Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Anime review: Sgt. Frog (season one)

From the same creative team behind the original Mobile Suit Gundam, Sgt. Frog is a much less serious sci-fi series centering around the alien amphibian known as Keroro and his A.R.M.P.I.T. platoon. Keroro was originally sent to Earth to conquer the Pekoponians (his term used to refer to humans) in order to further his race’s galactic conquest. Fortunately for all of mankind, Keroro’s plans are foiled after his technology malfunctions, telling the fleet orbiting Earth to retreat and leaving Keroro and his comrades stranded.

The series sells itself as something of a kid’s series, sporting colorful, innocent-looking characters in humorous situations. To an extent this is true, as much (though not all) of the material in Sgt. Frog is relatively family-friendly. But it is because of the witty one-liners, situational ironies, and pop-culture references that this series will hit closer to home with viewers in the teenage group on up. The writers spend plenty of time early on poking fun at their brethren series of Mobile Suit Gundam, but also take time to parody other well-known anime such as Evangelion, Macross, and Dragonball Z. Even non-anime shows such as Kamen Rider get nods here and there.

Depending on which version viewers watch, the humor within will change slightly. The Japanese version tries to provide vague references at times to make the jokes more universal, but ultimately the funniest jokes in the original Japanese version of the show are aimed at Japanese viewers, as they can easily relate to the shows, films, books, etc. that are the focus of the jokes. The English dub takes a fair amount of creative liberties into account, but it pays off it an incredibly positive way. It may seem odd for an anime to be referencing and subsequently making fun of Indiana Jones and Britney Spears, but the localization works wonders for the fluidity of the show, making it ‘click’ better with North American viewers.

The characters are stereotypical enough that viewers can keep in mind that the series is a comedy, but not so flat and underdeveloped that they become boring or too predictable. Keroro is the star of the show and is such a likeable failure of a sergeant, while Giroro is the tough-as-nails soldier who inevitably falls secretly in love with Natsumi Hinata. Tamama is the platoon’s grunt yes-man, always agreeing with Keroro in competition for attention over Keroro’s friend/pupil Angol Mois. Dororo is a strong and stealthy ninja, though he argues for pacifism following the arrival of the platoon to Earth. In stark contrast to Dororo, Kululu finds pleasure in torturing others with his various inventions and experiments, most notably Keroro.

Keroro’s adoptive family, the Hinatas, keep him in the house for the safety of the others outside and have him complete chores while they are at school/work. Natsumi finds Keroro particularly repulsive at first, and this changes only so much later in the series. Natsumi’s brother Fuyuki, on the other hand, is an oddball sci-fi geek who is socially awkward and relies on Keroro as his closest friend, which Keroro uses to his own advantage on a few occasions. Fuyuki and Natsumi’s mother Aki works at a comic book company and sees Keroro and his comrades as a golden source of inspiration. She also pays Keroro an allowance for his chores, much to the surprise of her children, which Keroro spends exclusively on Gundam model kits.

The main characters are overall very likeable, though Kululu can become a bit repetitive and is easily the weakest development-wise of the platoon members. Still, Kululu does see some improvement in the second half of season one and becomes much more interesting because of this.

While the series does employ some running gags in its ongoing humor, these aren’t brought up in every episode and refrain from becoming repetitive to the point of being nauseating. The narrator delivers a fair share of humor to the show, becoming his own distinctly separate character over the course of the season. Each episode delivers a strong narrative, which is very much welcomed in a comedy-centric series - that is, save for episode twenty-three, in which Keroro clones himself and his very existence is threatened after too many clones become present. Based on the plot, one would presume this to be a hilarious episode, as one Keroro causes enough trouble by himself. But the episode portrays Keroro with a sudden lust for power and a notably minimal amount of humor is delivered throughout the entire episode. This, coupled with a weak and sudden resolution may lead some viewers to skip the episode entirely, as the narrator and characters spend a good three-quarters of the episode repeatedly telling the viewers what it is they are trying to get across.

The art style of Sgt. Frog is a bit more ‘cartoony’ than some more recent anime, but its bright colors really aid the ridiculousness of the inner-weaving stories. The soundtrack isn’t spectacular or overly-complex, but it is very fitting to such a comedic series. The voice actors give it their all in the English dub and work incredibly well with one another. Arguably, they’re better than the original Japanese voice actors, who do an impressive job all their own. Some of the choices seem a bit typecast, such as Chris Sabat (Piccolo in Dragonball Z) as gung-ho Corporal Giroro, but in the end the show is much stronger because of this.

Sgt. Frog is a hilarious romp through countless television, movie, book, and video game parodies. The characters poke fun at anything and everything possible, so long as the joke will evoke genuine laughter from viewers. The situational humor and wit therein fuels all of this further, and the series does an excellent job in defining itself as something so much more entertaining and complex than many more crude comedy anime series. Even if viewers don’t catch all of the jokes that Sgt. Frog dishes out, they're certain to find a plethora of laughs from the parts they do catch on to and the cast of characters are difficult not to find enjoyable.

My rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Jafax 15 - Day two

The second day of Jafax was much heavier on panels than day one, but there were still plenty of anime showings, games/competitions, and ongoing events over the course of the day to cater to all sorts of different tastes. The costume contest at the end of the day showcased some of the most creative and highly-detailed costumes at the event, but I was thoroughly impressed with basically every costumed attendee I encountered this weekend.

I picked up a copy of the Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles dvd as well as FLCL poster from two of the vendors at Jafax 15. This was a great experience and I am pumped to go back next year (though I do plan on putting my costume together a bit sooner than the day before the convention).

(Below are some pictures taken over the course of the day on Sunday - click to make the images bigger.)

Smash Bros. lineup (from left to right: Ike, Link, Roy, Marth, and Pit)

Scar and Ed (Full Metal Alchemist)

Blastoise (Pokemon)

Lugia and Umbreon (Pokemon)

Lucky Star cheerleaders

Sean with Chiyo-chan's dad.

Myself as Lt. Quattro (Zeta Gundam)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Jafax 15 - Day one (in brief)

Today was the first day of Jafax 15, an anime/comic/video game convention hosted at Grand Valley State University. I went dressed as Lt. Quattro of Zeta Gundam, while my brother went as Edward Elric. There were some crazy and most excellent costumes on display over the course of the day, and it was impressive to see what people could whip up out of homemade materials. Admist the scheduled events, I talked briefly with Tiffany Grant (the voice of Asuka in the English dub of Neon Genesis Evangelion, as well as many other roles in various anime) and she signed my copy of disc 3 from the NGE Platinum Perfect Collection. I am planning on going back tomorrow for more Japanese subculture fun and I might post some more entries/photos from the event here.

Click to make image bigger - Quite a bargain, nicht?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Anime review: Blue Submarine No. 6

Blue Submarine No. 6 follows a similar formula to Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, mixing action and intense fight sequences with a specific subculture music and art style. In the case of Blue Submarine No. 6, the soundtrack happens to be rock-infused jazz. With a world that has already suffered so much destruction and humanity now on the brink of extinction, the story carries quite a serious tone and the art style looks grungy as half-submerged buildings are all that remain of the world’s major cities.

It is because of these two distinctly different styles of art and music that the show doesn’t seem to flow all that smoothly. While the crew of Blue Sub No. 6 are fighting for their lives and the future of humanity, the fact that torpedoes launching at giant mutant whales are accompanied upbeat and peppy numbers doesn’t fit all that well. The animation itself also hits more than a few bumps along the way. The creators wanted to combine hand-drawn and digitally-rendered elements into the series, but the age of the series really shows in the digital animation. Even for the time of the series’ release, it doesn’t seem that impressive and isn’t anywhere near as impressive as the hand-drawn characters and backgrounds. That said, the digital animation does receive a noticeable improvement with each episode, so by the finale of the series it doesn’t seem to drag the show down so much.

