Fate/Apocrypha (ep 1-12)

Weak

Fate/Apocrypha is an action/drama anime, and the most recent title in the Fate/ series.  It goes through an alternate timeline in which the events of Fate/Stay Night (and its progeny) don’t happen.  Unfortunately, this installment does not live up to its predecessors, becoming something of an unfulfilled, incomprehensible mess.

Purpose: Weak.

Fate/Apocrypha brought together an intriguing set of elements, changing up the tournament-style fighting that is the basis for the other titles in the series.  It also attempted to do interesting things with other elements, such as the characters and how they relate to each other.  Sadly, this was all — the main purpose of the anime was merely to change things up.  In the process,  they lost sight of what the Fate/ series is about — the clash of ideals presented through a literal clash of swords.  While we got to see hints of this in Fate/Apocrypha, such as the idea of what it means to be a hero versus what it means to be a king, it wasn’t capitalized upon in any meaningful manner.  Perhaps worse, due to an overwhelming number of characters and events, it became more clear as the show went on that all balance was lost and show’s ability to manage everything kept slipping.  The result is a disharmonious mess that didn’t allow any particular element to take root and blossom.

Characters: Poor. 

Most Fate/ series have around 14 players (7 pairs) to keep track of, with different emphasis.  For a normal Fate/ series, they focus on character pairs, sometimes with each member having specific goals and ideals.  Their internal synergy (or lack thereof), is what really hones in the bursts of action and gives it real impact.  Fate/Apocrypha attempted 28 players (14 pairs).  While that seems daunting at first, they were able to lower that number through various means. Unfortunately, in the process, they shatter this crucial element and remove much of the summoner/summoned interactions, instead choosing to focus primarily on battling characters.  Of all of these, only one pair is notable, and is unfortunately relegated to rather minor roles.

Again, for the characters and character development, there were seeds of really interesting things, but Fate/Apocrypha failed to capitalize on any of them.  One example is the idea that Vlad the Impaler hates his legend and wants to clear his name.  Another is Frankenstein’s Monster’s struggle to be recognized as a person and not a monster.  Still another is the idea of a created being taking fate into its own hands.  With the lack of proper focus on developing these concepts, they ended up becoming mere spoken lines and not powerful moments.  Many times, even these were simply hints cast aside and then denied fulfillment.  One particular disappointment involves the failure to capitalize on the inevitable clash of two really likable characters, knowing only one can walk away.

Still worse, it’s very difficult to even point to the characters that the anime is really about — there are no real main characters.  The ones you’d want to be the heroes of the story have a tragically minor role, in spite the best synergy and dynamic interactions.  Everyone else, even the ones that get more screen time, end up feeling like unimportant cogs spinning about with no real purpose – no grander machine behind them.  Without anyone to really care about or root for, we end up becoming observers to a relatively unimpressive struggle, bland and monochromatic.

Perhaps the real tragedy is that properly executed characters could have rescued other under-performing elements.  Truly, the characters took the show down with them.

World: Weak

One of the biggest sins of the world is that this is a purportedly standalone series that relies on information not presented to the viewer.  You need to have outside knowledge about how the world works and events that unfold to even have a hope of keeping up.  Even then, it’s a struggle.  This ends up eroding any potential for internal consistency, since the ground rules seem pretty much made up on the fly.  Almost hilariously on-point is the addition of a special “Ruler” class, who’s supposed to observe the battles and ensure all parties adhere to the rules of the holy grail war… except that the rules were never really stated and couldn’t practically be inferred from the happenings.  The Ruler also has a bizarre will of its own that ends up becoming at odds with its stated purpose.  The problem is that, because it lacks consistency to begin with, you’re not sure whether Ruler is going rogue or these things are supposed to happen.

This “anything goes” mentality pervades all of the other goings-on.   Wheelchair-turned-Doc Octopus?  Sure.  Floating fortress of doom out of nowhere?  Why not?  Character suicides only to reappear at a convenient moment?  Yes, please! (I’m being sarcastic, of course.)  When the world is this weak, it ends up undermining the plausibility of the events that happen, resulting in the viewer losing confidence in anything that happens.

