Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid (Short Review)

Decent

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid is a blend of slice-of-life comedy and light fantasy.  The overall tone of the anime is pretty light-hearted and sometimes sweet, with a touch of seriousness woven throughout.  That said, it’s fairly underwhelming compared to others in the genre.  Part of the issue is that this anime is structured around a fast-paced comedy skit style, often found in adaptations of 4 panel manga series (although the original work in this case is not a 4 panel manga).  This isn’t usually a problem if you have a proper arrangement of theme and mood (see Wagnaria and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, for example).  What made it a problem for this anime, was that the comedy is overall pretty flat.  The comedic punchlines are generally recycled, with only a handful of categories that keep reappearing in slightly different setups.  The high points of the anime are the ones that are either not recycled (like the sweet and serious parts) or the comedy that hasn’t had a chance to cycle through too many repetitions.  Overall, it was a fun concept, but lacked the spark you’d expect out of an anime like this.

 

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Masamune-kun’s Revenge (Short Review)

Very Good

Masamune-kun’s Revenge is a show about the interplay of contradictions, both within characters and in interactions between characters.  The show’s premise is contained in its title, but the execution is very different from what you’d expect.  What’s particularly interesting about this anime is that it doesn’t take the ugly route, instead opting for a heaping of melodrama punctuated by some very deep moments, making it very entertaining.  The story is structured in an almost simplistic fashion so that the characters end up seeming hilariously petty in their interactions.  In addition to overt storytelling, the music was employed in a very precise fashion to create the melodrama by drawing attention to and blowing petty acts out of proportion. This keeps the overall tone light and the comedy rolling instead of creating a slugging match of abusive one-upsmanship.  It also serves to mask the fact that the underlying issues are very real and actually kind of reasonable, given the circumstance.  This interplay of contradictions led up to an exceptionally complex and powerful scene – one that probably is up there on my list of dramatic scenes.  While I don’t think this show is going to be everyone’s cup of tea, I am interested in seeing where they are going to go with it, given that it was set up as a first season.

Purpose: Very Good
Characters: Good
World: Good
Plot: Good
Storytelling: Very Good
Pace: Very Good

 

Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn Re: 0096 – Short Review

Good

Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn originally aired as an OVA series of 12 episodes of roughly 1-hour in length.  Re:0096 re-cuts it into a tv-sized series of 22 episodes, sometimes cutting it in a jarring fashion.  That aside, Gundam Unicorn is a series that probably won’t be terribly accessible to a new viewer, since it relies heavily on (and refers to) a lot of the previous Gundam series in the Universal Century timeline.  (If you’re confused already, here’s a graphic showing the timelines).

True to Gundam form, the series has grand and lofty ambitions – dealing with the collateral damage and side-effects of war, as well as the meaning of conflict and peace, and older generations of people as opposed to newer ones.  Since that’s the main focus the character development will seem a little fast, with people skipping to conclusions instead of agonizing over it.  This will be a bit of a welcome change to experienced Gundam fans, since the focus of the series will often be a civilian thrown into a military situation with death and explosions, who deals with it through whiny angst.  In spite of this, they do manage to pull together some absolutely spectacular character moments, although you have to wait for them a bit since Gundam series are a slow burn and tend to peak around 3/4 through.

All in all, a solid entry in the Gundam series that’s really pretty to watch as well.

Purpose: Very Good
Characters: Decent
World: Very Good
Plot: Good
Storytelling: Very Good
Pace: Decent

 

 

 

Monster Musume

Very Good

Monster Musume is an anime that gets all of its traction from the fact that it’s a twist on the standard fan-service/harem genre – it’s basically a giant “what if” scenario.  The foundation of the anime’s plot and story is textbook harem.  However, the strength lies in how convincingly the addition of the outrageous monster girls ends up contorting otherwise stale elements, turning them into something much greater.  If you’re a fan of the harem genre and have a good tolerance for fanservice, this is an anime you shouldn’t miss.  If you’re not a fan of the harem genre, you could probably still find some purchase in the outrageous comedy.  If you’ve read the manga, I’d say it’s a pretty solid adaptation.