The characters are very limited due to the length of the OVA, and viewers are either going to love them or hate them, as only one really changes at all over the course of the series. Most of the crew members of Blue Sub No. 6 are put on the back burner and only make brief appearances, though their conversations with one another add another level of engagement to the series and they come across as more believable because of this. The only three secondary characters to really speak of are Verg, the ruthless yet childish leader of the Phantom Ship and one of Zorndyke’s creations, Mutio, another one of Zorndyke’s creations that is initially hostile out of fear but later comes to the aid of Hayami in return for the aid he provided her, and finally, the captain of Blue Sub No. 6 and longtime friend of Hayami.

Two of the main characters of the series are aligned with the crew of Blue Sub No. 6 – Mayumi Kino, a young soldier aboard the sub and Tetsu Hayami, a former soldier who has spent the past few years doing odd jobs and until he is asked to return to the fight. Hayami is the easily the most prominent and important character in the OVA, and develops from a stone-cold “I don’t really give a damn” type into someone who reacts quickly in tight situations but also does a lot of deep pondering on the current global state of affairs. In this sense, he carries the series very well and viewers can sympathize with him in more ways than one. Kino, on the other hand, is Hayami’s whiny younger comrade who is equally annoying between the original Japanese version of the anime and the English dub. It’s puzzling as to why the crew kept her around, as (aside from her piloting skills with the smaller combat sub) the only thing she seems capable of is failing to complete her mission or yelling at Hayami for completing his in an unorthodox fashion. Dr. Zorndyke – though he doesn’t really show up in person until the final episode – plays a pivotal role as the harbinger of all the events in the series, as well as revealing a major plot twist near the show’s final moments.

The English voice actors do a really impressive job and are arguably as good as their Japanese counterparts. Zorndyke and Hayami in particular are carried across wonderfully, and their voice actors hit them spot-on. While I didn’t enjoy the character any more, Kino’s voice actress portrays her exactly as she should be – an energetic and often over-confident kid thrust into the heat of war.

The show comes across largely as a political piece disguised as a short anime. The story and action sequences are wildly entertaining and make for an interesting experience. The characters, however, are either a hit-or-miss deal, and the soundtrack doesn’t mesh well with the overall art style. Blue Submarine Number 6 is entertaining and a rather quick watch at four episodes long, but – as well thought-out as the plot is - viewers shouldn’t expect anything mind-blowing out of the experience as a whole.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Anime review: Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2

One year after the events of Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, members of the Black Knights have either been imprisoned, disarmed, or are on the run from Britannian forces. Following the chain of events at Kamine Island, Lelouch has forgotten who he once was and is living out an average life in Area 11. Viewers are tipped off pretty early on that things are not going to stay calm for long, as Lelouch is seen travelling with a younger student named Rollo, who he calls his ‘brother’, and Lelouch even crosses paths with Kallen Kozuki on his way to play a round of chess. The building which all three have entered is then attacked by Black Knight forces who seemingly come out of nowhere, led by C.C., and attempt to bring Lelouch with them, though he doesn’t understand why. Eventually, C.C. restores Lelouch’s memories, which he then uses to clear an escape route for the Black Knights. The group reconvenes at the Chinese Confederation Consulate, where Lelouch (under the guise of Zero once again) calls forth the remaining Black Knight forces and plans out rescue operations for those imprisoned.

Suzaku, on the other hand, joined the Knights of the Round after bringing Lelouch before the Emperor of Britannia, and is now among the elite Knightmare pilots Britannia has to offer. While Suzaku’s story is fairly interesting towards the end of R2 and helps to drastically change the focus of the story, overall it’s pretty much the same as it was in Lelouch of Rebellion, save for Suzaku’s military rank. His character is still engaging enough, unlike the other Knights of the Round. Many of these knights don’t appear until very late in the show and just show up to be tough and then die. Those that do receive significant roles are fairly stereotypical and don’t change much.

With many Britannian spies watching Lelouch’s every move, the series is much more tense when covering Lelouch’s time at the Ashford Academy. The fact that Zero has so many comrades, yet Lelouch must play everything off as if he has not yet recollected his memories makes for a very interesting dynamic and the writers go the extra distance in both pushing Lelouch and Zero apart as well as bringing them closer together. Lelocuh/Zero's cunning nature leads him to manipulate many people in R2, often without the aid of his Geass and solidifies him as a truly intriguing anti-hero.

Much like Lelouch of the Rebellion, R2 incorporates some strange situational humor, the majority of which occurs at the Ashford Academy, such as when Lelouch must partake in a ‘love hunt’ game put on by Milly. These scenes are fewer and farther between than in Lelouch of the Rebellion, so it’s nice to see that the writers opted to make the story more serious this time around. That said, not a single one of the scenes really advances the plot or develops the characters in any way and the show would have greatly benefitted from these being reworked or completely removed.

R2 is much darker than its predecessor and the story does benefit a great deal from that, for the most part. The return of Jeremiah and his new Geass-canceller shakes Lelouch’s plans up quite a bit, and the hunts led by Zero to wipe out humans being trained with Geass abilities paints a much more adult narrative than in Lelouch of the Rebellion. Lelouch even enters a depressive state during R2, using his Geass on Japanese thugs to toy with them for his own amusement, and almost using Refrain, the memory-resurfacing drug briefly introduced in Lelouch of the Rebellion.

While Zero’s methods never ceased to surprise me, R2 did lose some of its luster about halfway through, when the Black Knights headed out to China and the focus shifted to Suzaku for a large portion of the story. With the other Knights of the Round being relatively flat characters that receive little development, things got to be quite stale in regards to Suzaku’s story. Thankfully, Suzaku’s story is largely overshadowed by the backstory of C.C., one of the most intriguing twists to the overarching story of the two seasons. The mystery surrounding Lady Marianne’s death comes to a close late in R2 as well, though it may not be the conclusion every viewer was hoping for. It makes sense in the context of the story, but the buildup it receives from Lelouch’s conspiracy theories and interrogations with fellow royal family members is far more interesting than the actual resolution.

The soundtrack puts heavy emphasis on percussion instruments including chimes and bells, as well as higher brass and woodwind instruments. The attempts to make R2’s soundtrack seem more epic and dramatic than that of Lelouch of the Rebellion may come off as reminiscent of old 1950s and 1960s horror films, and no piece seems to fit any given scene as well as in its predecessor. The animation has received a boost and colors are far more vibrant during occurrences at Ashford Academy, and dark and cool when dealing with the mysteries surrounding Geass and its origin. The action scenes in R2 are great improvements over those in Lelouch of the Rebellion, and a number of different fighting styles mixes things up. Some of the Knightmare frames seem a bit ridiculous at times, though only on a handful of ocassions.

The voice actors return to reprise their roles, both in the Japanese version as well as the English dub. Jun Fukuyama (in the Japanese version) and Johnny Yong Bosch (in the English dub) both one-up their performances from the first season, bringing forth spectacular (and sometimes spine-tinglingly believable) portrayals of Lelouch. However, in both versions, the newcomers to the cast seem to either fit their respective character very well, delivering believable lines, or they miss the mark completely and come across as particularly uninspired.

Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2 is a bit more fast-paced than its predecessor, and it feels like many of the inner-weaving stories of R2 could have been introduced in the first season. The returning characters are just as enjoyable as before or in some cases, even more intriguing. R2 is more focused on C.C., Geass, and Zero, as opposed to the focus Lelouch of the Rebellion put on Britannia and the Black Knights. The introduction of both the Knights of the Round and the events taking place in the Chinese Confederation seem a bit forced and these aren’t nearly as engaging as many of the other stories explored in the combined seasons of Code Geass. The darker themes within R2 fuel both Zero and the Britannian royal family in going to drastic measures to achieve their own ends. Every question asked will receive an answer, but viewers will probably find some to be more satisfying than others.

My rating: 8.5 (out of 10)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Anime review: Axis Powers: Hetalia (season one)

One of the most witty and politically incorrect anime in recent years, Axis Powers Hetalia is for viewers who have done their history homework and understand the inner-working politics that occurred during World War II. It should be noted that this is certainly not a series for viewers who do not appreciate media poking fun at war. The series begins at an unspecified time, though obviously modern day, as all the countries from both the Axis and Allies, as well as a handful of others have joined in a boardroom meeting on the topic of global warming. After some arguing, Italy interrupts with his first very out-of-place “PASTA!!!” yell, and the series backtracks to explain the events leading up to and of WWII itself.

Each character in the series represents a single country (or in some cases, distinct separate regions of a country). The characters are meant to embody the stereotypes thrown upon each region’s people during the day. America nominates himself as leader of the Allies and chows down on hamburgers as he goes, the former of which frustrates England, as he believes his experience in military ordeals would benefit the Allied forces greatly. China more or less does as told, while Russia agrees with all of the Allies decisions, often muttering to himself about his plans following the war. As for France, he doesn’t seem to enjoy the competing egos of England and America, though the focus of any conversation he gets involved in turns to how everyone else should look to France for inspiration on their lifestyles. France also makes the situation awkward with perverted conversation from time to time, though what exactly he is saying is left largely up to the viewers’ imagination.

The Axis powers are given greater focus than the Allies, both due to the fact that they are introduced and form a pact earlier on in the series, as well as the fact that Italy is essentially the lead character of the series. For a lead character, Italy follows an unusual formula, as he is neither particularly skilled in combat nor motivated to defend himself. Time and time again, Italy talks about his love for pasta and – when faced with conflict – waves the white flag of surrender with great passion.

Germany is the brains of the operation for the Axis powers and seems to be the only character in the show both capable of succeeding in military operations and maintaining a serious attitude. Germany usually finds himself (begrudgingly) coming to Italy’s rescue, though as he states late in the series, Italy is the closest thing Germany has to a friend. Japan is easily the most difficult to read character in the show, his facial expressions rarely changing. His military strength is shown to be admirable, though it also seems he doesn’t quite understand the lifestyles and traditions of the European nations. Both Germany and Japan find themselves in many awkward or unfortunate situations, usually the result of Italy’s encounters with the Allies.

The series is split into two major stories – the WWII campaign, as previously mentioned, and the reformation of the Roman Empire’s remnants into modern-day Italy. During this prequel story (known as Chibitalia), young Italy spends his days cleaning the house of Holy Rome, which is occupied by the other divisions of Rome, as well as Austria and Hungary. It explains the underlying politics that led to modern-day Italy, not without contest from various political movements wishing to achieve the former glory of the Roman Empire. Chibitalia wraps up a short while before the conclusion of the first season, and in exchange viewers are given a brief look into America’s past as he attempts to clean out his storage room. This backstory focuses on America’s upbringing by England and the Revolutionary War, but is far more brief than the events of Chibitalia and isn’t nearly as engaging due to the choppy, fast-paced storytelling. America’s Storage Room Cleaning is a prime example of where the series does have some flaws, because - while there are very very few dull moments in the first season - when the show does slip up and lose its comedic touch it takes a while to get back on track.

The series received a TV-MA rating in the US, though this has been justified as a rating for the series as a whole, with many episodes being relatively clean in regards to content. The more adult elements have to do with occasional vulgar language and innuendos. The inclusion of these elements in an otherwise relatively clean series makes for a bit of an odd viewing experience, but the focus doesn’t ever detract because of them.

The animation is quite good, though as Axis Powers: Hetalia began as an internet series, it doesn’t quite stack up to the art design of other recent anime. Some may find the blurry watercolor style of the Chibitalia backstory to be annoying, as it is quite drastically different than the digital coloring featured in the bulk of the show. With each episode being roughly five minutes in length, however, the artists could have done much worse with the series. The soundtrack is few and far between, in large part due to constraints in the show’s time length. When the soundtrack is accompanying a scene, it’s usually in the form of a short jingle or event-specific tune, much like in some video games. The Japanese voice actors do a splendid job in keeping the humor of the series cruising along and it their characters’ respective accents and attitudes pretty spot-on. Without a strong cast, Axis Powers: Hetalia would have crashed and burned pretty fast, and it’s comforting to see that plenty of extra effort was put into the voice acting. It will be interesting to see how the English dub voice actors handle the show come September 2010.

The season finale isn’t anything particularly spectacular, but it is fitting, considering the time length of any given episode of Axis Powers: Hetalia. There is plenty of humor throughout the show and a fair share of running gags. Guest characters such as Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Austria, and even the Roman Empire (or as Italy knows him, ‘Grandpa Rome’) show up from time to time to keep the story interesting and advance the events surrounding WWII. While some viewers might get sick of Italy constantly surrendering, perhaps they will find some compensation during the latter half of the season when the focus shifts more heavily to the Allied forces. All in all, Axis Powers: Hetalia is a hilarious romp through history so long as viewers understand the context of the series’ events.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Anime review: Full Metal Alchemist (season one)

With Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood nearing its conclusion, I decided to look into the original anime. I’d seen a handful of episodes aired on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block and what I saw was very entertaining, but I very little idea as to who was who and what was going on in the story. So I went ahead and decided to pick up the first season on DVD once I had done a little background research on the series and heard overwhelmingly positive reviews from others.

Viewers are introduced to Edward and Alphonse Elric as two young but incredibly talented alchemists. The series begins with a bang as Ed and Al attempt to bring their mother back from the dead. However, the two try to override the law of equivalent exchange and have nothing to offer as substitution for a human soul. Thus, the reaction backfires and costs Ed his right arm and left leg, while Al loses his entire body and has his soul transferred to a suit of armor thanks to Ed’s quick reaction.

Colonel Roy Mustang visits the home of the Elric brothers, intrigued by the fact that the two managed to survive the ordeal. Ed vows that he will find the fabled Philosopher’s Stone in order to restore Alphonse to his original body, but in order to access information on the Philosopher’s Stone as well as progress to higher level alchemic research, one of the brothers must join the state military. Both Ed and Al study day after day under the care of Shou Tucker, a highly-regarded alchemist in Central City until the examination day arrives. Knowing full well that the state only accepts one or two new alchemists per year, Ed decides to bear the burden, arguing that Al has already been through so much. With each assignment Colonel Mustang gives to Ed, he and Al take time to look for clues related to the Philosopher’s Stone.

Full Metal Alchemist is a curious series in that it starts off rather innocently and focuses on fantasy elements, capturing a genuine sense of wonder and amazement with each turn the story takes. None of this is really lost in the later portion of the first season, but things do take a turn down a much darker path as Scar threatens to kill all state alchemists he encounters, and the brothers uncover some secrets the military has been holding for many years on the intricacies of the Philosopher’s Stone.

