centers on two very different kids, grumpy and sleepless Ganta Nakami, and the cheerful go-getter Isaki Magari, who couldn't possibly be friends as far as their classmates can attest to. One day, Ganta goes to the defunct observatory for a nap, but finds that he's not alone, as Isaki is there for that same purpose. Ganta is surprised to learn that Isaki is also afflicted with insomnia, just like him. Upon this discovery, the two of them decide to share the observatory, and the two of them grow closer as friends the more they spend time together.

I will admit, I've only read volume one of the manga so far, so I'm coming at this from the perspective of someone who has only seen the anime in its entirety. Though I did find out that the Insomniacs manga just ended, so now I have incentive to actually read it, so look forward to a review of that in the future. Anyway, from a technical perspective, the animation is pretty good, if not the flashiest. Considering this is a fairly down-to-earth romance that relies more on subtlety and contemplative quiet rather than melodrama and bombast, it fits the feel of the show, so it does its job. LIDENFILMS has a bit of a reputation for their output not always being the most consistent in terms of quality, and even their best looking shows don't always hit the mark. That being said, it does capture the look of the manga pretty nicely, and they really put their all into showing just how beautiful the night time can be, with luscious, sparkling night skies full of stars, or shallow pools reflecting it and creating an absolutely beautiful feast for the eyes. While the animation doesn't have much in the way of motion, it manages to make up for it by keeping true to the show's atmosphere and really showing off when it matters, so I think LIDENFILMS hit a home run this time around. I don't have as much to say on the soundtrack. I mean, I liked the opening and ending songs, but I couldn't tell you the first thing about them, and the BGMs did their job. I guess a part of it is because Insomniacs focuses more on its usage of ambient noise and having it play into how even the most quiet of stimuli can keep someone like Ganta awake.

Since this is an adaptation of a longer manga that clocks in at 14 volumes, Insomniacs' anime doesn't get to cover all of its material as it has 13 episodes to contend with. But the anime does manage to do a pretty bang-up job with its cast of characters and making them into a fun, interesting ensemble, even if we don't get the whole picture behind them yet. Ganta and Isaki are a great couple to follow, with their own methods of dealing with their insomnia and trying to make the best out of their newfound companionship, and the anime takes great care to really build chemistry between them, making their friendship and later romance feel all the more palpable and compelling. For anyone worried that Isaki was going to be made out to be some Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose only purpose is to magically solve all of Ganta's problems just because she's there, don't worry, they don't take her in that direction. She's just as much a fleshed out character as Ganta is, with her own worries, strengths, weaknesses, and so on. This is also reflected in how the anime, and by extension the manga, deals with their insomnia, as it's not interested in being tragedy porn that makes them suffer 24/7, but developing the two leads' relationship and helping them find some point of balance, whether it be decorating their curated safe space or just exploring the city during the night time. Honestly, the only character I can say I actively disliked was Kanikawa, Isaki's blonde friend who's an arrogant little brat who spends a lot of her time whining and insulting Ganta over nothing.

For anyone looking for exaggerated rom-com antics straight out of shounen romance manga or the cheesy shoujo romances that rely way too much on loud, over-the-top melodrama, you're not gonna find it here. People might take issue with Insomniacs' slow pacing and down-to-earth tone, dismissing it as boring. Some might say that it doesn't do enough to really articulate just how much having insomnia utterly sucks. Insomniacs After School is meant to just be relaxing, and any drama it has is always tackled in a down-to-earth manner, never dragging it out. Honestly, the anime's only real flaw is that it's a 13-episode adaptation of a much longer manga, and only covering just a small part of a bigger story. The ending is fairly open-ended as a result, though not as bad as others that I know of. As far as its portrayal of insomnia goes, I can't really say, as I don't have insomnia myself. But others who do struggle with insomnia have praised both the manga and anime for treating the issue with sensitivity and kindness, rather than using it for misery/tragedy porn. Granted, I have yet to read the entirety of the manga yet, so who knows how it'll deal with the issue further down the line, though since the manga just ended, now I have incentive to read it and judge for myself.

Overall, the anime of Insomniacs After School may not be the flashiest nor dramatic show out there, but it's still a very good, well-made romance anime that does exactly what it set out to do.
 
This review was just finished today.

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Rating: 77/100

It's always interesting to see content creators who typically dabble in one particular genre go outside their comfort zone and do something else. For example, Junji Ito is a famous horror mangaka known for works such as Tomie and Uzumaki, which are known for being very disturbing and violent, but he also made a wholesome, child-friendly manga about daily life with his wife's cats. Yuu Watase mainly does shoujo manga like Fushigi Yuugi and Alice 19th, but her series Arata The Legend is her first foray into shounen. Today's review is one such case for mangaka Shuzo Oshimi, who is mainly known for works such as Flowers of Evil and Blood on the Tracks, both of which are dark, psychological dramas that can border on disturbing...but he has proven he's capable of writing stories that aren't as dark and melancholy, which is the case for Shino Can't Say Her Name, a short slice-of-life manga about a girl who has dysphemia, or in layman's terms, stutters.

For a more elaborate synopsis: Shino Oshima is a girl who has difficulty speaking verbally, especially pronouncing words that begin with vowels, including her family name. This has been a source of embarrassment and anguish for her for years, but apart from practicing and trying to find ways around the words she can't say, there's not much she can do about it. That doesn't mean that she isn't going to try, but when her days of practicing her self-introduction before high school starts come to nothing, resulting in bullying and her teacher being exasperated with her and dismissing her problem as just her being nervous, Shino thinks she's better off just relegating herself to being a loner again. But an encounter with a fellow student named Kayo, after a rough start, might be the start of something more for her.

Now I will admit, I've never read any of Shuzo Oshimi's works, nor do I have any desire to, as his body of work isn't really my cup of tea. The only reason I even bothered reading this manga, or even knew of its existence, was because of seeing this review of it on Anime News Network. Seeing as its only one volume long and a slice-of-life manga, I figured I might as well read this, and I'm glad I did. While Shino Can't Say Her Name didn't turn me into a Shuzo Oshimi fangirl, I can say that it's a pretty good manga for what it is, even if I wish it was longer and did more with its characters. Oshimi-sensei even mentions in the afterward that the manga draws on his own lived experiences with debilitating stuttering, which makes for a very authentic, hard hitting depiction here. My own stuttering is nowhere near as debilitating as Shino's is, as I only learned about dysphemia through constantly watching the Discovery Health channel when that was around, but the manga does an amazing job at depicting Shino's experiences with it and really highlighting just how much it affects her life and how she's perceived by others. This is reflected in how the panels are set up, deliberately focusing on her open mouth as it moves, but no sound comes out, showing her face getting redder and sweatier, really showing how excruciating just the act of pushing words out is for her. People who have been in similar positions can definitely relate to Shino's anxiety and hurt, along with the resignation that follows when bullies make fun of her or a well-meaning but uneducated teacher dismisses her stuttering as just nervousness and offering superficial advice that does nothing except to highlight their lack of understanding. As someone who is autistic but had to deal with family members being dismissive of my own struggles, I felt so bad for Shino and wanted to give her a hug.

Even without all the thought put into the paneling, the art itself is pretty good, toeing a nice balance between cartoony and realistic, though I do feel like the moments where characters' faces when they yell are drawn in a cartoonishly contorted way that makes it look like the scenes in question are played for comedy, though the scenes in question are meant to be serious or dramatic, and it kind of detracts from the atmosphere. But that's the only issue I have with the art, as everything else is just fine. Shino Can't Say Her Name is a short manga with a small cast of characters, with the manga focusing on Shino and Kayo forming a little band because Kayo realizes Shino can sing better than she can speak. This may sound strange, but it's actually been scientifically proven that talking and singing utilize different halves of the brain, with the left side of the brain, which controls word formation and sentence structure, focusing on regular speech, and the right hemisphere being responsible for processing musical pitch, melody, rhythm, and timing. The areas in the brain that are responsible for speech production aren't as active when singing as opposed to speaking, which also applies to people with speech impediments like Shino has. There are plenty of people in real life who can sing just fine while dealing with dysphema.