Purpose: Excellent.  The best way to describe this anime is “shameless,” or, rather, “unashamed.”  There’s a huge variety of situations in this anime that range from lewd to sweet.  Unlike other, especially fan-service, anime they actually work in the fan service so that it isn’t out of place for the setting.  The concept of the monster girls was handled in a much stronger way than you might expect.  There’s a ton of practicality involved concerning the girls and what ends up being fanservice.  While the fan service is unabashed, there’s usually an underlying reason for it, rooted in the blended nature of human/creature.

Going a little deeper into the anime, one of the thematic undercurrents is about acceptance of the other, the inhuman, the foreign.  Time and time again, they emphasize that these girls are people.  Yes it seems somewhat ironic to say that and then use them for flagrant fan service.  However, it’s generally seen through the eyes of the main character, who, in spite of these crazy (and nearly lethal) antics, appreciates each of the girls for her uniqueness.

Characters: Excellent.  The base character personalities are standard for a harem anime.  At first, there is nothing really unique about them.  That said, the base personalities are done strongly enough to make them distinctive within the harem genre.  Building off the base personality, monster traits are added to the girls.  It’s the combination of the two that makes the girls really special.    Part of what’s strong about the monster traits is that the anime conveys a sense of realism behind those traits.  For example, the larger monster girls have a sense of presence, weight, and power behind their movements.  When you combine the basic harem premise of possessive fighting with girls that have these dangerous traits, it really changes the relational dynamic between characters.  Suddenly, the possessiveness takes on a very dangerous feel and the atmosphere is really different.  However, the anime doesn’t just stop there.  As the anime nears its end, the characters actually start having depth and they become more interesting.  True to the harem genre, as more girls are added, the relational dynamics shift and characters actions and reactions change to match.  The most noticeable will probably be Mia, who takes on a much sweeter feel later, instead of being more annoyingly clingy early.

What really ends up making the characters excellent is this blend of human and monster.  Examining the characters a little more in-depth, they’re made up of a really interesting conflict between their human sides and their animal/monster sides.  While the monster may make them do things in a more forward fashion, it makes the human side embarrassed.  This is actually the most convincing dichotomy I’ve seen in the harem genre – not as forced as you usually see.  For that matter, the nice guy male lead actually works here.  In part, it works because the monster girls are horribly violent, but at the same time, he’s helping bring out the more human elements of the monster girls.

World: Good.  Again, the base world is textbook harem, and pretty plain.  While there is some background given, it’s little more than a pretext for the setting.  That aside, it’s clear that a great deal of thought has gone into the creation of these monster species.   As a species, they have distinct traits, likes, dislikes, etc.  The attention to detail even extends to how even monster races treat each other.

Plot: Decent.  Frankly, there’s more holes than plot.  That said, the plot is prevented from being Bad because of how the plot holes are shamelessly used.  Rather, a character was specifically created to be a plot hole and force advances in the plot when convenient.  She is Smith.  Yet, Smith ends up being an entertaining character in her own right, essentially explaining sudden “plot” as ineptitude or laziness on her part.  Honestly, she does an adequate job of preventing the anime from becoming too stale.  One other note, some semblance of character plot actually starts to coalesce near the end – that’s when the anime begins to transform into something (slightly) more than a shameless ecchi comedy.

Storytelling: Good.  In sum: basic harem antics spiced up by crazy and dangerous monsters.  The introductions of the girls are handled in a really great fashion.  They introduce them without overwhelming you with the details – they slowly reveal character/creature specific traits at relevant points.  Of course, the harem in-fighting comedy and personality clash takes on a unique tone because they are careful to keep the fact that these are monster girls in mind.  Later towards the end, you do start to get some really strong personality clashes and even some sweet moments.

Pace: Good.  Nothing really remarkable.  They spaced out the introductions of the girls well so that it isn’t always a new girl per episode.  It ends up making a good punctuated effect of meeting the girls, while maintaining the humdrum of everyday life.

Magi – Kingdom of Magic (Season 2)

Weak

Now to be fair, if this anime were to be evaluated on its own, it would probably be Good, if not Very Good.  Honestly, this season had the tone and feel that I expected from the first season and, had they just chosen just one tone and stuck with it, it would have been fine.  Unfortunately, this anime isn’t a standalone – it is a continuation from the first season.  As a continuation it is Weak.  The problem is that they decided to change what kind of anime this was mid-stream.  This resulted in something of a disappointment, especially in light of how good the first season was.