The characters are tremendously enjoyable, from Mustang’s cocky ambitions, to Winry’s peppy and upbeat attitude, to the devious intentions of the Homunculi. The military characters, though they are supposed to be the most serious, are generally the complete opposite, which makes for some very ironic interactions. As serious and mature as Mustang tries to be, he does let loose from time to time, and gets plenty of grief from Maes Hughes for his strict demeanor. Hughes, on the other hand, is obsessed with his wife and daughter, feeling the need to share their photographs with every person he encounters. Still, he is always there for the Elric brothers as part of the investigations department, saving their skin on a few occasions and reminding them that, despite their skill as alchemists, that they are not invincible. Alexander Louis Armstrong, the Strong-arm Alchemist, appears about halfway through the season and is instructed by Hughes to act as a bodyguard for Ed and Al, as Scar seems to have chosen Ed as one of his primary targets. Armstrong is immensely powerful and played a role in the Ishbal Massacre years ago, but now he is a soft-hearted man who is built like a tank, and he is one of the most comical characters in any anime I’ve seen to date.

The Homunculi are not covered in great detail in the first season, though they do play a pivotal role in the later episodes. They are inhuman and possess unique abilities, and they seem to follow Ed and Al’s progress with the Philosopher’s Stone throughout the course of the series. Their motives are only briefly covered late in the first season, and much of their true intentions are left for the second season, but the mystery surrounding them will certainly keep many viewers on the edge of their seats.

Scar is a survivor of the Ishbal Massacre and has vowed to kill any state alchemists he encounters for the sake of his brother. Scar’s backstory is not explored much until late in the first season, though it is made clear early on that he believes alchemy to be against the will of God. He is cold and serious, but also uncertain as to what the tattoos on his arm truly imply, only that they are both a gift and a curse from his brother.

With all of these characters in mind, the show is - at its core - about Edward and Alphonse Elric. Alphonse is more likely to follow the rules and hope for a peaceful resolution to things. Edward, though not often to start a fight, does not take well to people giving him grief about his stature and can be very short-tempered. Al often has to restrain and calm Ed down following such events, but his far more innocent nature makes it quite obvious that Al is the younger of the two. Ed's desire to make his brother whole again coupled with Al's unyielding support for his brother in the face of immeasurable danger solidifies the duo as both stong and greatly entertaining lead characters.

The series comes to a major climax near the end of the season that is both wildly intriguing and a satisfying wrap-up of the preceding events. The episodes that follow play out as falling action in order to set up for the transition to season two, though episode twenty-four in particular seems very out of place. Al runs away after an argument with Ed and meets up with Scar and a handful of refugees from Ishbal. As Al is not a certified state alchemist, Scar bears less resentment towards him and the two work together to rescue an Ishbalan child from a corrupt group of mercenaries. The end result is that Ed and Al resolve their issues and Scar’s involvement in the story seemingly comes to a close. But as the following episode proves, Scar’s story is far from over, and it makes episode twenty-four seem rather pointless in the grand scheme of things.

The series takes place in a time period reminiscent of World War I, with automobiles becoming mainstreamed and steam powered trains and boats still largely dominant modes of long-distance transportation. From the brick buildings of Central City to the farmhouse of the Elric family, the series stays within its bounds in regards to real-world architecture and design style, while including fantasy elements such as auto-mail artificial limbs and the more obvious alchemic practices. All of this plays out quite smoothly and is portrayed in lush vibrant colors when the mood is upbeat, while changing to cool shades of grey and blue for more tense and dark scenes. Accompanying the beautiful art style is an even more beautiful soundtrack. The strings and woodwind instruments carry out a more epic sound to play along scenes involving haevier fantasy elements, while brass and percussion set the mood for the state military and its ordeals.

The Japanese voice actors do a splendid job with each character. There were some voices that I found familiar, such as Romi Paku (previously voicing Loran Cehack in Turn A Gundam) as Edward and Rie Kugimiya (Nena Trinity in Gundam 00 and Lichtenstein in Axis Powers: Hetalia) as Alphonse. The English dub, however, is one of (if not the) best anime dubs I have ever seen/heard. Vic Mignogna and Aaron Dismuke steal the show as Ed and Al, though Sonny Strait as Hughes (Lupin in Lupin the Third and Krillin in Dragonball Z) and Chris Sabat (Piccolo in Dragonball Z) as Armstrong provide very strong performances as secondary characters. Caitlin Glass carries across a very sincere and humorous Winry Rockbell, and even fairly minor characters, such as Pinako Rockbell and Psiren are portrayed with great attentiveness.

Full Metal Alchemist is a series that has something to offer fans of varying anime styles. The serious is not so by-the-books and serious that it only attracts science whiz-kids, and is not so ridiculous that one is laughing the entire way through an episode. Granted, there is plenty of humor in the series, but much of it is drawn from the ironic situations in which the characters find themselves. The incredibly well-written story is surpassed only by the broad and believable cast of characters and their respective voice actors. Despite some initial skepticism on my part, the first season of the show has me convinced that this is easily one of the best anime ever conceived. The sheer sense of wonder one gets while watching it is enough to draw viewers in and the narrative is sure to keep them hooked for a long time thereafter.

My rating: 9.75 (out of 10)

Friday, June 18, 2010

E3 2010: Third-party Games

Wednesday and Thursday of E3 are almost always devoted to second and third party developers, more notably the latter, as second party games are usually tied in with the big three companies’ showings. The systems the third party games are being released for appears to be rather balanced, and the genres more broad than last years’ FPS-dominant showing.

Valve gave us a taste of the much anticipated Portal 2 with a quick teaser, and it seems GLaDOS isn’t as ‘dead’ as gamers previously thought. Some time has passed since the first game, as Aperture Science is overgrown with plant life. The trailer was more focused around hyping up the game than giving gamers a good idea as of what new gameplay features would be implemented, but there is an obvious improvement in the level of detail of Portal 2’s graphics. Valve has stated that Portal 2 will be much more story-driven than its predecessor, but it is unclear as of yet whether players will once again be in control of Chell or a new test subject.

Fallout: New Vegas showed off quite a bit of gameplay, while still catering to its target audience with zany and twisted humor dominating the trailer. From what has been shown thus far, it seems Bethesda is sticking with the same engine they used for Fallout 3, so much of the gameplay will likely be very similar. Based on the events of Fallout 3 and its related downloadable content, it will be very interesting to see where Bethesda goes with the story of Fallout: New Vegas.

Although the series has hit more than a few bumps in the past as to who owns distribution and title rights, F.E.A.R. is returning with its third chapter from Day 1 Studios. This time around, Paxton Fettel and the Point Man are teaming up as the events of the second game come to a head. I was a bit uncertain if the third game could live up to what Monolith provided in F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, but it seems that Day 1 Studios wants to try and improve on the pre-existing story and mechanics as much as possible without sacrificing the elements of gameplay that already work well for the franchise.

Capcom is delivering more zombie-slaying goodness in both Dead Rising 2 and Resident Evil: Revelations. The former takes place in Las Vegas and utilizes the do-it-however-you-want-to style of the first Dead Rising, while the latter promises to close some more of the gaps in the Resident Evil story while utilizing the capabilities of Nintendo’s 3DS. Capcom has also promised a third entry into their Capcom vs. Marvel arcade fighter series.