Plot: Weak

There were so many plot trajectories, the execution ended up haphazard at best.  In order to fit everything in, individual plots were thoroughly butchered.  The actual thinning of plot points seemed nearly random, since even some major turning points (character decisions, growth, etc) were either glossed over or not shown at all.  Thus, the only time we see plot advancing is when we as viewers are fed a line about something changing.  We don’t get to see how characters arrive at a conclusion or why a particular event is happening, only that it has happened.  This also goes back to all of the unfulfilled character points — their truncated plot made the interactions feel pointless.

Storytelling: Weak

The only saving grace of the storytelling was the beautiful animation.  However, the animation doesn’t make up for a tragic lack of communication to the viewer.  We weren’t fed a cohesive story since all of the connective details were lost.  Worse, the happenings are fed to us at a wholly inappropriate time, meaning it’s very, very easy to get lost, even for those familiar with the story.

One of the problems with the storytelling stems from a serious lack of prioritization of information.  Yes, there are lots of goings-on.  Not everything needs to be shown, and less important events can be disposed of with lines or phrases.  However, it would be a challenge to say which parts of the story were supposed to be more important than any other.  Instead, the story appeared to try to give each bit some sort of equal time, diluting everything.

Pace: Weak

The pacing was startlingly even, when it really shouldn’t have been.  This meant that instead of establishing a tempo of fast action and quiet, slower scenes to develop characters and plot, everything kept marching on.  One of the problems was the lack of hooks between scenes or cuts, ruining any sort of dynamic flow between them.  Scenes were more like stacked blocks, each a cube, whether it needed to be or not.  This ended up creating a rather bizarre experience that tended to be rather dull on the whole.

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Death Note (Netflix Live Action)

Weak

This is the US live-action adaptation of Death Note, brought to you by Netflix.  As a whole, this movie is an embarrassing adaptation of Death Note.  What makes it embarrassing is that a fan of Death Note isn’t likely to be pleased, while a newcomer to the concept is likely to ask “what was the big deal about the original work, anyway?”  What we got was an angsty teenage romance/drama with some supernatural elements instead of a Holmes and Moriarty-esque struggle of titans.

To be fair, the director did indicate that he wanted to do something different… and do something different they did.  This was accomplished through a massive (daresay upsetting) set of changes, character, setting, and even genre.  That said, there were other changes that I feel perfectly fine about.  I don’t mind that it set in Seattle and that the entire cast is distinctly American.  Those changes, if executed competently, could have been a really fascinating adaptation of the series, a “what if the Death Note landed in America,” hypothetical.  What we got was something of a wholesale slaughter of the core concept and identity of the series, turning it into almost a shambling mockery of itself.

Starting with the characters, they managed to destroy almost all semblance of cleverness or intelligence.  We are told that Light is a smart person and later he tells us in passing of something that resembles a god complex, although we never get to see it.  Instead, we get something of a whiny brat who is using the Death Note to get into someone’s pants (Mia, the replacement for Misa).  Yes, I’m serious.  I do have to say that Mia’s character was wildly altered and became something of a blend of the anime’s Light and Misa – she’s the driving force, the “actual” cold-blooded killer.  On that note, I do like what they did with her, since I consider Misa’s inclusion in Death Note as something of a tragic mistake.   As for L… Instead of a brilliant yet cold detective, we have a little bit of an emotional wreck who, surprise surprise, doesn’t actually seem like a genius.

These changes ended up wildly affecting the plot and the storytelling.  As much as it pains me to say, because of the massive changes to Light, L was almost wholly unnecessary in this story.  Since much of the movie focuses on Light and Mia’s relationship, all L does is introduce the possibility (and fear) that Light might be caught.  This makes Light even more hesitant to kill people (the exact opposite of the anime series).  This could have been accomplished with a random police officer or investigative agency, since L’s “brilliance” was to stumble around in a haphazard fashion.  That makes sense, of course, since this is not a movie in the detective/drama genre.  It’s clear that no one on the writing staff even cast a wayward glance at something like Law and Order, let alone Sherlock Holmes.