But back to the manga itself, as much as I like the characters here, if I do have one big complaint about the manga as a whole, it's that I wish we had more time with said characters and gotten to know them more. With Shino Can't Say Her Name being as short as it is, they don't get as much development as they could have, nor do we really see what they're like outside of school and dealing with their own problems. Shino doesn't really have much to her other than her stutter, Kayo is a bit too blunt for her own good, and while I like that Kikuchi, who starts out as a bully who makes fun of Shino's stutter, does try to apologize to her and is aware of his own flaws, along with being made to realize that sometimes an apology just isn't enough, I feel like more could have been done with him. They're not bad characters in any way, but the manga's short length doesn't allow them to grow as much as they could have. I do appreciate that the manga doesn't resolve everyone's problems with a neat little bow at the end, showing that the Power of Friendship isn't a magical cure-all for everyone's emotional baggage, but still manages to end on a realistically hopeful note that doesn't go the way of inspiration porn, even if we don't get all the answers in regards to said ending.

Shino Can't Say Her Name is proof that sometimes going out of your comfort zone can be a good thing, and is a heartfelt and honest depiction of someone with a debilitating stutter that can resonate with those who share Shino's difference.
 
This review was written on September 16th, 2023.

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Rating: 83/100

Aw, hell yeah!! People, I cannot understate how much I've wanted to talk about My Happy Marriage since I first discovered the light novels in 2022. I first encountered the series when ANN writer Rebecca Silverman wrote a review of the first light novel, and I read a preview of it on Amazon, but was a little put off by something one of the characters said to the main character Miyo early on. Luckily, someone on the forums explained the context to me, and I decided to give it another chance...and since then, I haven't looked back. I own all the light novels and manga volumes that are out in the US right now, with intent to get more in the future. So yeah, when it was revealed an anime was going to be announced, I was all in, more so when it was announced that it'd be streaming weekly on Netflix with an English dub. Did you really think I wasn't going to watch it after the light novels and manga won me over? Considering how shoujo anime in general tend to get neglected and are hardly given much of a chance, both in their home country and overseas, ESPECIALLY overseas, it's quite honestly a modern miracle that Netflix of America even considered giving it an English dub at all. It wound up being a good move on Netflix's part, because My Happy Marriage's anime adaptation is not only hugely successful in Japan, as evidenced by all the merchandise made for it, it also managed to consistently top Netflix's most watched series in the US in the weeks that it aired. That just goes to show that if you actually give shoujo series a chance and actually take the time to promote and market them, they can be successful! Anime for girls are valid too, y'know!!

Granted, considering My Happy Marriage is largely a Cinderella-type story first and foremost, its premise is fairly rote, and nothing you haven't heard before: 19-year-old Miyo Saimori's life has been hell for as long as she can remember. Born without the gift of being able to see monsters or use psychic powers, she is treated less than a servant in her noble house. Her father ignores her, and her stepmother and stepsister take delight in tormenting her every chance they get. As a result, Miyo is dead inside. Even the one light of hope she has, her childhood friend Koji Tatsuishi, is taken from her, set to be engaged to her younger sister in a political marriage. To make things worse, Miyo's father tells her that she is going to be married off to a powerful military commander named Kiyoka Kudo, who has a reputation of being so cruel and heartless that he drove off previous brides-to-be all within days of their engagements. With no home to return to, Miyo resigns herself to her fate—and soon finds that her pale and beautiful husband-to-be is anything but the monster she expected, even if he is rather brusque and blunt. As they slowly open their hearts to each other, both realize the other may be their chance at finding true love and happiness.

From an animation standpoint, My Happy Marriage is not only given amazing production values by virtue of being animated by Kinema Citrus, it really feels true to the overall look and vibe of the light novels, and even the manga by extension. Character animation is subdued, preferring subtlety and characterization over stylized bombast, the setting is well rendered and well researched, with nothing that betrays the time period its in (the light novel writer mentioned that the series takes place in an alternate Meiji/Taisho era), and the series does make great use of both lighting and the environment to show the characters' emotional states. In the first episode, the colors and lighting are all bleak, muted, and use earthy, rustic colors to convey Miyo's complete and utter despair in the bad environment she lives in. In contrast, when she leaves the house and experiences life with the Kudos, the lighting is brighter, the colors are more vivid, and the world around her comes to life. Kinema Citrus and Kadokawa even put out a short behind-the-scenes video showing the process behind the show's production, which you can watch here. The character designs are true to the novels, and mostly period accurate, and a lot of emphasis is put on things like subtle facial expressions and body language. Then again, with some exceptions, My Happy Marriage eschews histrionics and exaggeration in favor of subtlety and atmosphere. I only have one gripe with the animation: What's with the mismatched hair color highlights? Miyo, Koji, Yurie, Kaya, and Kazushi don't have this problem since the shading on their hair matches their actual hair color, but for some reason, everybody else has highlights colored in ways that clash against their actual hair colors, making them look like they're wearing colored headbands, with the biggest offenders being the ones on the Kudos. I mean, blue highlights on ash brown hair? Dark pink on blonde? Olive green against black hair? Really? Not only do these make them look like they have colored halos floating over their heads, they clash horribly against their actual hair colors and looks really jarring in what's supposed to be a low-key period piece with a touch of fantasy.

The soundtrack is also really nice, and a lot more versatile than you'd initially assume. Acoustic guitar, violins, kotos, pianos, you name it, it was used for the OST courtesy of Evan Call, and the opening and ending sequences are great, not just in their music but the imagery used for them. Of course, you can't have a solid show without good characters to back it up, and on this front, I feel My Happy Marriage manages fairly well. The main characters—Miyo and Kiyoka—are great, three-dimensional individuals who grow and change even across the series' short tenure and manage to carry the series perfectly, rounded out by equally colorful side characters such as Yurie, Hazuki, and Godo, who manage to help them in their own ways. I wouldn't have been invested in them had I not read both the light novels and manga beforehand, and the anime maintains their characterization from the source, never betraying who they are. Some may argue that Miyo's family, the Saimoris and Koji's father Minoru, are shallow villains who are just there to be evil, and I can understand where they're coming from, and in a lesser story, that would absolutely be a detriment. However...would making them more nuanced and sympathetic really work in this case, though? Giving them additional backstory and sympathetic traits wouldn't change the fact that they treat Miyo like shit over stuff that's not her fault, and unlike, say, Hawkmoth from Miraculous Ladybug who doesn't really bother to do anything to the heroes aside from corrupt people and hide in his hideout, the Saimoris actually do try to get stuff done, and even succeed at some points. Yes, the Saimoris and Minoru Tatsuishi are as stereotypical as you can get, with the slight exception of Kaya, but the series is aware of this and knew that it needed villains like them to really do what it wanted to do. Plus, it's not like they don't have their own motivations for what they do, petty as they are (Something that the series itself points out via Kiyoka), so whether you like the villains in this show or not, they are used to good effect here and fulfill their roles just fine. I know I'm perfectly content with hating the Saimoris for being so cruel to Miyo, and that's what the series wants you to feel.

If you've read this far in, you're probably thinking "Come on! How is My Happy Marriage different from every other Cinderella-type story that's come before it? What could MHM possibly offer in an age where we get adaptations of Cinderella on the regular? What does MHM have to say that other stories like it haven't said already?" That, my friend, is actually an easier question to answer than you think. Most Cinderella stories tend to just end with the happily ever after, giving the message that just shacking up with a handsome prince will solve all her problems, and we all know real life doesn't work like that. Furthermore, not every Cinderella adaptation does this, but just as many tend to make the heroine seem a little too well-adjusted for her own good. Seriously, with all the abuse Cinderella was made to endure over possibly a decade, one would think that she'd develop serious psychological and emotional problems. My Happy Marriage decides to zero in on exactly that, showing that yes, all the abuse Miyo went through completely destroyed any semblance of self-esteem and self-worth she could have developed, making it extremely clear that no, marrying her off to a guy who appreciates her isn't going to solve all her problems. That's not how healing works, and I admit I'm not a psychologist so I can't claim to be an expert on the subject, but anybody who's ever read actual medical/scientific studies on how abuse can affect people mentally, or even autobiographies written by people who experienced it first hand, can easily glean that the road to healing is a slow climb. Everything, from the original light novels, to the manga, and the anime acknowledge this, and it shows in Miyo's character development through the series. Even as her life gets better, she still remains a shy, quiet young woman, and sometimes falls back into old, self-destructive habits and thought processes. Her progress is slow, but progress is still progress, even with setbacks. My Happy Marriage isn't solely about the romance, nor does it present the idea that the romance in and of itself can solve all of Miyo's problems. It takes kindness, a support network, and taking the steps to leave the toxic environment in order for healing to truly take place, and to me, that's what makes My Happy Marriage stand out from other Cinderella stories, because it really goes deep into how decades of abuse can shape a person's psyche. Granted, because the pace in which Miyo grows and regains her autonomy is deliberately slow, impatient people may be quick to dismiss Miyo as being passive, spineless, whiny, and weak even after she displays some degree of growth because it's apparently not fast or blatant enough for them. Seriously, if you think Miyo is spineless and weak, just watch the second episode of Bibliophile Princess. Elianna's got Miyo beat in the passivity competition.