Konami appears to be changing up the gameplay significantly in Metal Gear Solid: Rising, which may very well be built off a completely different engine than that of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The story is meant to bridge the gap between the second and fourth games in the franchise and explore how Raiden changed so drastically in that time frame. What little gameplay was shown had Rained slicing and dicing people, buildings, cars, and even watermelon with pinpoint precision and sometimes pulling a Matrix-style slow-mo sequence for better aiming. I don’t imaging Kojima would release a Metal Gear Solid title without including some stealth elements, but Rising seems to be taking a cue from Guns of the Patriots in allowing gamers more freedom in how they wish to tackle a mission. Also, there is a distinct possibility that Metal Gear Solid: Rising could be used with Sony’s Move controller as well as Microsoft’s Kinect, as the game is slated for release on both the PS3 and Xbox 360.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow showed off plenty of gameplay, though a lot of this was already showcased at E3 2009. The voice acting cast was highlighted and the trailer put a large focus on the story of Lords of Shadow. There were some gameplay elements that distinctly resembled God of War and Dante’s Inferno, as well as Shadow of the Colossus as Gabriel scaled a gigantic foe. With all that in mind, Lords of Shadow is drastically different style of game than its platform prequels and is building up to be a strong title for late 2010.

EA’s Dead Space 2 seems to be taking more than a few cues from other horror genre games, most notably Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Developers have stated that the sequel is much more story-driven and from what the trailer shows, it seems that returning hero Issac is suffering from some sort of dementia following the events of the original Dead Space. A few new enemies were shown off, but the most notable change in the trailer is the broad range of lighting and environments in Dead Space 2, as opposed to the largely drab half-lit grey hallways of the first game.

Civilization V, a response in no small part to the upcoming Shogun Total War 2 and the recent Napoleon Total War, is being built from a completely new game engine, while including many strong elements of Civilization IV. The game will follow the same story pattern as all previous games in series as players begin in the old world and progress to the space age. There has been a significant graphical jump since Civilization IV, but it isn’t nearly as impressive as some of the other strategy games currently available for either consoles or PC. That said, the game has yet to be released, so improvements in this department are not out of the question. The developers are catering more to community mods and putting a greater emphasis on online play.

Square Enix showed off some footage of Final Fantasy XIV, which is an online title, leaving the story largely up to the player in contrast to the very much story-driven Final Fantasy XIII released earlier this year. The game appears to have a much more old-world style to it, harkening back to Final Fantasy I, II, and III. While not much of the gameplay was covered, the trailer makes a point of showcasing many different character builds and classes. Square Enix also announced a new title for Nintendo’s DS, separate from both the traditional Final Fantasy storyline and the Crystal Chronicles storyline. The Four Heroes of Light, as the game is currently titled, is focused around the DS’ multiplayer capabilities, though not much of the story has been revealed as of yet. Both showings could have been better - XIV highlighting more gameplay elements and The Four Heroes of Light showing off more than a few battle sequences - but it is nice to see that Square Enix is spreading themselves out across multiple systems and catering to different tastes.

Disney only showed off a little bit of both trailer footage and actual gameplay with Epic Mickey. The story centers around Mickey entering the world of all the rejected and forgotten Disney ideas, and the characters that inhabit that world have been fighting on the side of either Lucky the Rabbit or the Blot. Mickey uses a brush to paint in elements, such as platforms or items, to help him along his journey, while having the ability to delete things as well. In conjunction with Square Enix, Disney has another Kingdom Hearts title on the way, this time for Sony’s PSP. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep appears to deal in large part with the keyblade wars, and can hopefully build up and provide some explanation for the eventual Kingdom Hearts III. Neither of these games was shown for very long, nor did they highlight any hugely impressive game mechanics, so hopefully Disney will have more footage and information a short while after E3.

Eidos is bringing back the Deus Ex series, much to the surprise to many gamers. Deus Ex: Human Revolution will act as a prequel to the the original Deus Ex and carries the same cyberpunk style of the other games. Though the last release was in 2003 with Deus Ex: Invisible War, it looks like Eidos is putting plenty of effort into keeping the old fanbase while trying to aim at newcomers. The cutscenes for Deus Ex: Human Revolution are being handled by Square Enix and show off some very impressive stylized visuals. The footage shown thus far focused mainly on the game's cutscenes, so gamers will have to wait to see gameplay footage.

There were many other third party games showcased and to put them all in this entry would take up a huge amount of space. I specifically chose to cover the titles above as these were titles that had little to information or footage revealed pre-E3 2010. Unlike E3 2009 wherein many game engines were directly recycled to create sequel titles with a few tweaks or improvements here and there, the games of E3 2010 are much more original and building up to be far more impressive. Though there’s really no way to tell how successful these games will be until their actual release dates, I’m personally very excited to see the finished products and it just goes to show how the third party developers are pushing the envelope in order to compete with one another.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

E3 2010: First Impressions

The first two full days of E3 have now come to a close, and while there is still more to come I thought I’d offer my thoughts on the materials presented thus far. With their overhaul focus on the Playstation Move and Kinect, Sony and Microsoft seem to either want to play catch-up with Nintendo very desperately, or they simply have little new games and peripherals to show off at this year’s expo. Of the two situations, I really hope it’s the former, because – while I could certainly understand highlighting their new motion controlled peripherals on the first day – keeping the Move and Kinect the focus of two whole days of E3 isn’t a particularly effective way of keeping potential consumers interested.

Sony did a fantastic job this past year in realigning themselves to better compete with Microsoft and Sony. For the longest time following the release of the PS3, it seemed Sony could only promise games that would be coming out in the future, never giving the slightest hint of an expected time frame for said releases. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and Little Big Planet were huge successes for Sony, while titles like Resistance: Fall of Man saw a decent return. But with so few exclusive games that were actually enjoyable to play and had a great deal of replay value, Sony was lagging behind by a long shot.

With the more recent releases of God of War III, Heavy Rain, and Demon’s Souls, Sony has reminded gamers of their last-gen successes with many a PS2 title and in turn has seen a significant spike in the sales of their PS3. Second and third party titles such as Borderlands and Batman: Arkham Asylum have also helped Sony back on its feet, and the recent PSP-exclusive release of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker played an instrumental role in keeping their handheld market humming along smoothly.

With all of this in consideration, Sony should still be very cautious this coming year with their games and peripherals. Personally, I think Move is stupid, considering that Nintendo’s Wiimote controller has carried the system without a single hitch in three and a half years (not counting initial wrist strap strength issues). But if Sony wants to gamble with the Move, they better have some big titles lined up to fall back on (both new and old) in the event that their expedition into motion-controlled gaming goes belly-up.

Microsoft didn’t deliver a ton of new gaming developments in 2009 and 2010, largely due to financial reasons (with the recession both in the US and in other countries around the world). They relied heavily on second and third party developers for sequels that were as direct as they come, in the forms of Bioshock 2, Mass Effect 2, Assassin’s Creed II, and so on, though this certainly didn’t cripple Microsoft in sales.

Microsoft’s biggest seller for years has been the Halo franchise and they’ve got another title in the series slated for a September release (which, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you probably already know a bit about it). This time around, Bungie is opting for more squad-based gameplay as players experience the fall of Reach firsthand. New armor abilities, weapons, vehicles, and a revamped multiplayer mode make this Microsoft’s golden goose for the Fall, but with most of the game’s major features and selling points highlighted prior to E3, it makes me wonder why this seems to be the only thing outside of Kinect that Microsoft wants to focus on. Where’s Gears of War 3? What about Dead Space 2? These and other titles have been briefly glossed over, but it seems that Microsoft is sticking with what we’ve already heard time and time again as of yet.