Even if we forgive that, we still have a bizarre and awkward teenage romance.  Since Mia ends up being the driving force, Light ends up being a killer to impress her more than anything.  Even with her trying to stand in the anime Light’s shadow (giggle), there’s still something massively lackluster about the movie.  Because of the relationship focus, the movie ends up being so small and trivial in scope – it’s never about reforming the world or about changing society, no matter what they say.  But at least the movie ended.  It’s over, right?  As if to leave a final insult to the viewer, the movie ended in a highly unsatisfying fashion – nothing concluded and it strongly hints of a sequel.

As a post-script, William Dafoe as Ryuk was the best part of the movie.  He was so perfect in that role, it pains me that the rest didn’t even try to be on that level.

Re:ZERO (Short Review)

Weak

This is an anime that started off decent, cut itself off at the legs, flailed around in the mud, and then clawed its way back to something competent by the end.  I really wanted to like Re:ZERO – they had some really promising elements and ideas that, unfortunately, died in execution.  It’s really difficult to put my finger on a single point of failure, so much as a collection of under-performing elements that combine to really bring it down.  A lot of the problem can be traced to the main character himself.  While his character arc was relatively believable (going from enthralled by adventure, to mild angst, to unsightly self-absorption, followed eventually by repentance and actual competence), his fundamental character, as displayed by the anime was ugly.   The anime described him best through some of his actions – he created his own mess, agonized about his own mess, and then fixed his own mess (all work that was pretty unnecessary).  But it wasn’t just the main character.  The anime struggled to find its voice and ended up with a fairly predictable pattern of silly events -> blood everywhere storytelling arc that leveled itself out about 3/4 through the 25 episodes.  It takes a long while before they use the violence for anything other than shock value.  This is compounded by the poor pacing and storytelling that interrupted the flow of events when they managed to get things going.  Perhaps the most frustrating part is that the anime showed its potential – both in characters and storytelling, mainly through Rem and also through the very tight development of Wilhelm and his backstory.  Though I’d probably warn someone against Re:ZERO, if you’re intrigued by the theme of redoing events, I’d highly recommend Steins:Gate (Masterpiece) instead.

Purpose: Poor
Characters: Decent
World: Good
Plot: Decent
Storytelling: Poor
Pace: Not Really Good

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.

The Rolling Girls

Weak

Another entry in the “disappointing” category.  This anime was yet another one that had some really interesting ideas and really cool stuff, but failed in execution.  It felt like something of a bait-and-switch – the first two episodes set up a really different sort of anime from what it ended up becoming.  Unfortunately, the strongest point of the anime, the action, was really under-utilized.

Purpose: Poor.  They had some really strong ideas in there, they just couldn’t find the right way to go about displaying it.   Essentially, we follow four nobodies who try to help other people solve their problems.  This is a fairly standard setup, which would have been okay if the anime was what the first two episodes promised to be – an action-type anime with a supporting character drama.   The action really was the strongest point of the anime with some really neat and interesting scenes, often with supporting music going along.  However, the reason the purpose failed was that they didn’t focus on their strengths. They focused too much on the girls, which was a problem because the girls weren’t developed very well.  The reason this focus was improper is because the girls, being nobodies, had little role to play in the anime.  That said, if done well, it is completely okay to have the “main characters” be little more than plot delivery devices.  Essentially the camera follows them around so that we get a limited perspective with which we get to learn about everything else, which is really interesting.  For this to work, the characters are supposed to have as little presence as possible so that they merely serve as the rope that connects disparate plot points  What happened in Rolling Girls was that the cameraman was effectively getting in the way of other, more interesting things, which is unforgivable.