Purpose: Poor.  The main problem is that it’s clear that the author changed what he wanted to do with the anime.  It changed from an intense character drama to a fairly standard action anime.  In order to effectuate this change, the first handful of episodes were dedicated to stalling out the momentum that built in the first series.  Essentially, the first handful of episodes worked like OVAs.  What they did was convert our characters’ personality growth and development into physical strength development.  After those episodes, the anime basically re-started itself in a different course by following Aladdin to magic academy.  Once there, it started building into a fairly solid action anime.  Make no mistake, eventually, there was some pretty cool stuff going on.  One last problem is that it tried to return to its season 1 roots in the last half of the last episode, with some fairly strong character drama.

Characters: Poor.  Since our “main” characters had their development stalled and were effectively out of the story, they needed to create some new “main” characters.  The new “mains” were really fairly under-developed throughout and ended up being fairly incidental for the large part of the story.  Amusingly, one character mirrors the same sort of journey made by the season 1 main character, although to a much weaker effect.

A large part of the problem is that the story follows the most weakly developed character, Aladdin.  In other words, it changed main characters in this season as well.  The reason this is a problem is because it is at odds with Aladdin’s place in the world, as described in the first season.  Even so, we see no real personality development from him throughout the anime.  Yet another problem is that they tried to bring some moral ambiguity into the equation that clearly had very little impact.  Sure, it had impact for the viewer and for another character, but it represented little more than a physical threat, rather than a challenge to Aladdin’s character.

World: Good.  While not as strong, they still managed to pull off some very interesting things.  Unfortunately, most of the stuff that had the most potential, more in line with Season 1, was barely touched on and, ultimately, ignored.  We got very little world development other than the magic academy and the little bits of scattered information about the areas our Season 1 heroes were journeying in.

The strongest aspect of the world was its occasional dabbling in the gray morality of certain issues.  This was brought to light through a couple of characters.  Dabbled is certainly the right word because they were set up as rather basic villains or antagonists that were later developed. Part of the strength of Season 1 was that it tied emotion to the struggle through our main characters.  Without that tie-in the “moral dilemma” became rather academic in nature, since it had really nothing to do with our main characters, other than something to be stopped. It was always presented in a way that made it clear they were bad or wrong, which rather dismissed the quality of their decisions.    As an aside, since these characters weren’t main characters or supporting characters, their place is in World, rather than Characters.

Plot: Weak. This anime continues in the tradition of artificially de-fanging our (previous) main characters.  In this case, 2 are sent off on training or discovery journeys, while the third is limited in power.  Sure, it got them out of the way, only to re-emerge at a time convenient to the plot.  The main problem with the plot is that it was trying to rebuild after a change in direction.  Much of the plot was absorbed with explaining and learning.  This presented a huge problem because it prevented forward momentum. In fact, the plot had a very, very short trajectory.

Storytelling: Good.  They did a good job of building some scenes so that they had the appropriate emotional impact.  They did a fine job of reversing the course and building up the action.  However, it was never particularly strong, which is partly the Plot‘s fault.  Since they didn’t have very far to go, they had to spend a lot of time horizontally – not moving the story forward.

Pace: Poor.  This was bound to happen when you halt momentum gained from a previous season.  The problem was that the pacing was crippled by the change.   Unfortunately, this robbed many scenes of their appropriate impact because the development couldn’t reasonably be accomplished from a dead stop.  It took a while to get going again, and still longer to match the quick pacing that an action anime requires.  Once they did, it was a pretty strong pace.  To give some perspective, it took roughly 18 episodes to accomplish this.

Magi – Labyrinth of Magic (Season 1)

Excellent

This anime was slightly misleading, though I’m not really complaining.  At first blush, it seems like a rather campy, fun action-adventure anime.  It turns out that it’s really an intense character drama with some action components.  While the action is cool and interesting, it’s ultimately somewhat weaker when the anime focuses on it.