Nintendo, who had me both excited and disappointed by last year’s revelations, have proven that they are coming out in full force this year. The 3DS, which many people expected to be the major focus of Nintendo’s showings, has actually been reserved for later on in the show, which has me hoping and believing that Nintendo has some exciting surprises up their sleeve with the new handheld system. As far as games go, they’ve shown off plenty of the upcoming Metroid: Other M, and have finally given a name for the newest adventure in Hyrule, The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword.

But Nintendo didn’t stop with the big names everyone was expecting. They’ve announced Paper Mario, Animal Crossing, Donkey Kong, and Kid Icarus all for the 3DS, as well as Kirby’s Epic Yarn for the Wii. A lot of footage from the new Goldeneye game was shown off, utilizing (obviously) the Wii’s motion controls and replacing Pierce Brosnan with Daniel Craig in one of the most critically acclaimed first-person shooters and multiplayer games of the late nineties. What all will be included as far as new material in Goldeneye remains to be seen, but the footage in and of itself was a much welcomed surprise. The lineup shows Nintendo’s desire to balance fans of new and old gaming styles, with some traditional platforming ala Kirby and the current free-roam do-whatever-the-heck-you-want-whenever-you-want gameplay of Animal Crossing. Or if players want both old-school and new-school in the same game, then they can turn to Metroid: Other M for their fix. No news yet on Pikmin 3, but there’s still plenty of time for news on that – I’m a bit eager with this one in particular, due to how long it’s been since the release of Pikmin 2 and the fact that the third title has been confirmed as being in development.

I’m not saying that things can’t turn the other way around by the end of the expo, but Sony and Microsoft better step up their game if they want to have the slightest chance of stealing any of Nintendo’s thunder. Even Capcom with Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Resident Evil: Revelations, Eidos and Square Enix with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Day 1 Studios with F.E.A.R. 3 are proving to have more impressive showings that Sony or Microsoft right now. I really hope there are many surprises in store from the two companies, otherwise 2010’s E3 will be a very lopsided and (frankly) disappointing expo.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Xbox 360 review: Dynasty Warriors Gundam

Unlike many of the Gundam titles released for the previous generation of consoles, Dynasty Warriors Gundam is not a third-person shooter, but rather a free-roam hack-and-slash title based of the Dynasty Warriors franchise. Though still aimed largely at die-hard Gundam fans, this title may succeed in drawing some gamers unfamiliar with Gundam due to its accessibility and replay value.

Players can choose to play two major modes in Dynasty Warriors Gundam. The first is more objective-based and requires players to play out major battles from the main Universal Century Gundam series, including Mobile Suit Gundam, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, and Mobile Suit ZZ Gundam. There are only so many missions to each of the main protagonists of each series, but these missions are fairly lengthy and feel rather involved and true to the respective shows as all the characters involved in said conflicts enter the fray.

The second major mode of gameplay involves an original story surrounding a mysterious planet on collision course with Earth, as well as constant appearances by the Shin-Musha Gundam. This mode involves major characters from both the Universal Century and Alternate Universes, such as Amuro Ray, Kamille Bidan, Heero Yuy, and Loran Cehack. Each character plays a different role in this overarching original story, and players will have to complete all of these individual story modes to complete the entire Shin-Musha Gundam storyline. Each major character is granted a squad of support units, usually secondary characters from various Gundam series (i.e. Master Asia, Roberto, Scirocco, etc.). Each mission will then pit the player and his/her squad against that of a CPU squad. So if, say, you were to play as Amuro (assisted by Char, Apolly, and Roberto) you would face off against Loran’s squad, then Domon’s squad, then Judau’s squad, and so on as each mission was completed.

A multiplayer split-screen mode is also included, which allows players to play cooperatively in the missions included in the official series. This inclusion wasn’t exactly necessary and probably would have been more effective for online play, but is still a nice addition to the game.

The sheer number of mobile suits and characters that collide from the various Gundam universes will make any hardcore Gundam fan feel like a kid in a candy store. Any characters from Gundam series that received English dubs over the years are voiced well-enough, even if the voices aren’t all provided by the anime voice actors. Characters from ZZ and Turn A Gundam, however, are voiced by actors who deliver emotionless lines one after another. Granted, they are likely unfamiliar with the series, but faking emotion would have been better than not delivering any at all. The game does provide the option of turning on the Japanese voice actors if players find the English voices annoying.

As players enter each new area of the battlefield, they are alerted to their current position at the top of the screen and can then determine via the field’s meter how many enemies need to be defeated before the field’s defenses fall. As nice as this is, most players will probably rely more heavily on the smaller radar screen in the corner of the screen in order to navigate the battlefield. As for controls, moving about a level is as simple as pressing forward on the left joystick, and steering with the right. The rifle attacks, beam sword/melee attacks, and boost ability can all be used by the pressing of a single button each and the basic attacks quickly build up a character’s meter to unleash their more powerful attacks. As players progress through the game and level up the characters and mobile suits, new and more powerful attacks are learned.

The game’s graphic aren’t going to win the developers any awards, but they are far from terrible. There is plenty of detail put into each player-controlled mobile suit, and the laser shots and beam saber slashes react just fine with the game’s frame rate. The enemy mobile suits, which usually attack in massive hordes, are lacking a bit in detail, though this may have been intentional to prevent players from losing sight of their Gundam in the sea of enemies. There are significantly more detailed models of every mobile suit encountered in the game accessible for viewing in the gallery. As for the characters, there are no computer-generated models, rather the game just uses their original anime drawn likenesses during mission briefings or for mid-battle transmissions.

While it may not be the greatest hack-and-slash action game this generation, Dynasty Warriors Gundam deserves some credit as being one of the best Gundam titles released to date. It’s obvious that plenty of time was spent in making each unit unique and the two story modes cohesive. The combat itself would have greatly benefitted from some variation in attacks and more mobility for players, but the fact that there is a level-up system as well as some minor customization included makes up for some of this. All in all, this game is still going to be more for hardcore Gundam fans, but might find a decent number of fans outside of the Gundam fanbase.

My rating: 7.25 (out of 10)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Anime review: Dragon Ball Z: Fusion Reborn

Dragonball Z has been heralded by many as the greatest action anime series of all time. But often overlooked are the movies that accompany the overarching series, from humble beginnings with Dead Zone to much more ambitious projects such as Cooler’s Revenge and Broly: The Legendary Super Saiyan. While some films are more directly tied to the main series than others, few of the films require much background information for new viewers, making them very accessible and easy to enjoy.

In 1995, with the Majin Buu saga well under way, the film Dragon Ball Z: Fusion Reborn was released and set the stage for a battle that would travel from Earth to the afterlife. As Goku and Pikkon enter the final round of the Other World Tournament, an accident with an evil-purification machine causes one of King Yemma’s underlings to absorb the energy and mutate into a gigantic being of immense power. The creature, known as Janemba, wreaks havoc on the Other World and causes elements of it to collide with Earth. Goku and Pikkon decide to hold off on completing the tournament for the time being and head out to investigate the cause of all the unusual phenomenon.

On Earth, Chi-Chi and Videl are having a chat about Videl’s potential future with Gohan when the barrier between worlds is broken. The dead rise again all around the world and Gohan and Videl decide to fight them off while Goten and Trunks search for the Dragonballs. Hercule even receives a brief moment of spotlight, as he finds it nearly effortless to pick off half-decomposed zombies.