Characters:  Poor.  These characters actually were non-entities for the most part.  The fact that they were bland and forgettable is what is supposed to happen in this kind of anime.  On a general note, they did serve their role as tying plot together, acting as a substitute for storytelling.  That part was sort of competent.  Everything around them, from the world to the characters at the center of the plotlines, was more interesting.  Characters that are involved in the plots are decently developed enough to make them worth paying attention to.  If it were just as I described it, then this element would be Good.  The problem was that they spent far too much time trying to develop our “main” characters.  This really hurts just about everything else because every minute devoted to those girls was a minute taken away from the interesting world or the interesting “bests.”

Since the anime tried to develop them, we’re forced to evaluate them as characters rather than storytelling “glue.”  In this regard, they utterly fail.  We get very little information about the characters other than they are weak and powerless.  Even at the end, all we really knew is that they were sort of on a journey to help others (just because) and to possibly become “bests.” They were the bungling-meddler character type that really is served best by having one, not four. In effect, they really only sort-of helped situations, often in spite of themselves.  Even so, there wasn’t really any rhyme or reason for their actions, other than they (and not even all of them) felt obligated to help others out.  One other problem with these characters is that they were a bit inconsistent.  The best example is the character that wants to be a “best.”  She’s surprisingly blase about getting those stones to become a “best” until the end, when it serves as a cheap excuse to add some tension into the group.

World: Very Good.  There was some really cool stuff here.  There was the interesting breakup of the world into, basically, vigilante groups.  That set the stage for some really interesting fights.  The fights themselves were often highly stylized, in a Kill-la-Kill-esque style.  Sadly, the fights were often too short and too far in between to really mean something. Aside from the fighting, each of the areas that the girls visited had a distinctive feel and flavor.  Generally, these were caricatures of those areas, but that is part of the world’s charm.   The varied settings provided very interesting backdrops for the plots to play out.  With that said, there were some problems with the world, especially near the end.  The main problem was that it got a little bit into jump-the-shark territory, where random stuff just started happening.  The random stuff necessitated an expansion of the world into areas that lacked the foundation built upon earlier in the anime, so were shaky as a result.

Plot: Decent.  If by plot you mean the things that happen to affect the world and the other non-main characters, then the plot was Good.  If you mean the plots directly involving the main characters, they were Not Really Good.   The plots around the non-main characters were fairly bland to start out, but got stronger as the anime went on, to a point.  That point was where things just started to get random.  The fact that they were random is because they didn’t create logical steps to where they were going.  Things appearing out of nowhere or “just because” often can be attributed to poor storytelling, but in this case it was because there were missing plot elements.

Storytelling: Weak.  One problem with the storytelling was addressed above – mainly that they focused too much on the girls.  Another problem was that the connections between plot points were often lazy and inconsistent.  This also stemmed from the improper focus.  Since they spent so much time on the girls, they had to leap from plot point to plot point.  This created large gaps in the storytelling to the point that it couldn’t hold together any longer.  Basically, the ship was already sinking under the weight of wasted time.  Once it reached the critical point, they just started throwing things in there without any support.  That was the “jump the shark” point.  Normally you need the storytelling to set up the kind of world so that even if really crazy things happen, it’s not a surprise, but a logical extension of where the world was going.  Think of Gurren Lagann – they set up such a crazy “world” that where the anime ended up was crazily over the top instead of just being random.  In other words, it made sense for the world.

Pace:  Decent.  This anime was oddly slow.  Again, everything ties back into focusing on where they shouldn’t have.  The good stuff was interesting enough and fast enough to keep the pace from being annoying, though.

Attack on Titan

Weak

I really wanted to like this anime.  In concept, it’s basically a zombie-mecha anime.  The background art was fantastic and the mood music by Sawano Hiroyuki was very strong.  I just wish that the potential that existed was properly utilized.  All told, it felt like they could have been great, but just failed in the execution.

PURPOSE:  Weak.   It wasn’t clear what the anime was trying to do.  In the beginning, it appeared to be world-focused – about humanity overcoming an insurmountable threat.  However, it very quickly tried to make it character-focused anime – more about the effect of the world on the characters and their psyche.  Looking back from the end, it wasn’t ever clear exactly what the anime was trying to accomplish.  One serious problem with the overall purpose is that it kept revisiting the same themes, which essentially stagnated the path of the story.  What happened was that progress that was made both in the world and with the characters reverted to an earlier point.  Without a solid and clear path forward, it tended to make the entire anime stagnate.