Can you tell I love this series yet? Other than that one animation quibble I mentioned above, the only other flaw the anime has is more to do with the fact that it leaves out some additional context and backstory for some characters in the latter half of the series. Some of it isn't too bad, like with Kiyoka's sister Hazuki, but for some, like Miyo's extended family the Usubas, the removal of some context behind their actions makes the characters in question come off a lot more morally questionable and less sympathetic than they were in the light novel. I know it's inevitable that some things have to be left out when working on an anime, especially a series that's 12 episodes long and doesn't allow for a lot of time to flesh everything out, but I do feel like the second half of the series could have benefited even from an extra episode to smooth things out and not rush through the second arc. Hell, some may argue that the whole supernatural powers subplot in the second half feels extraneous. I don't, as they were pretty established early on (Though the anime doesn't do so until episode 2), and later novels dive into them a bit more. My Happy Marriage may not be a series for everyone, but there are reasons why it managed to get so popular, and you know what? I'm damn happy that branches of Netflix outside Japan gave it a chance and actually bothered to make it accessible to people, whether it be dubbing it or actually bothering to put some effort into promoting it! Anime for girls deserve the same chances as the popular shounen anime. The fact that a third season of Kimi no Todoke was just announced, with plans for it to air on Netflix, alongside adaptations for stuff like A Sign of Affection and Apothecary Diaries coming up gives me hope that a comeback for shoujo or female-led anime is in the cards.
 
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Oh, that one about stuttering really caught my attention because I happen to be a stutterer myself! And I didn’t know that you were one too… many hugs. I can relate to a lot of the things that the manga apparently explores, and it’s nice to see one indeed explore what it’s like to go through those kinds of struggles (and to see that it’s written by an actual stutterer, too, at that). That said, I agree with you that I would’ve loved to have seen an entire extended series with a protagonist like this. The concept has a lot of potential to show struggles that aren’t often seen in anime or manga, even with the many “troubled female protagonist” kind of stories that are out there right now.
 
I happen to be a stutterer myself! And I didn’t know that you were one too… many hugs.

Eh, its rare that I stutter, other than occasionally getting stuck on words that start with S in the middle of a sentence. But I'm glad you relate to the manga. It's readily available online if you ever want to check it out.

This review was just finished today.


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Rating: 35/100

Really, Bushiroad? You're doing another one of these animated concert movies for Bang Dream? When you could literally do anything else? Fine, whatever. For all you Bang Dream fans out there, Bang Dream Film Live 2nd Stage is yet another long animated concert showing off the bands performing three songs each with banter in between. The only things differentiating this from the first movie is that there are two new bands, Raise a Suilen and Morfonica, and more banter between the characters, even between the actual bands. That's it. It's still a gigantic waste of time for anyone who isn't a Bang Dream fan, and my feelings on this movie are pretty much the same as the first one. It's yet another gigantic soulless corporate vehicle solely created to sell music and rake in money from fans and consumers, with absolutely nothing in the vein of actual substance whatsoever.

That being said, there are some things this movie does slightly better than the first one. For one thing, while I'm still not a fan of the movie being all 3DCG, the animation itself is slightly improved from the first movie. It no longer has that plasticine glossiness to it that it had before, and the animation is smoother for the characters, not as stiff and herky-jerky as before. Granted, I've still seen better CGI animation elsewhere, and Bang Dream can't ever rise to the level of those, but hey, good on Sanzigen for progress, which I hear the MyGo series improved upon further. Also, for once, Hello Happy World's music didn't make me want to jam forks into my ears, though I still can't stand spaghetti hair marching band girl's screechy voice whenever she talks at all. Ironically, I found most of Pastel*Palettes' to be annoying and generic this time around.

Unfortunately, that's all the praise I can really give this movie, as it still has all the same issues that the first movie has: Generic characters that stay the same throughout the entire movie, with all their dialogue and banter being just as insipid and annoying, a non-existent plot that's just there as an excuse to peddle the series' music, and said music is really the only thing carrying the movie. Speaking of, while I admittedly liked some of the songs from the first Bang Dream movie, I didn't find myself drawn to any of the songs here this time around, not even Roselia and Afterglow's songs, which is weird because their songs are the few that don't make me want to jam forks into my ears. Even the two new bands thrown in here, Morfonica and Raise a Suilen, don't really serve much of a purpose other than padding out the run time. I do like Morfonica's aesthetic, though.

But yeah, as someone who isn't into Bang Dream, this film doesn't really accomplish anything other than being an animated concert that you can watch without having to spend tons of money on transportation and tickets. But that's not a high bar to clear, and it doesn't change the fact that it's just yet another one of Bushiroad's corporate vehicles made solely to sell music and make money off consumers. It really says a lot that I feel Bocchi The Rock is better than this in every way. But if you're a fan of Bang Dream and like this sort of thing, good for you. You got more enjoyment out of this than I have, and that's totally valid. That being said, I might check out the MyGo series since I've heard nothing but good things about it, and hopefully that'll turn out better than this.
 
This review was written on October 25th, 2023.

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Rating: 67/100

Huh, so this got dropped on Crunchyroll out of the blue, not that I mind since I love the Love Live Nijigasaki anime, flaws and all, so I'd been looking forward to this. Nijigasaki fans are eating good, since not only do we have a sequel OVA, Love Live Nijigasaki School Idol Club Next Sky, we're getting a trilogy of sequel films that'll take place immediately after the OVA. Can't wait to see what those'll be like. The OVA takes place immediately after the end of the second season, with the Nijigasaki girls welcoming Ayumu back home from her overseas trip to London...and are surprised to find that she brought a friend with her, Isla, who wants to become a school idol herself. On the side, Shioriko worries that she's too rigid to be a school idol and isn't sure what to do about it. Yeah, the OVA is true to the series' ethos of not having a lot of stake and preferring a more laid-back, "cute girls doing cute things" approach rather than the over-the-top melodrama of previous seasons. Speaking of previous seasons, Next Sky flat-out makes open references to both the original Love Live anime and Love Live Sunshine, so there's some Easter eggs for you Love Live fans out there.

Before I get into the review, there is one thing about this OVA's marketing that baffles me: For some reason this was aired in theaters, even though it's the same length as your usual TV anime episode, only 22 minutes. I know Japan's movie theaters are allowed to show more than just movies, but I really can't see why this OVA warranted a theater screening when you can easily either air it on TV or put it on home video. But I know nothing about how Japanese movie theaters work, so I'm not gonna harp on it too much. Next Sky's animation retains the same level of quality as both TV series, CGI dancing sequences included, and I didn't notice anything that looked off. I do think the ending theme's visuals were cute, having cute drawings of the Nijigasaki girls in polaroid photographs of live-action locations (Very likely to be Odaiba). I will say that I am rather surprised that Next Sky's songs lean heavily into hip-hop and techno to an extent. Eh, I found the songs to just be okay.

To be honest, I do think the story is where Next Sky suffers. While I did like the idea of the focus being on Ayumu's new friend Isla, the end result came off as rather shallow. Her whole conflict feels really mealymouthed and cheesy, mainly in that it just gets easily resolved with the power of friendship, even though it flat-out acknowledges that England's school clubs are nothing like those of Japan and that England has a different view of school idols. Next Sky really should have delved deeper into that and actually explored how other countries view the concept of school idols and showed how starting up a school idol club would be hard in any country that's not Japan. Then again, you don't really go into Love Live expecting down-to-earth, realistic conflict, you're here to see cute girls sing about following your dreams.