Having experience exclusively with the English dub of any Dragonball works, It’s nice to see that all the English voice actors return to reprise their respective roles. There are a number of characters completely absent, such as Yamcha, Krillin, and Piccolo, but that has to do with the original Japanese script. Even so, it would have been nice to receive some sort of explanation as to where they were during all of these events – Piccolo especially, considering he was supposed to be training Goten and Trunks to perfect their abilities as Saiyans. As for the three main characters, Pikkon is included largely for comic relief - while it would have been interesting to see him go toe-to-toe with Janemba, he wouldn’t have stood much of a chance and - in Dragonball fashion – this is a story about Goku at its core.

Making a much-welcomed return is Vegeta, who regains the use of his body after the events set in motion by Janemba. Full of pride as ever, Vegeta tells Goku that he has plenty of strength to defeat Janemba, only to subsequently have his butt handed to him. The two then must use the fusion technique to form Gogeta and take down the menace of Janemba. And that’s the real selling point of this film – the fusion technique used to form someone other than Gotenks.

Speaking of Gotenks, while Goten and Trunks play a significant role in fighting off zombies on Earth, Gotenks doesn’t show up until about the last ten minutes of the film, as if the creators wanted to include a reminder to viewers as to what was happening with Majin Buu in the main series. Gohan’s major role in the film is summoning the dragon Shenron. Shenron explains that he is unable to intervene in the dead arriving on Earth, as the source of the problem is in the Other World.

A brief appearance by Frieza explores who all has been brought back from the dead, though Gohan swiftly deals with him. The inclusions of Dracula and Hitler (the latter of whom spends a fair portion of the film ordering his troops to fire upon Goten and Trunks) add some cheap laughs to the story and are reminiscent of the storytelling style of the original Dragonball. All in all, the events on Earth provide some prime examples of the consequences of Janemba’s actions, but don’t really advance the plot much. The conclusion of the film is a major letdown, as everything just sort of ends without much time spent on wrapping the story up, though the film in its entirety is a mere fifty minutes long.

The story isn’t as serious as that of Tree of Might or Cooler’s Revenge, but it isn’t as goofy and loosely-tied together as the Majin Buu saga. Fusion Reborn does a good job of balancing elements of the older Dragonball Z style with the newer material. The plot may seem a tad forced and the main villain rather plain, but the pacing is strong and the film doesn’t overstay its welcome.

My rating: 7.25 (out of 10)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Anime review: Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion

The name might be a mouthful, but I found Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion to be a surprisingly enjoyable and well-written anime. The series follows Lelouch Lamperouge, a boy in his mid-teens who attends Ashford Academy with his childhood friend Suzaku Kururugi. Lelouch lives with his younger sister Nunnally, who is both blind and wheelchair-bound.

The series doesn't waste much time in explaining the back story of all of the key characters. Lelouch and Nunnally are really the former heirs to the Britannian throne. Because of his father's apparent lack of care for either Nunnally or himself, Lelouch escapes Britannia with his sister at a very young age. They end up in Japan where they meet Suzaku, who becomes the closest thing they have to a family. However, the happiness is not to last, as the Britannian Empire seeks to control Japan, and Suzaku moves away for many years. As Japan is transformed into Area 11, Lelouch and Nunally change their last name from 'Britannia' to 'Lamperouge' so as not to draw attention to themselves. Due to the culmination of all these events, Lelouch develops a deep hatred for the Empire and his father, Emperor Charles Zi Britannia. Lelouch seeks to change the world so that his sister Nunally might live happily in it. His hatred and his desire to alter the world are kept secret from, Nunnally, however.

During one of the Britannian raids on the Shinjuku district (essentially a slum for former Japanese citizens now dubbed 'elevens') Lelouch encounters Suzaku who has recently joined the Britannian military forces as a test pilot for new prototype Knightmare mech, dubbed the Lancelot. The two come across an unfamiliar container which they discover carries a girl. Lelouch and Suzaku take separate routes back to the street level of Shinjuku. The girl is shot by Britannian soldiers, but is able to grant Lelouch special powers if he agrees to her contract. The terms of the contract are unclear to Lelouch, but he accepts anyway, and is given the ability to control any person's mind. He is only able to do so once per individual person, however, and the eye contact must be direct.

Lelouch then commandeers a Knightmare mech and issues commands via radio to the local Japanese freedom fighters. These rebels cause a distraction while Lelouch infiltrates the command ship and assassinates another member of the royal family, Prince Clovis. After causing complete chaos for the Brittannians in Shinjuku, Lelouch creates for himself a disguise and an alternate masked identity known as Zero. And this is just the beginning of the series.

Code Geass is from Sunrise, the company famous for distributing Mobile Suit Gundam. At first glance, Code Geass does seem to be some sort of spin-off of their flagship Gundam franchise, and there's no doubt they drew inspiration from it. Code Geass does involve a large deal of political conflict, but it is carried out in a manner of fighting unjust rule with unorthodox combat tactics. Lelouch understands that the Britannian military adheres to specific rules and regulations, whereas he and the Black Knights are not bound by these limitations. The mech designs are named after knights of Arthurian legend, and these titles prove fitting as the Knightmares often rely heavily on close-range weaponry and command units are usually decorated with gold and silver armor plating.

Lelouch is an incredibly interesting lead character, as he tries to justify his actions by constantly stating that every action he takes is for Nunally's sake. While all this seems honorable enough, his methods are dark and manipulative, due to both his Geass and his spiteful attitude towards the royal family. From a very early point in the series, Lelouch is shown to be both an effective and confident leader. As the series progresses, Lelouch leaves command of the Black Knights in the hands of Ohgi and Todou in order to deal with his own personal matters. Lelouch must constantly balance his school life and his role as Zero without the two ever crossing paths with one another, and his cover is almost blown a few times over the course of the series.

Kallen Kozuki is one of Lelouch's classmates, though she is unaware of his role as Zero - ironic, as she joins the Black Knights very early on, proving to be one of their most capable Knightmare pilots. Kallen is more focused on completing her missions and seeking revenge against Britannia for their treatment of the Japanese people. C.C. (pronounced: C-two) is the girl who granted Lelouch his powers and seems to die on many occasions only to reappear unharmed. She is usually seen in Lelouch's presence, though for both their sakes, Lelouch wishes C.C. to remain unseen by others. C.C. is key in Lelouch's intent to destroy Britannia and helps out with each plan of attack. She promises to remain by his side to the very end, but doesn't explain what it is she desires from him in exchange for saving his life and granting him the power of Geass.

As the series plays out, viewers are introduced to some side characters such as Lloyd and Rakshata who, while not the most important players in the conflict, both play the role of engineer to the Knightmares of their respective faction. Each embodies the reasons that normal people (i.e. not Lelouch or members of the royal family) decide to choose a side and fight until victory or death. As Lelouch encounters his family on the battlefield (often without them knowing the difference between Zero and Lelouch), he uses them to dig deeper into the mystery surrounding the death of his mother. The sheer number of characters playing significant roles in Code Geass may seem daunting, but each is developed to a level where viewers will either sympathize with them or be vehemently opposed to their methods.

The art style is bright and colorful when focusing on Lelouch's studies, yet dark and moody when the Black Knights engage in battle. The visuals may not be the most mind-blowing, but they look good nonetheless. The soundtrack trumps the art style with its heavy focus on brass, percussion, and string parts, creating more of a full orchestra sound than a specific niche sound as heard in many other mecha series. Code Geass may not have the most memorable orchestrated soundtrack of all time, but it certainly fits the series' events well. The Japanese voice actors and the English voice actors both play their roles quite well. The English dub has a few odd casting choices, though any performances that seem uninspired are by those playing characters with brief appearances, so it doesn't exactly throw a wrench in the flow of things. As brilliantly as Johnny Yong Bosch portrays Lelouch, I have to give Liam O'Brien props to for his portrayal of the ever-eccentric Lloyd.

Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion is a very interesting spin on the sci-fi and mecha anime genres, including fantasy elements and rewriting history. The series is not particularly Gundam-esque, but that isn't a bad thing, as it shows Sunrise's ability to mix things up a bit. The broad range of characters combined with their various backstories and reasons for joining the conflict is deeply entertaining and keeps the human element of the story the major focus. It's not often that a series attempts to place an anti-hero in the lead of such a large series, and the fact that Lelouch keeps from becoming the stereotypical scheming kid keeps things engaging, as viewers can't ever be too sure as to what Lelouch's next move will be.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Anime review: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Makoto’s life is that of any normal teenager. She goes to school each day, plays baseball with her two best friends Chiaki and Kousuke, and tries to achieve decent grades. But everything changes when she enters the science lab storage room one day after class, and then discovers that she is able to leap back and forth through time in order to change certain events at her leisure.

Initially, Makoto uses this to save her own life, and then subsequently uses time leaps to improve her grades and keep herself from looking like a klutz on a day to day basis. Shortly thereafter, Makoto uses her newfound ability to help Kousuke with his romantic endeavors. Though her Aunt Kazuko warns of complications from time-leaping early on in the film, Makoto ignores her. As the film progresses, it is revealed that others may suffer from Makoto’s gain and she comes to the realization that her time-leaping cannot last forever.

The story is a unique combination of the traditional teen drama with sci-fi adventure. The film is rather straightforward in its aims, but this isn’t a bad thing, considering the length of the film is roughly an hour and forty minutes. There are plenty of laughs to be had along the way, as Makoto finds herself in sticky situations and is teased by Kousuke and Chiaki. There are a few plot twists along the way, and one major one late in the film that really shakes the story up. The ending, while a tad predictable, is fitting and anything else would likely have seemed rather forced.

The art style is phenomenal, yet curiously subtle. The combination of watercolor backgrounds with digitally colored characters might seem like a terrible idea, but it works fluidly and brings out the best in film. It’s obvious that the animators spent plenty of time and effort on this project, but it’s not as though they advertise it ad nauseam. The soundtrack fits each event like a glove and is largely comprised of piano, chimes, and string parts. It’s all very moving, though there are a select number of songs that reprise in different variations over the course of the film, so viewers can expect to hear similar sounds from time to time.

The English dub is great. The voice actors portray their respective characters in a fashion that is neither bland nor over-the-top. Emily Hirst as Makoto and Andrew Francis as Chiaki both give particularly convincing performances. The language of the characters is aimed rather specifically towards the teen audience. It’s no to say that the film is incomprehensible by younger viewers, but the characters do curse some, exchange a minimal amount of crude humor, and the like.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an impressive accomplishment for the creative staff behind it, and translates into a genuinely entertaining and thought-provoking experience. Far too often a film will aim more for style than substance. While this film accomplishes both with flying colors, its primary concern is that of the characters and the story.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

Friday, June 4, 2010

"Lieutenant Quattro Bajeena of the Anti-Earth Union Group..."

I'm might be going way out on a limb here, but I'm going to at least try and attempt to make a prediction as to which Gundam series will be the next to recieve an English dub (and subsequent North American release). To my knowledge, Gundam SEED Destiny was the most recent series to be dubbed, back in 2006 (though F91 was the most recent film dubbed, in early 2009). The Zeta Gundam: A New Translation film trilogy will be released in North America by the end of this month, and the following series and films have also recieved an English dub at some point in the past:

-Mobile Suit Gundam
-Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team
-Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket
-Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory
-Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam
-Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack
-Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn (episode one)
-Mobile Suit Gundam F91
-Mobile Fighter G Gundam
-Gundam Wing
-Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz
-Gundam SEED
-Gundam SEED Destiny
-Gundam 00 (season one)

The first episode of Gundam Unicorn was dubbed for its worldwide simultaneous release, and as Gundam 00's second season is hitting store shelves right now, the film Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer is inevitable (though it may arrive in North America before the end of the year if the plan with Gundam Unicorn is any indication of what to expect in coming years).

Certainly OVAs and films are much easier to crank out in dubbed formats, simply due to their time length. But considering the time frame since the last English dubbed full-length Gundam series, I have to imagine Bandai and Sunrise have another one on the way. So the question is less of a 'when' and more of a 'what'. As much as I would like to see Turn A Gundam dubbed, I realize it wasn't the most popular series in Japan and because of that I imagine there would be some hesitation in releasing the series in North America - the same applies to After War Gundam X. I think it's safe to assume that MS IGLOO and Gundam SEED Stargazer are both past their prime and a dub at this point in time wouldn't see a significant return in sales. All that considered, the two most likely candidates I could see receiving dubs are Mobile Suit Victory Gundam and Mobile Suit ZZ Gundam.

With all the hype still surrounding the Zeta Gundam: A New Translation films (both State-side and in Japan) and the focus on Gundam's 30th anniversary, I'd have to say that ZZ Gundam is the more likely of the two series to see a dub, though Bandai and Sunrise could try to rekindle older fans' love for the franchise anew by releasing Victory Gundam. As dated as it is, there are plenty of people in North America (myself included) who have not yet seen a single episode of Victory Gundam. There's even a possibility that a Victory Gundam release could lead to a demand in more series from the 1990s receiving dubs, such as Turn A Gundam and After War Gundam X, though it would certainly be a greater gamble. It all depends on how Bandai and Sunrise want to play their cards.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Anime Update #1: Equivalent Exchange

I decided to take a break from watching Gundam series for a little bit. As much as I love the franchise, I'm afraid that I might get sick of it if I watch too much of it at once, and I just recently finished both MS IGLOO: The Hidden One Year War and Gundam SEED. The next Gundam series I'm going to tackle is Zeta Gundam. So far I've watched fifteen episodes and what I've seen so far I absolutely love. I'm probably just going to go ahead and buy the dvds soon (even though I just dropped a hefty sum of money on three master-grade Gundam model kits).

But enough of Gundam-related talk. I went ahead and purchased the first season of Full Metal Alchemist (like I've said in previous posts, I'm behind with the times in regards to anime). I'm about ten episodes in and it's simply fantastic. After the first four episodes I was afraid the story would slow down simply because of how much was covered in the beginning of the series. Thankfully, this was not the case and the series keeps surprising me with enchanting characters and brilliant storytelling. For the sake of not wanting to rush through the series, I may wait a bit before purchasing season two, though.

As for other anime I want to watch in the coming Summer months, I'm trying to keep a list, though it changes periodically. At the top are Mushishi and the second season of Spice and Wolf. I've heard great things about Death Note, and I'll likely look into that after I finish Zeta Gundam. Funimation has released free episodes of some of their licensed material on YouTube, and I watched the first twenty episodes of Axis Powers Hetalia. It's a great comedy series for those who enjoy very politically incorrect humor (but it certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea).

I'll have some more anime reviews posted soon. I watched The Girl Who Leapt Through Time about a week ago and was very impressed, and I also finished the first season of Sgt. Frog, which is a hillarious trek through a plethora of anime parodies and pop-culture references. I also completed Blue Sub No. 6 quite some time back and have been meaning to write up a review for that. Depending on the weather this weekend, I may write up and post some of those reviews before Monday.
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