CHARACTERS:  Decent.  Most of the characters were cardboard cutouts.  Generally if you look at the characters, there was very little in terms of complexity or even growth.  The main characters suffered from “king of the pirates” syndrome, where they often and loudly told us their only driving goal.  That goal didn’t take on any depth or substance throughout – it was an oft-repeated tagline that represented a singular, yet shallow purpose.  In the main group, only Armin had something approaching solid depth of character.  He  was learning, improving, and refining his view of the world.  That said, Levi was a superbly done character.  He had great depth and subtlety to his personality.  The way he was developed mirrored the overall theme of “becoming inhuman to save humanity.”  Yet, he was never a “bad” guy.  There was obvious internal struggle and many very human moments.  Sadly, Levi wasn’t given nearly enough screen time.  Aside from these, the only character that hinted at something interesting was the general, but they didn’t really explore him.

WORLD:  Decent.  Again, here we have hints of some really interesting things going on both inside and outside the walls.  However, there wasn’t enough there to really explore those aspects.  As it was, the world was tiny – most of the anime was done behind the second wall and you had a tiny glimpse behind the third.  There was really nothing done to expand the world beyond the walls.  For the viewer, they too were off limits.

PLOT: Decent.  As it was, it was fairly standard, but done in a fairlycompetent fashion.  There was a solid and logical progression of events that drove both the world and the characters.  However, there were some issues with the plot.  As is fairly common in related genre, they dwell far too long on angst and use it as a substitute for solid plot. Angst usually resolves with a decision that changes the course of the character.  In this case, it was a temporary course change, since they often regressed back into more angst.  When the same plot point comes up again and again, it loses the impact of the characters’ internal struggle, and negates forward progress made.

STORYTELLING:  Bad.  There was a great deal of filler in this anime.  Often, it was a scene completely unnecessary to what was going on or even yet another jaunt in fearful angst.  Compounding this problem was the way scenes were ordered.  There were quite a few scenes that would have been appropriate or even strong if placed at a different point.  As presented, it often rendered those scenes unnecessary or, worse,an obstacle to the progression of the story.  Particularly jarring was “the big reveal,” which was treated as though the viewer should have have seen this coming, even though those pieces of information were not really presented to the viewer.   Most galling is that this anime seems to be fixable through proper cutting and editing.

Sadly, the poor use of storytelling continues with their use of violence.  Normally, violence is a highlight that propels the story forward.  However, the violence in this anime didn’t really do anything.  It really was there for little more than the shock value. You can only see someone getting eaten or stepped on so many times before it loses its impact.  Even more, the fights were shockingly dull.  Mainly, the fights lacked cleverness or uniqueness.  Only the last handful of episodes displayed more varied and interesting combat – the kind that should have been seen throughout the anime.

PACE: Bad.  The pacing and tempo of the anime was wholly crippling. For most of the anime, every time they managed to build solid tension and plot momentum, it very quickly stalled. Worse, it tended to stall for several episodes at a time.  This contributed to the stagnation because they built to an important point, but then delayed the payoff for too long.  The lack of appropriate pacing presented a huge obstacle to character development, the use of violence as a plot device, and prevented the creation of atmosphere.  For the characters, they dwelled too long in places they shouldn’t have, and reverted progress made.  As a consequence, almost all the characters were little more than cardboard cutouts.  Violence itself was a victim of this stalling.  Many solid, violent scenes that progressed the plot were then “punctuated” by long sequences of talking or running.  During these sequences, additional violence was the simplistic “squash the squishy” type, which gets old, fast.  The same complaints mentioned above hamstrung the creation and maintenance of the mood.  Most galling, the anime showed that it was capable of maintaining solid pacing and tension, mostly in the last handful of episodes.