That being said, I think Next Sky's B-plot is much better in that it focuses on Shioriko and fleshes her out just a bit more. She had some time in the series, sure, but Next Sky explores Shioriko contemplating her place in the Nijigasaki idol club and wondering how she can better connect with her fans. Plus, she gets some degree of development where her solution to Isla's problem, cheesy and admittedly stupid as it is, goes against her previously established principles...though how 13 girls in the same club were able to all get permission to leave school early without teachers or the principal being suspicious of their motives, I couldn't tell you. Furthermore, with the advent of the movie trilogy due to come out in the next few years, we might get to see some follow-up on Shioriko's development and see whether she can actually commit to her changes. Oh, and for the person on MAL who wondered why Isla has a darker skin tone than all the Nijigasaki girls: Did you grow up under a rock? There are plenty of British people with naturally dark skin of all different shades. Not every anime has to adhere to the same generic anime character design. Do your research.

In the end, Next Sky tries, but it doesn't really add anything new to Nijigasaki's narrative and doesn't rise beyond average.
 
This review was written on September 19th, 2023.

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Rating: 70/100

As of this writing, I've completed a total of four Atelier games in full: Atelier Escha & Logy, Mana Khemia: The Alchemists of Al-Revis, the Atelier Marie remake, and Atelier Ayesha. I do own Atelier Sophie, Atelier Lulua, Atelier Shallie, the first two Atelier Iris games, and all three Ryza games, but I have yet to finish all those, something I really need to rectify. While I admit to not playing a lot of the games despite owning them, I did enjoy the ones I did play all the way through. The Atelier series has always been something of an outlier, mainly being fun, light-hearted adventure games centered around cute girls and crafting items. While the games have their fans, the franchise as a whole never achieved mainstream success in the US, to the point where Koei-Tecmo flat-out decided to stop dubbing the games into English because low sales of the games made doing so not worth the financial investment. But then the first Atelier Ryza game came out...and proceeded to not only become the best selling Atelier game ever, but the fast-selling, netting half a million in worldwide and digital sales within a year of its release. Sequels were made afterward, propelling sales even further. This prompted Koei-Tecmo to greenlight an anime adaptation of Atelier Ryza. Since I hadn't played the game yet, I figured watching the anime would make for a good appetizer before doing so. I will admit, even as someone who hasn't played the game yet, while the anime does have its good points, its marred by a LOT of questionable adaptational decisions.

The story adapts only the very beginning of the game, which goes as follows: Reisalin Stout aka Ryza is a young girl living a mundane life on a farm in Rasenboden, her small, boring village on the island of Kurken. Dreaming of excitement, she and her friends—cowardly Tao and boisterous Lent—head on an adventure during which they meet Empel, an alchemist. Upon seeing the power of alchemy firsthand, Ryza becomes determined to become an alchemist herself, thinking this is just what she needs to put some much needed zest in her boring existence. This fateful encounter marks the start of an adventure that will lead her and her friends to save their hometown. From what I've heard, the anime only adapts the first half of the game's story, and the game's main campaign is fairly short, even with the DLC content. On that front, I can respect the anime team in their desire to not bite off more than they can chew, and the point they decided to end on is fairly solid, wrapping things up while still teasing something more.

From an animation standpoint, Atelier Ryza is...stiff. Stiff and unexpressive. This is the kind of series where the still images are fine, but look really lifeless and unnatural when motion, which is exacerbated by the fact that the character designs have so many intricate details and ornamentation that would be impossible to animate unless you have a high budget and skilled animators, which LIDENFILMS clearly didn't have here. There's no flavor or liveliness to it, and even the backgrounds, as faithful to the games as they are, don't really look much different than any other generic fantasy or isekai anime that's come out in the last 10 years. Even the fights mostly consist of characters just standing around or jerky cutaways that give the illusion of action. I don't have as much to say about the soundtrack too. It does its job, and I wasn't a fan of the opening and ending songs.

That being said, there is one thing that manages to carry the show and make it rise above its limited animation: The characters and their writing. If you're not familiar with the Atelier series, it's easy to dismiss Ryza and her friends as generic JRPG characters that adhere to rote archetypes, and you wouldn't be wrong to do so. Whether you enjoy the series or not really depends on whether you like Ryza or not, as the show deliberately has her start out as an annoying, reckless brat who repeatedly ignores valid advice and puts her friends in danger because all she wants is some adventure. I say deliberately because the series is aware of this and actively forces its characters to face their flaws, grow up, and develop into more responsible, well-rounded individuals. Atelier Ryza thrives on character development first and foremost, so much so that it's imperative for the plot to advance. Granted, their character development is pretty predictable, and since the anime only adapts the first half of the game, any later developments they receive are left out, so you won't get to see them evolve further. This also results in Empel and Lila being the only characters who don't get fleshed out, as their moments only come up in the game's second half, so they wind up being rather static. But hey, as cliche as Atelier Ryza is on principle, I at least appreciate the series keeping its focus where it should be.

I'd appreciate this a lot more...if the anime had its priorities straight in other areas. Alright, I think it's high time I ripped this band-aid off, as I really, REALLY need to get this out of my system or else I'm gonna go crazy. Whose bright idea was it to have a good chunk of the series consist of creepy close-up shots of Ryza's thighs? I don't know who among the animation staff thought this was a good idea, but their decision really bogged the series down. Seriously, there are so many scenes where the camera zooms in on Ryza's thighs, shoving them in our face every chance it gets, especially when it isn't necessary, such as during a serious scene where something like that would be completely inappropriate. Hell, the entire ending theme's visuals consist of a camera panning across Ryza's body in a really, creepily sexualized manner, and I need to remind you all that Ryza is canonically 17. None of these add anything to the story in any way, and you could cut them out completely and nothing would be lost. Say what you will about how impractical Ryza's design is—how her shorts look three sizes too short, looking so tight that they might as well give her a permanent wedgie, and how her stockings, combined with said shorts, make her thighs look like balloons that'll pop at the slightest touch—you could at least get around this in the game by either putting her in different DLC outfits or, in the case of questionable camera angles, adjusting the camera. A TV show doesn't let you do that since it's not an interactive medium, and because the anime chose to shove in so many of these unnecessary close-ups of Ryza's thighs, they accomplish nothing other than cheap pandering to the lowest common denominator. Yeah, I know there are other series that are a lot worse about this, but for a game series that prides itself on being fun, wholesome adventures, with the anime also going for that kind of atmosphere, having thick thighs constantly shoved in my face is NOT the way to go about it. Imagine if somebody did this with series like, say, Non Non Biyori or Natsume's Book of Friends. It wouldn't work with those shows, and it absolutely does not work here.

Granted, oversexualized close-ups of a girl's body parts aren't the only problem Atelier Ryza has as an anime. From what I heard, the anime botched its adaptation of a side quest from the game, having the central character for said side quest come off as a lot more detached from reality than she was in the game, and for some reason trying to tie it into Klaudia's reasons for journeying with Ryza when it had no such connection to her in the game. Plus, while the anime does get better in the latter half, especially once Ryza and her friends finally get their act together and grow up a bit, it's not much different from other anime that have done the exact same thing previously, and it's not enough to overcome the limitations of its dull, lifeless animation. I will say one thing in this anime's favor: It did get me interested in playing the game, and since I do own all three Atelier Ryza games, I have no excuse to not play them now, especially since the anime doesn't cover even half of the first game's narrative. All in all, while the anime for Atelier Ryza is nothing to write home about, and is really held back by a lot of questionable decisions, it's good for what it managed to accomplish, even if it could have been so much better.
 
So...I decided to hunker down and completely rewrite my old Digimon Adventure review, as it was a little too overly gushy and fangirly, and not up to par with my current reviews. This new review was started on May 9th, 2022, but not finished until this year.

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Rating: 88/100

Hey, wait a minute! Didn't I already review this almost a decade ago? I did, actually. I've been looking back on a lot of my older reviews and found that they're not up to par with how my reviews are now. One person reached out to me in regards to an old Digimon Adventure review I just posted on AniList, pointing out some things that I could have done better. I thought about it and was like "You know what? They make pretty fair points. Plus, I already redid my reviews for Anohana, Madoka Magica, and Digimon Xros Wars. What's stopping me from doing the same thing for Digimon Adventure?" Plus, now that Discotek Media re-released the series, both dub and sub, on Blu-Ray, I actually have an excuse to go back to the series and re-evaluate it! And I will admit, my original review is pretty old and rather overly fangirly, so I think it's high time I post a new review of the series. That being said, I do have a pretty sentimental connection to Digimon Adventure. It was one of the first anime I watched growing up, alongside Pokemon, and yes, I was a kid who loved both series equally, so I was never a part of the whole Pokemon VS Digimon debate that plagued the 90s and early 2000s.