Purpose: Very Good.  The anime is oddly middle-loaded.  The beginning and ending “arcs” are weaker in comparison.  This means that the real powerful climax hits a little bit early, leaving room for another arc behind it.  It seems to have gotten a little absorbed in the fighting nearer to the end and only superficially developed characters.  In other words, it altered course from an intense character drama to focus a little more on the action side.  That aside, this anime deals with some pretty lofty concepts, including human slavery, national affairs, and a little bit of economics, to name a few.  That’s not to say they get in the way – they do set the stage for threats that are different from what you’d normally encounter in anime.

Characters: Masterpiece.  The main characters get their turn with development.  The main two characters are pretty exceptional examples of fully developed characters.  They have many different internal forces weighing in on their decisions.  They have a believable “pull” in different directions.  They are affected by their strengths, weaknesses, and character flaws.  The characters struggle to find their own answer to the problem, rather than being fed one because the plot demands it.  On a side note, many characters, including many villains, get a good bit of depth to them too.  They get more complex motives and reasons for doing what they’re doing.

In the last arc, the main character development essentially stops.  Instead, they start to develop some side characters.  In part, this is done to show us how far the main character has come.  The side characters are somewhat interesting in their own right, but they don’t go too far into those characters’ backstory or really explore their motives, goals, etc.

World: Excellent.  A fascinating world, to be sure.  The world has a great deal of consistency in both action and reaction.  Aside from our heroes, there are a great many different moving parts, lending to the feeling that our heroes are a smaller part of a bigger world.  But what is interesting is how even the magical elements fit perfectly.  They are made so that they are included in the world instead of having a “tacked on” feel to them.  By that I mean that magic has its own rules and acts in a consistent fashion.

The theme of the world is really interesting.  This story spans a from Middle-Eastern setting,  to Steppes (probably Turkey-ish), to a coastal trade hub, with dealings from a Far East nation.  Each has a distinct feel to it – everything from the dress to the food, to how the people act are different.  Setting aside, the magical elements put an interesting extra element into the world – the dungeons.  They are a unique and odd place, very different from anything else.

Plot: Good.  The overall plot is Very Good, however, however, they use certain parts of the plot in ways that ended up weakening it.  Part of the problem is that you have exceptionally powerful characters that would probably easily overcome certain challenges.  Thus, in a handful of occasions, they use the plot to artificially de-claw those characters, limiting their involvement for the time being.  While it’s not necessarily a bad thing since it allows the appropriate characters to actually face a challenge, it ends up feeling somewhat contrived.

With that aside, the character-focused plot points are many and varied.  Each point represents a rather solid step towards the resolution.  What is interesting is that the plot moving forward represents more of a factor or force of influence on a character.  This ended up creating a powerful story because there was ever greater weight placed on the characters when making their decisions.

Storytelling: Excellent.  The anime really shined in how it was delivering information.  Lots of character development happened through flashback, albeit to information the viewer hadn’t experienced yet.   Part of the interesting thing of flashback storytelling is that it accomplishes forward progress by explaining the characters behind it.  They would slowly reveal bits and pieces as the story moved forwards.  Those pieces helped explain reasoning behind certain actions by giving insight into the forces that made the characters act as they did.

Other interesting aspects of the storytelling included their handling of some important conversions.  While generally in the context of a fight, these scenes were handled in a very strong fashion so that they also felt like it was a fight.   It wasn’t really physical, but left the impression that characters, ideas, even beliefs were clashing with each other.  That served to provide both the proper stage and attention to make the character drama extremely powerful.

Pace: Very Good.  Generally strong throughout.  It does shift gears on the second and final story arcs.  Those are by far the slowest part of the anime, but they aren’t really slow enough to be a problem.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

Masterpiece

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is an absolutely stellar anime that is one of the strongest titles in the comedy/slice of life genre.  This is the third time I’ve watched the anime, and every time I see it, I find my evaluation of it reaffirmed.  It’s really rare to find an anime of this type that is consistently strong from beginning to end.  Part of the fun is the fact that many of the characters are twists on their genre’s archetypes.   In order to get the full experience, I’d recommend this anime to someone that is familiar with the tropes and character archetypes.  That said, if you’re new to the genre, you will still find that it’s great fun.

Purpose: Masterpiece.  This was an example of a high-risk, high-reward attempt that really paid off.  They were faced with some serious difficulties in creating this anime.  Firstly, pure comedy anime is very hard to do and can easily stagnate, many often do.  This one manages to keep everything interesting and fresh throughout, providing a good deal of depth to the characters in the process. Secondly, this anime was adapted from a 4-panel manga.  For them to pull off what they did without any hiccups is truly spectacular.  They had a clear idea of how this was supposed to work and made sure that all the elements were pulling their own weight.