A cursory summary of Digimon Adventure consists of the following: Seven young children find themselves magically swept away from their summer camp and into another world where mysterious monsters known as Digimon rule the roost. The kids find themselves bonding with their respective Digimon partners, but with only them and devices called Digivices for protection, they have to find a way home. But the Digital World is fraught with danger, and the kids will find themselves not only facing unknown evils that threaten both the Digital World and their own, but their own personal demons as they discover more about this mysterious world they fell into. So in essence, Digimon Adventure is basically an isekai before the term isekai entered the modern lexicon. Of course, back in the late 90s, isekai anime back then were much more varied than the typical stock light novel fare that saturate the anime/manga industry today, such as Magic Knight Rayearth, The Twelve Kingdoms, Fushigi Yuugi, and so on. But there are several things about Digimon Adventure in particular that really resonated with kids on both sides of the globe, me included, and became the pop cultural phenomenon that continues to be beloved and remembered to this day.

As far as the animation goes, it's not exactly one of Toei's better animated properties, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have its own unique charm to it. The human designs for the characters manage to toe the line between cartoony and realistic without going overboard, while the Digimon creatures all have fun, unique designs that still manage to look distinct even decades later. That being said, this was a show made in 1999, complete with all the foibles and corner cutting that comes with it. Stock footage of Digimon digivolving and using their attacks is repeated ad nauseum, action scenes are drawn using as little on-screen movement as possible (Usually in the form of Digimon grappling with one another), other times the series tries to simulate movement by rotating a still image of a Digimon in a circular motion, and there are even times when the characters' eyes are drawn either really close or too far apart from one another depending on who was brought on to animate that particular episode. Often times changing in between scenes! There are even times when the characters don't even look like they're on the same layer, with several scenes showing the characters in the immediate background having thicker lines than those in the foreground, who have thinner outlines (One example being the Piximon episode, where TK and Tokomon race to clean Piximon's house). Yeah, consistent animation is not really this series' strong point at times. The series does get points in regards to its background art, which consists of nice, dreamy watercolor backgrounds for the Digital World, and Toei did a great job at really making the Digimons' home world look as distinct and otherworldly as possible, complete with its own rules, history, and lore. Seriously, modern isekai anime should really take a page out of Digimon's playbook in terms of worldbuilding and fleshing out its setting.

The soundtrack by Sailor Moon veteran Takanori Arisawa is also a pretty major talking point because of just how different it is compared to the one provided by Saban. The music here, while parts of it can be heavy on the orchestras like Saban's can be, is much more subdued, and it knows when to pop off when a scene calls for it. Its also surprisingly versatile, dipping into genres such as rock, techno, pop, jazz, metal, and choral whenever a scene calls for it, with instruments such as saxophones, harmonicas, and woodwinds making the whole sound profile feel varied and whimsical without going over-the-top. And do I even need to mention all the songs by Kouji Wada, Ai Maeda, and Ayumi Miyazaki? What can I possibly say about those that haven't been said already? There are reasons why Butter-Fly and Brave Heart are beloved by the Digimon fanbase. In stark contrast, Saban's self-made soundtrack for the series, made by Udi Harpaz and sung by the late Paul Gordon, was all very heavy orchestras that were VERY firmly on the pulse of what was popular during the late nineties, and since execs decided that kids shows aren't allowed to have any moments of silence for some dumb reason, the music was EVERYWHERE, even when it would have been unnecessary and inappropriate to have it, oftentimes ruining the intended mood (Like the very peppy song Hey Digimon playing during really dramatic moments, like losing a battle or saying goodbye possibly permanently).

Most people who grew up watching Digimon as kids remember the characters, and for good reason. All of them are given the appropriate amount of development and each have their own unique strengths, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, and quirks that make them actually feel like real kids rather than a bunch of stereotypes and caricatures. Now, in Japan, putting kids in frightening situations and having them actually face hardships and grow as people, and dealing with mature issues like adoption, divorce, abuse, illness, death, and so on is nothing new, as plenty of other children's anime such as everything in the World Masterpiece Theater have done it as far back as the seventies. Japan's lax broadcasting standards, even in that era, allowed for children's anime to tackle things that most countries, especially North America, wouldn't dare touch with a ten foot pole. Ironically, this is what would cement Digimon as a significant pop culture touchstone in North America because for all of Saban's attempts to water it down and make it more kid friendly, even removing stuff like guns and violence (Mainly because of execs not wanting to show cartoon kids engaging in "repeatable behaviors" and giving overzealous parents reason to riot, along with forcing them to adhere to strict broadcast standards), the team that adapted Digimon into English were given some free reign to keep a lot of the core themes in tact, which was extremely rare during the 90s and early 2000s, which this video from the Cartoon Cipher covers in more detail. Children's shows where kids were forced to own up to their own flaws and grow as people, and going through fairly realistic situations that are actually relateable, were extremely rare in North America, and while that's somewhat changed nowadays, American TV execs are still unfairly stringent when it comes to actually allowing kids' cartoons to be anything that's not sugary or saccharine because they're afraid the soccer moms will riot if they do. I'm glad Saban actually allowed the team working on Digimon's dub to keep the characters' core essence and nuances in tact, even if not every decision they made was the best, i.e. making Mimi much more of a stereotypically girly girl than she was in the Japanese version.

Rewatching it as an adult, I was surprised by how tight this series' storyline was. Mainly in that every episode progresses the plot in some way, whether it be the main narrative or giving the characters some time in the limelight and showing what they're like outside the central conflict. Yeah, the core premise itself is pretty cliche by modern standards, and the villains are all stock Saturday morning cartoon villains who want to take over the world, but hey, they're at the very least proactive and get stuff done rather than sit around in their lairs all day. But I think the main characters being as charming and well-developed as they are, along with the tight writing for the series as a whole more than make up for this...which makes the fact that the 2020 remake completely ditched all of this in favor of non-stop action and fighting all the more awful in hindsight. Good lord, I will never forgive the 2020 series for completely pissing on everything that made the original series so good. Even though I've grown up with the English dub, and even rewatched it when it aired on NickToons, my immediate memories of it are still fuzzy. But rather than just rehash a bunch of points others have made about the changes made to Digimon's English dub, I'm going to recommend that anyone interested in learning about the dub's history read Discotek's intensely detailed liner notes about it, and you can download PDFs of them here. Discotek was originally going to put these on the Blu-Ray they put out for Digimon, as they've done for other shows they released, but for undisclosed reasons they weren't allowed to put them on BR. To make up for this, they were given permission to put them on the internet, making them accessible for anybody who has a working computer. Seriously, I highly, HIGHLY recommend you download and read those liner notes, because they go into extensive detail about EVERYTHING in regards to the series, such as its history, its production on both the Japanese and English side, the real life locations used in the series, continuity errors in the dub, voice cast changes, reasonings behind significant changes and dates in the series, call backs to the original games, the meanings behind the Digimons' names, and even pop culture references. And trust me, the real explanation behind August 1st being significant in the series is wild.

Other than the animation goofs I mentioned above, the only other issues Digimon Adventure has are some things that are left unexplained (Which, ironically, do get explained in Japan-exclusive novels, which we Americans never got. Whelp) and the occasional Deus Ex Machina near the end. But even those are small potatoes compared to Digimon Adventure's strengths as a whole. Say what you will about how other shows have done similar premises since Digimon's conception, and how it's not much different from other stuff Japan has made before or since, but the fact that North America mostly left the series alone when bringing it over here might have been the best thing to happen to the series. Digimon Adventure as a series took its audience seriously and never talked down to them, with the staff behind the English localization realizing this and fighting to keep its core themes of friendship and overcoming hardship even within the ridiculous restrictions that American broadcasting standards tried to suffocate them with. This is why people who grew up with Digimon, myself included, still love and adore the series to this day. No, seriously, as of right now, Discotek is in the process of not only re-releasing the first three Digimon movies on blu-ray, but giving them brand new, uncut English dubs, bringing back as many of the English voice cast and staff as possible, all helmed by people who grew up with the series and want to give it the treatment it deserves. This would likely NEVER have happened if the Digimon series had been subjected to, say, the kind of treatment that 4Kids gave a lot of their shows back in the day. At this point its only a matter of time before Discotek licenses Tamers and onward. Now if only someone would give similar treatment to, say, Tokyo Mew Mew or the original Cardcaptor Sakura or Ojamajo Doremi. Those shows deserve uncut re-dubs too, dammit!!

Digimon Adventure may not exactly be the most original children's anime out there, but the fact that it remained such an important, beloved series even as its audience grew up cements its place in pop culture history no matter which side of the Pacific you're on. It certainly defined a good portion of my own childhood, as it did for many others. But for the love of God, STAY AWAY FROM THE 2020 REMAKE!!!! IT SUCKS!!!
 
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Digimon was one of the very few animated shows/movies where I was worried for a character's fate. I'm happy the old 90's version still holds up today. (The Italian opening is very nice as well, and more than blows the very repetitive English version out of the water.)

Out of curiosity, why is the remake terrible to you?
 
This review was written on April 21st, 2023.

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Rating: 50/100

Dear lord, it's been a while since I sat through something that's both ugly and mind-numbingly boring. Basically, DEEMO: Memorial Keys centers on a girl named Alice who wakes up in a strange world without her memories. She befriends the world's residents: A stick-figure man named Deemo, a talking cat doll named Mirai, a nutcracker, and a sentient fragrant sachet, but does want to go back home. They discover that whenever Deemo plays the piano, the music makes a tree grow, which might just be the thing that'll help Alice get home. There's also a side plot about an older Alice befriending two girls at a music academy and trying to remember a song she used to play. DEEMO: Memorial Keys is actually based on a Taiwanese mobile game. I know nothing about said game, so my review will be entirely about just the movie, and I'm going to be frank, I really didn't like this.

Mainly because DEEMO as a movie just feels like it's blatantly ripping off other stuff that have tackled its premise and subject matter way better. Girl gets sucked into a world with no memories. Girl makes magical friends who want to help her. Girl has to deal with an adversary who she eventually befriends. Girl's issues and fantastical journey wind up being tied to trauma involving losing a family member. All of this has been done before, and better, in other stuff, and it would be one thing if DEEMO made an effort to flesh out its story and characters, because doing that much can make an audience invested in your product even if the premise is cliche. I'm of the philosophy that even if something has been done before, as long as you put effort into what you create and have relatable, interesting characters, you can still make something good.

But DEEMO doesn't even try to do that much, because to put it frankly, none of its characters are even remotely interesting or well-developed in any way whatsoever. All of them have just one main personality trait, making them all as bland as potatoes. Alice literally has nothing to her, especially teenaged Alice, and the producers really laid on the "Sad Girl. Feel bad" vibe on Alice really thick, but it really doesn't work, because she has no other traits other than being a kid, liking music, and having amnesia, so the audience has no real reason to be invested in her. Even the friends she makes at the music academy just feel like they were tacked onto the movie so it can pad it out to 90 minutes. Speaking of padding things out, the movie has a lot of really pointless sequences that just go on for way too long, like an unneeded roller coaster ride. The toy characters and their antics just drag the movie on for way longer than it needed. I feel like DEEMO as a movie should have been 45 minutes long.

And do I even need to mention the God-awful animation? Seriously, whose bright idea was it to make this movie all CGI, because it looks ugly as hell. The backgrounds are fine, but the characters and the movement look so stiff, unexpressive, and bland that they look like they came straight out of a bad TV show from the 2000s. It really says a lot when the Jimmy Neutron TV series looks better than this. The weird thing is, there are some brief moments of 2D animation, usually involving cats, and those brief shots look better than the rest of the movie! I know Japan has a weird history with CGI, but they've been getting a lot better with it in their most recent outputs, like Lupin The First and Trigun Stampede! For a movie that was released in theaters, DEEMO's bad animation feels more in line with a movie some company made for a straight-to-DVD product, and that should not be! This is especially strange considering the video game it's based on has much better artwork and some really amazing watercolor backgrounds!

I already mentioned how piss-poor the story is, mainly because it just rehashes a bunch of tropes from other movies, but DEEMO is especially egregious with this because it has this whole vibe that it thinks it's good at making you cry and sympathize with the characters, but any attempt at drama just comes off as shallow and cheesy due to just throwing them all into a blender and expecting it to be palatable as is. Because it doesn't want to explore the depths of Alice's issues beyond "fantasy world is just Alice's dream" and wanting to put a neat little bow on everything at the end, DEEMO just comes off as a third-rate children's movie about coping with loss. And from what I've heard, the movie seriously screws up in its adaptation of the game, which is covered in detail in an AniList review a user by the name of Beam wrote. Definitely check out that review, because Beam, who played the game, actually goes into detail about how DEEMO as a movie fails as an adaptation of the video game and the various ways in which it screwed up in doing so, far better than I could ever hope to achieve.

So yeah, DEEMO: Memorial Keys is not only a mind-numbingly boring movie on its own, as an adaptation it seriously misses the point of the game it's trying to adapt, making it little more than yet another cliche children's movie. Seriously, there are so many other media out there that tackle the subjects of death and overcoming trauma without trying to resolve everything as neatly and cheesily as possible like DEEMO does, such as Night World, My Little Goat, A Space For The Unbound, Land of the Lustrous, Gift of the Magi (Manga, not the short story by O. Henry), pretty much everything in the World Masterpiece Theater, and so much more. Those are much more worth your time than DEEMO: Memorial Keys will ever be.
 
Man, took me long enough to finish this one. This review was started on November 3rd, 2023, but not finished until today.

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Rating: 89/100

So...I've watched a lot of anime over the course of my life. A lot. Yet it was only in 2023 that I actually managed to finish something made by the very well known mangaka Naoki Urasawa. I know, I'm super late to the party on this one. Whether you're familiar with his work or not, Urasawa is well known for his realistic character designs and his often long manga prominently featuring adult characters and heavy themes, standing out against the typical anime/manga designs and stories that were common during the 90s and early 2000s. Three of his most famous manga are Monster, 20th Century Boys, and the subject of today's review, Pluto. Urasawa mentioned that the works of Osamu Tezuka were the first manga he ever read, with one particular arc in Astro Boy, titled "The Greatest Robot on Earth" becoming the impetus for his creation of Pluto, which is bascially a long, expanded adaptation of said arc done in his own style (As mandated by Tezuka's son Makoto, who insisted that he not imitate his father's style for the sake of making it stand on its own and not simply be a rehash of Astro Boy) and elaborating on its themes and most of its characters, with help from his colleague Takashi Nagasaki. Of course, he had to get permission from Tezuka's estate to even be allowed to do it, so you may as well consider Pluto an officially sanctioned Astro Boy fan fiction in comic form. In 2017, it was announced that Pluto would be getting an anime...though no new information about it would be revealed until several years later. Finally, the anime dropped on Netflix in November of 2023, six years after its initial reveal. I think the wait was well worth it, as while the Pluto anime doesn't quite help the manga transition from book to screen, it's a pretty damn good anime. I dare say it may as well be the best anime of 2023 thus far.

In a far off future where technology has made marvelous advances, humans and robots coexist, but not always in peace. One day, news breaks about one of the most famous robots in the world being brutally murdered, the killer unknown. Europol robot detective Gesicht attempts to solve this strange case that evolves into a string of robot and human deaths around the world where all the victims have objects shoved into or positioned by their heads, imitating horns. The case becomes more puzzling when evidence suggests a robot is responsible for the murders, which would make it the first time a robot has killed a human in eight years. All seven of the great robots of the world—the most scientifically advanced, which have the potential to become weapons of mass destruction, which includes Gesicht himself—seem to be the killer's targets, and the murdered humans are connected to preserving the International Robot Laws which grant robots equal rights. Can the murderer be brought to justice before its too late?