Characters: Masterpiece.  You can begin with any character and describe them on several levels.  There’s the “face value” level, where they are an archetype of a character common to the genre, such as the “prince-type.”  But they’re so much more.  Everyone has a distinct personality, with strengths and weaknesses.  They think about things and react to things in a highly individualized, yet internally consistent way.  Characters reacting to other characters’ actions is the heart of this anime.  Basically, you’re having these characters’ personalities bounce off each other.  But what makes this anime exceptional is how the hilarity also serves to deepen our understanding of the characters.  This is where the anime breaks from the genre.  In general, slice of life anime are like sitcoms – it’s relatively flat, but crazy characters reacting in crazy ways to ordinary, everyday situations.   Instead, our understanding of the characters is constantly evolving while we’re laughing.

World: Excellent.  The world is always hard to spot in slice of life anime, especially ones that are in our world.  The strength of this world was that it never felt limited or constrained.   Even though lots of events happened at the school, it never felt as though we were bound to the school, like some imprisoned spirit.   Events happened in a variety of settings that presented unique opportunities to show off the characters.  What was particularly skillful about the handling of the world was that the transitions felt seamless.  Anime in this genre will often write in some sudden or random reason to change the setting like the “random date scene.”  In those cases, it acts like drawing the curtain on a stage play – it’s somewhat abrupt and it serves as a break in what’s going on.  When Nozaki-kun changed settings, it felt as though it was a part of the natural course of the story – it never felt forced.

Plot: Excellent.  Plot is another hard to spot element in this genre.  Slice of life generally are on an episode-to-episode plot arc.  However, Nozaki-kun takes a different approach, exceptionally rare for this genre.  Generally speaking, plots were on a half-episode basis.  The episode level plots were also usually arranged based on theme – usually a character.  In addition, there were some overall character and couple plot arcs that took place over the course of the anime.  What’s really interesting is how all that isn’t exactly clear at the time you’re watching it.  Nozaki-kun is one of those anime where you recognize how far you’ve come by looking back.  As if they knew this ahead of time, they provide some perspective at the end that really highlights the distance traveled.

Storytelling: Masterpiece. The storytelling is exceptionally clear and clean.  They provide a solid progression and development of the characters and the story throughout.  Surprisingly, there’s very little telling going on – they don’t really tell you about the characters, they show you through their antics.   The best example is how they develop Nozaki.  It’s abundantly clear that he absolutely loves what he does.  His actions shape and mold our opinion of the character to the point that the character comes alive.

For the comedy part, the gags are varied and unique.  Many of the gags are very different from the standard slice of life stuff because in Nozaki-kun, they really enjoy playing with expectation.  This is accomplished, in part, by setting up common situations and events, but then twisting it in an unexpected way.  The viewer isn’t the only one that ends up being thrown for a loop.  The characters are often affected by these unexpected events, leading to more hilarity.

Pace: Excellent.  They covered a lot of ground in only 12 episodes.  Part of this was accomplished by the fact that the plot was in half-episode chunks.  But the real reason why the pace was so strong was the arrangement by theme.  This allowed them to keep up the momentum through the entire episode.  Since they shifted gears between episodes rather than between gags, they never lost forward momentum.  As a result, the series just flew by, but in a good way.

Mushi-shi

Masterpiece

An anime that is quiet by nature.  The backgrounds are absolutely beautiful – like watching a painting.  For maximum effect, Zenko, my other half, recommends you watch it on snowy or rainy days.

Purpose: Masterpiece.  This is about existence.  Broadly, it’s about people’s lives and dealing with nature and everyday mysteries.  It’s generally told in an episodic format – different stories per episode.  Each story “zooms in” on a particular situation and how it’s addressed.  Sometimes, it about human relations, sometimes it’s about personality, sometimes it’s about interacting with the world.  The order the stories are told aren’t exactly chronological, but chosen in a way that best grows and then builds upon your knowledge of the world.  This element really stands out because they always kept an eye on believable realism – everything that happened is the product of forces that we slowly come to understand though the anime.