Funny thing you should know before watching this: Every single episode is an hour long. Not even kidding. I'm not sure what prompted the producers to make this decision, whether it was executive mandate from above or something they themselves decided on, but you can't say that the producers didn't make as much use of the time they had with this show. Seeing as the original manga is 8 volumes long, the producers did all they could to fit as much of the manga's material into 8 one-hour-long episodes, and from what I've heard, Urasawa himself was very much involved in the process. The animation remains true to Urasawa's style, favoring realism over exaggeration, though compared to the anime for Monster, Pluto has a much more bright, diverse color palette brought to life by modern technology. CGI is used whenever it's necessary, usually for the robot vehicles, though the times when its used for things like tornadoes and weather patterns do clash with the 2D animation quite a bit. The actual animation is great, really coming to life when it really calls for it, such as during the fight scenes, or for smaller things like the scene with Atom putting a snail on a bush. I do feel like the anime could have stood to be more experimental with its storyboarding and compositing, but more on that later. I don't have as much to say on Yugo Kanno's soundtrack, but it does its job very well, and since Pluto has no opening or ending songs, it doesn't make much of an impression. I will say that Yugo Kanno really seems to like using the bass, as I heard a ton of basslines a LOT throughout the series.

Seeing as Pluto is basically a gigantic expansion of the "Greatest Robot on Earth" arc from Astro Boy, Urasawa basically went all in on fleshing out every character possible, giving them much more personality, backstory, motivations, and depth that they didn't have in the original. In Astro Boy, Gesicht was just a one-off robot who gets killed the second he's introduced, as was all the other one-off robots shown off in that arc. Here, Gesicht is the main character, with Atom mainly being relegated to the secondary main character, and he's taken out of commission for a good chunk of his screentime. Every character, from the main players to even the side characters, is given ample time to develop beyond their established archetypes, and all are given human motivations for why they do what they do, making the audience actually want to care about them and get invested in their plight. This even extends to the primary villains, exploring that bigotry doesn't just come from nothing. The fact that most of the characters are adults makes this better because you won't get your usual dumb teenaged shenanigans that are so prevalent in anime, and since every adult character is a professional, there's a lot of time spent on researching, preparing, and investigating, making everything they do feel much more believable, even in the context of a heavy sci-fi setting. Considering the fact that the producers for the anime had a short time frame to work with, I do think they did a good job of adapting the characters to the screen and keeping everything that makes them work in tact. I will say one thing: As someone who watched the 1980 Astro Boy anime and hated Uran because of how much of an annoying brat she was there, I am so happy Pluto toned her down and made her much more tolerable while still keeping her core character. Pluto's Uran is best Uran in my book.

But you're probably wondering how the story fares, especially how its adapted from the manga. Now, I've only read the manga fairly recently, so I don't exactly have all the details nailed down, so at this point, in time, I can't really comment on that because I don't want to get some details wrong. The only details I can recall that the anime cut out are some additional scenes with Brau-1589 and introducing a certain villain character later than the manga did. I also won't comment on how Urasawa deliberately drew parallels to the Iraq War (Since 2003 was when Pluto was being published and the year the Iraq War began) or how it tackles issues of racism and terrorism, because others have done that far better than I could ever hope to do. But as far as vastly expanding on the Astro Boy arc in question, Urasawa did a fantastic job. In the original story, the "Greatest Robot on Earth" is little more than just a two chapter arc where Pluto kills a bunch of robots and is later beaten by atom, with messages of what constitutes true strength, humanity's ego, and needless hatred. The different adaptations of said arc tackle things differently each time, which this ANN article elaborates on in more detail. Pluto decides to turn that whole arc not just into a whole series, but make it into a mix of a grounded mystery and a sci-fi thriller. This is reflected in how Gesicht is the main character and not Atom. I will say that the politics can lean towards being rather heavy-handed at times, though in light of current events, that might be more necessary than we might think considering how we still haven't quite learned our lessons from the Iraq War. Being someone who isn't normally into hard sci-fi or detective thrillers, I found Pluto to be easy to get into as its own entity that definitely tries to elevate the themes of the original manga, though your mileage may vary depending on what you want out of the anime. I'll need to re-read the manga at some point so I can get some details straight.

I was originally going to rate Pluto's anime adaptation a 94 out of 100, but a user on a Discord server I'm in actually made some pretty fair points about how the anime is almost TOO reverent to the manga in adapting it to the screen. Several points he mentioned included: Putting emphasis on putting all the dialogue onto the screen nuance be damned (And by that I mean turning what were a character's thoughts in the manga into spoken dialogue in the anime a la Promised Neverland), having the characters spell out the obvious, and the producers merely translating the manga panels onto the screen as opposed to animating them in ways that help it flow organically, even if it means changing the presentation, sequencing, or material itself. A good example of an anime elevating its source material and experimenting with the presentation is Frieren: Beyond Journey's End: In the manga, the sequence where Stark kills the Solar Dragon is just six singular manga panels, but the anime producers thought they could do more with it and decided to make it into a full on action scene that's packed to the gills with dynamic camera angles, experimental animation that favors fluidity, kineticism, and impact over staying on-model, and creative storyboarding that no static medium could imitate. I have heard that Urasawa was heavily involved with the anime adaptation and was so stringent about how he wanted it to look that he got on pretty much every animator's last nerve. For all we know, that may have played a part in how Pluto's overall presentation came out, and I can understand some peoples' grievances with the adaptation being a little too one-to-one with the manga. That being said, considering all the dreck we get every season, Pluto is still absolutely one of the best anime to come out in the 2020s, bar none, and I'd gladly watch it over every single bad ecchi or isekai anime any day.

It may have taken six whole years for it to finally be made, and it's not without its problems, but Pluto is not only an absolutely top-tier sci-fi anime that you should watch at least once, it manages to stay true to the spirit of Osamu Tezuka's property. Plus, both it and the manga are pretty short, so if you ever want some place to start reading Urasawa's oeuvre, make it Pluto. And while you're at it, watch the English dub if at all possible, because it's amazing, and was directed by the same person who worked on the English dub for Monster a decade before!
 
This review was just finished today.

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Rating: 60/100

I still haven't played many Atelier games, but the ones I have played to completion—Mana Khemia, Escha & Logy, Ayesha, and the Atelier Marie remake—I have enjoyed. One thing I appreciate about the Atelier series is that every entry is different and has its own unique style, identity, and gameplay elements, so even though it uses the same general formula, no Atelier game feels like a complete rehash of each other. As of today, I've finally finished another game in the series, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book...though I'm not gonna lie, out of all the Atelier games I've played, Sophie is the most frustrating and tedious, and it really shouldn't be!

Released in 2015, as part of a then new trilogy, it centers on a young girl named Sophie Neuenmuller, a novice alchemist living in the town of Kirchen Bell. For as much as she wants to be like her famous grandmother, her alchemy skills haven't improved much since there's nobody to really teach her alchemy. After making some medicine, she writes the recipe down in a book she inherited from her grandmother, only for the book to suddenly come to life afterward. The book only remembers her name: Plachta. Sophie and Plachta discover that as Sophie records recipes in Plachta's pages, her memories return, causing Plachta to tell her about a cauldron that can allow anyone to perform fantastic alchemy. As Sophie wants to become an alchemist on the level of her grandmother, she eagerly works to restore Plachta's memories to eventually claim it for herself with Plachta mentoring the fledgling alchemist in her craft. But what they don't know is that restoring Plachta's memories might wind up bringing the whole world into peril.

As far as the graphics go, Sophie is alright. They're much smoother than previous Atelier entries, and since I played the DX version on the Switch, they run pretty well for a game that was the series' first foray into the PS4. The only problem I noticed is that when an event plays after you talk to a character at the outside shops, it takes a short bit for the character's sprite to appear in the overworld for some reason. I don't know if this is a problem the Switch version has, but it's nothing game breaking or anything. The soundtrack is pretty nice and pastoral too, what with its woodwinds, fiddles, and fun acoustic guitar sounds. The insert songs are nice too, though I do have to question why they chose to throw in a cutesy insert song for the doll making mechanic. That just took me out of the whole experience and was a little too saccharine for me.

Unfortunately, as sad as it is for me to say, those are the only things I really enjoyed about Atelier Sophie as a game. I probably got spoiled by starting off with Mana Khemia and Escha & Logy, so that might have made me somewhat biased in their favor, and don't get me wrong, I don't expect Sophie to be exactly like those games, because it deserves to have its own identity and not simply be a rehash of previous games. But I found Sophie to be a huge slog to get through. For one, while I know that the Atelier series thrives on being more laid-back slice-of-life affairs as opposed to other RPGs, and there's nothing wrong with that, Atelier Sophie goes about it in such a way that what little overarching plot it has is really thin, and has absolutely zero stakes until we get to the final quarter of the game. Sophie has very little conflict, even by Atelier series standards, and a lot of the series consists of just Sophie putzing around and being cute, which does not make for a compelling or substantial narrative, giving the audience no reason to really care about it or what little stakes it has. Ayesha had its narrative focused on the MC tracking down her missing sister. Escha & Logy based its narrative around trying to access the floating ruins and uncovering their secrets. Mana Khemia had all the mysteries around Vayne's origins. Totori's story heavily leaned on the MC wanting to find her missing mother. Marie had to get good at alchemy lest she get expelled from the academy. For as laid-back as the Atelier series can be, every game still had meat to their stories and gave players reasons to want to invest themselves in the characters and want them to succeed. Not only does Sophie's whole thing about wanting to recover Plachta's memories not really change much in the grand scheme of things, the game itself goes about uncovering its plot at an absolutely glacial pace. The game doesn't even get a real conflict until near the very end, by which point I was more bored than invested.

Contributing to this is Sophie's...really unnecessarily elaborate and tedious alchemy system. Now, I have no issue with the whole Tetris-style mini game where you place ingredients into the cauldron, matching them with elements, and create and merge desired effects. I actually liked that aspect of Sophie's alchemy system. My issue with it, however, is that the game is ridiculously reliant on synthesizing items with certain traits, and then transferring said traits to other items you synthesize later on. In order to craft weapons and equipment that will net you even the slightest chance of being able to fight stronger enemies, you have to constantly make certain items in a loop over and over and combine traits into whole new ones just to get your stuff up to par. Want to know the worst part? A lot of this is required to unlock higher level recipes. Atelier Sophie has you learn recipes by gathering new materials, synthesizing certain items, or unlocking certain events in the storyline, which I normally don't have an issue with, but because the game wants you to invest a crap ton of time in synthesizing huge amounts of items just to be able to mix desired traits, thereby wasting materials that you'll need, it makes the whole process way more tedious than it should be. Seriously, I found Escha & Logy and Mana Khemia's alchemy systems and methods of learning recipes to be way more fun. I can understand wanting to add more depth to the gameplay aspect of alchemy, but Atelier Sophie really dropped the ball here, IMHO.

It doesn't help that the characters don't really change much or develop throughout the entire game. Even going through their character events, most of them are pretty static in that the characters don't really grow or change, and since the game's story is so barebones as it is, a lot of said events just involve Sophie making or delivering items to them, resulting in their personal storylines coming off as really bland and flavorless. Sophie is mainly just your typical peppy, happy-go-lucky lead girl who never evolves beyond her assigned archetype. Oskar gets this the worst in that his three biggest defining traits are that he's fat, lazy, and loves plants, nothing else. Yes, because having a character solely be defined by their weight totally isn't a really bad stereotype in any way whatsoever, riiiight? Yawn. Oh, and did I mention some recipes and ingredients are locked behind their character quests? Whose bright idea was that?! Then again, I think the game's really thin, aimless story is what really did the characters in, because by relegating any real conflict to the tail end of the game, it seemed like the creators didn't really know what to do with this particular cast of characters, resulting in their writing being really shallow and lacking in any substance. It's a shame because Gust has proven they can write good, compelling characters in previous games, like the Atelier games I named previously. Plus, even having a plot where not much happens isn't necessarily a bad thing if you know what you're doing and as long as you care about what you make. I watched the anime Skip and Loafer a while back, and while I did think it could have benefited from some more pizazz, I felt the characters were well written enough that I genuinely liked them, even if they weren't anything groundbreaking. This one anime movie I watched called Angel's Egg has an intentionally thin plot by design because it wants you to come up with your own interpretation as to what its overall premise and themes are. This French movie I really like called Petite Maman also has a very low-key plot, but it really fleshes out its characters and shows us what they're like in a way that actually does make the audience want to invest in them. By comparison, Atelier Sophie feels like a sugary pastry: Sweet, but not very fulfilling and doesn't really make much of an impact. Oh, and I know I've complained about Ryza's character design, but seriously, Plachta's...weird, overly revealing lingerie outfit has it beat. Good lord, why does Plachta's outfit look like it came out of a bad hentai?!

I don't want to dislike Atelier Sophie. I really don't. If you're someone who likes Atelier Sophie as a game, more power to you. You've gotten more enjoyment out of it than I have. Out of all the Atelier games I've played, Sophie was definitely the most frustrating. Then again, I've heard that Atelier Sophie 2 improves on a lot of the issues I mentioned above, so for all I know, maybe I'll enjoy that one more, and since I own it, I actually have an excuse to do so. But I really don't want to endure the first game's tedious grind fest again.
 
This review was written on October 6th, 2023.

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Rating: 70/100

If you had asked me anything about a show called Link Click before 2022, I wouldn't have had the faintest idea what it was. Link Click was a Chinese show that got dubbed into English and posted on FUNimation's website for streaming, and it became a surprise darling among those who actually watched it. I jumped on the bandwagon myself after seeing one of the English VAs tweet about it and praise it, which wound up being a good decision. Link Click started off as an episodic mystery series that gradually evolved into an action thriller, ending on one hell of a cliffhanger, so when a season two was announced, and getting an English dub not long after, I was all in. But...the thing about giving some shows a second season is that often times they either keep things the same without changing much or taking any real risks, or they get too ambitious for their own good and lose their footing. As much as I hate to say it, Link Click season two is the latter.

Now, to be fair, it doesn't start off that way. Season two immediately follows up on the cliffhanger from season one, jumping right into the central conflict. In all honesty, the beginning of the season is where it shines, explaining the fates of some characters while still delivering on developing side characters and the heartwrenching moments involving them that follow. I don't want this to be a wholly negative review, so I'm going to get the positives out of the way first. The animation and music are still as good as they were in season one, with plenty of new songs that are absolute bangers. The artwork is consistent, and the action scenes retain their fluid choreography, and actually feel like they have weight and momentum to them rather than just cutting away and using whoosh lines. I also really love that Qiao Ling became more involved in the story. Most series that have the token girl character among the cast usually relegate them to just the worried moral support and don't bother to really give them any agency. They're often just there to take up space, not much else. Not only does Link Click actually allow Qiao Ling to be more active in the central conflict, she actually helps Cheng Xiaoshi and Lu Guang out on multiple occasions, succeeding even, and several aspects of the plot wouldn't have happened if not for her. Hats off to you on that front, Li Haoliang.

Speaking of the characters, Cheng Xiaoshi and Lu Guang, while they don't really change much in the season proper, still managed to carry the series fairly well, and the finale even drops a pretty big reveal about Lu Guang that's due to be elaborated on in a possibly upcoming third season based on some of series director Li Haoliang's tweets. However, the side characters and the antagonists are where this season starts to falter. While this season does reveal who was behind the murders in season one, the antagonists in question actually wind up raising a lot more questions than answers, especially in regards to how exactly they got their abilities, how their actions affected the previous season's timeline, and how their motives just seem to flip-flop throughout the season. One character in particular doesn't do anything except cry and be a damsel in distress throughout the season's entire tenure.

The antagonists' wishy-washiness might also be a result of this season dragging itself out. Compared to season one's more episodic but more structured, tight narrative, season two didn't really seem to know what to do with itself. After a certain point, season two keeps rehashing and recapping previous episodes, dragging things out longer than is necessary, presumably to keep the mystery going, but it just makes the show feel both thin and bloated at the same time. Season two could have nixed the recaps and just tried to solve everything within half its episode tenure. Somebody did translate an interview that Li Haoliang did, where he discussed changes made to season two's story, why the season's structure turned out the way it did, and how he plans to address fans' feedback in the upcoming third season. I appreciate his willingness to engage with the show's fans and take their feedback into account while opening up about his thought processes behind the show's production and his own feelings on how he wants Link Click to turn out. Plus, he did admit that he's better at doing episodic stories than more overarching narratives, so at least he's aware of his weaknesses.

I do feel kind of bad that I found this season to be meh compared to season one. It certainly tried to deliver on the plot points that season one set up, and while it didn't succeed, I was still invested all the way through, so you can't say it didn't keep you on your toes. Here's hoping Link Click season three manages to elaborate on the massive cliffhanger of this season. To put it simply, Link Click season two had the potential to bake a delicious cake, but instead just came with a fried egg. It's a good fried egg, sure, but it could have been so much better.
 
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