Characters: Masterpiece.  All the characters that appear feel like real people with genuine problems, concerns, and reactions to the unusual events happening around and to them.  Most of the characters only have 1 episode that they appear in.  In those episodes, they are developed in ways that are relevant to what is going on.  Characters make real choices based on their values or beliefs and those choices have consequences.  Other characters then may have to deal with the consequences of the decisions.  Really, even on a character level, there’s a strong sense of cause and effect – of realism.

Now for the main character.   He is an exceptionally strong character, both uniquely human and a unique human.  The way that he was built was simply exemplary.  We are basically told nothing of him and have to learn about him from how he interacts with the characters and the world.  Through his interactions, he indicates a clear personality, a way of approaching and dealing with situations.  He has definite beliefs and priorities, but it wasn’t conveyed in a way that could be described as “preachy” or “pushy”.  Rather, they took on the nature of being personal beliefs based on experience.  Even within the story, he allows others to make their own decisions, regardless of his recommendations – not forcing his views on others.  That said, he is far from infallible – he makes mistakes and sometimes has poor bedside manner.  He has to make judgment calls about what to do in novel situations based on his experiences.  Really, he was built as a believable doctor in that world.  On that same theme, it’s not like he’s going from town to town and makes tons of friends on the way.  He’s almost always treated as the doctor – here to help right then, and then gone tomorrow.

World: Masterpiece.  This world is gigantic.  Everything that happens develops our knowledge of what’s going on, which in turn builds the vast world.  Certainly, the basic premise is supernatural.  However, it’s treated in such a matter of fact way that it conveys a strong sense of realism.  It’s not just random mumbo-jumbo, it’s something that we don’t yet understand that’s at work.  It has the sense that, with proper training and study, we too could understand how that world works (much like our own).  This realism really sells the world because the people living in it have to react to the goings-on.  Part of the strong world is the sense of time – no matter what happens, the world will keep on turning.  Really, what’s interesting is that everything has to make its place in the world – it’s not exactly treated as a matter of course that you will have a place.  This actually creates two different kinds of worlds.   The small “world” that people are living in – their communities, villages, and groups, and the big world that includes the knowledge of these things unseen. The interplay between the two worlds is how this anime accomplishes its purpose.

Plot: Excellent.  The plots are relatively self-contained, but generally similar.  In this anime, it isn’t a bad thing because the contours of the plot change based on the circumstances.  Different people react differently or different world forces change the path the plot takes.  These differences make the resolutions are highly individualized because the plot marks lasting changes in interaction – how people interact with each other and/or the world.

Storytelling: Masterpiece.  This anime is pretty much all well-told stories.  The overall feel is as though it were animated folk tales or ghost stories, without actually being either one.  The stories were told in such a way that emphasized the everyday quality of the events going on while still maintaining a strong sense of mystery and discovery.  Really, through the storytelling, we slowly get to see more about both people and the world.  The stories aren’t all told in the same way – sometimes they’ll change a bit of perspective or tell the story in a non-linear fashion. Even the contents within each story are highly varied.  Sometimes it’s a sweet story, sometimes bittersweet, sometimes sad, sometimes happy.  Even so, there were very few stories explicitly about the main character himself, even though he is in every episode.   The stories are all quieter – there’s the sense that even though some people’s troubles mean everything to them, there are other forces at work. The storytelling reinforces the relationships between people and the world in almost a co-dependent way.  It’s highly memorable.

Though I talked about the stories being told, the viewer is actually told almost nothing – the viewer learns through what’s going on.  Really, this is what is particularly unique about the storytelling in this anime. They develop everything through character and world interaction – what we learn isn’t exactly characters talking for our benefit.

Pace: Masterpiece.  Pace is a funny thing.  It depends entirely upon the anime.  In this case the pace was fairly slow, but not in a bad way.  It almost took on a life of its own, controlling the feel of the world and the events that happened. It reinforced the sense of quiet existence, the march of time.  In some ways, it was more of a “rural” pace, but such that the events happening were almost a matter of course and that, whatever happened, the world would continue on.  Some events happened at a quicker pace, which strongly conveyed a sense of seriousness or urgency, which increased the impact.  Really, this is a stellar example of how powerful pace can be in anime.