Shingeki no Kyojin Youtube Parody Series #4

Shingeki no Kyojin is so depressing that any parody becomes 10x funnier. Here are some highlights:

SnK’s opening song meshed with … a Bollywood video?! While the video content itself has nothing to do with SnK, somehow… it is just too funny that the video syncs so well with the song. The main guy in the song even mouths the lyrics…. and they’re dancing on top of Wall Maria (the Indian version of course).

[Anime] The Irregular at Magic High School Review – OP Protagonists, Awesome Battles, and Weak AI

The Irregular at Magic High School 1

The Irregular at Magic High School, also known as Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, tells the story of a pair of gifted siblings – an older brother and younger sister (a la No Game No Life) – who enroll in First High School, an elite academy for magicians.  Upon enrollment to the school, all students are tested in regards to magical ability and sorted accordingly. Those showing promise in magic are sorted into Course 1, and are known as “Blooms” by the student body. Those with less fortunate results on the practical magic examination are sorted into Course 2, and are known as “Weeds”. Naturally, there is a natural pecking order in this school, and Weeds are at the bottom. Miyuki, the younger sister, becomes a Bloom because of her extremely large magical potential, whereas Tatsuya, who scored well on the written examination but did poorly on the practical exam, is designated a Weed.

Based on this premise, you might expect some sort of an underdog story. Perhaps you might think that this anime will be about Tatsuya’s gradual climb up the school’s magic-based hierarchy, something similar to Mx0. Or maybe it’s about the struggle faced by the two siblings as they try to navigate the intricacies of a school system hostile to Bloom-Weed interactions.

Nope. Neither of those is even close to the actual focus of The Irregular at Magic High School. Unlike the protagonists of typical shonen anime, the siblings aren’t gifted in that they have latent magical potential or seemingly useless but powerful abilities that they have yet to master. They’re gifted in that they’re insanely powerful, so much so that they’re heads and shoulders above everyone else in terms of skill immediately upon enrollment. Miyuki has tons of magical energy and can cast spells that not even high-level pros can cast, and Tatsuya is a super-genius who, despite not having lots of magical energy, is capable of very amazing feats (not to mention all of his hidden abilities…). Because they are so powerful, most of the anime is dedicated to creating situations that allow the viewers to see just how awesome they are, which may make the show hit-or-miss depending on what you like.

The Magic System

Let’s start with what I believe to be one of the highlights of the show. The magic system is extremely well thought out and logical. Every magician has a certain, fixed amount of magical energy (called psions) that they can channel to a personal spell-casting device called a CAD. The CAD then initiates the intended spell’s activation sequence, which is a series of codes that make up the spell, and once the activation sequence finishes running, the spell is cast.

Miyuki Casting Magic

Miyuki casts a spell

The spells themselves must also adhere to certain rules. Each spell is comprised of basic components, and the more components there are, the longer it takes to cast the spell. Even a simple spell to move an egg from one place to the next, the anime explains, is comprised of several components. Four steps to be exact: a component to begin motion, a component to accelerate in the intended direction, a component to decelerate, and a component to stop.

Having such a well-defined magic system in place definitely makes the show more interesting to watch. We have all seen shows where magic seems to be a black box and where it seems like there’s a spell that can solve virtually any problem faced by the protagonists, even if they’re supposedly backed into a corner. The magic system allows for a lot of complexity in the fights between magicians. Unfortunately, we hardly ever get to see the full extent of its complexity because…

The OP Protagonists

Yes, the characters, specifically the two main characters, are so overpowered that the rules of the magic system might as well not exist. The sister, because of her huge reservoir of magical energy, can cause huge explosions and freeze groups of people effortlessly. The brother, using his peerless intellect and hidden talents, almost seem to bypass the limitations of the magical system altogether.

Tatsuya preparing a special move

Tatsuya preparing (yet another) special move

The characters are awesome but alas, they are also one-dimensional. Being the awesome sibling pair that they are, the main characters do not really have to change or undergo character development. That’s understandable. However, what’s more unfortunate, and a little less understandable, is how flat the side characters feel.

From a skills perspective, no one in their school or even outside of it can come close to the talents of the ridiculously OP siblings. And personal development is virtually non-existent. All the side characters are pretty much completely overshadowed by the awesomeness of Tatsuya and Miyuki. Here, I have to note that a commendable attempt at character development is made for Tatsuya’s classmate Mikihiko, but it ended up falling short. Very little time is spent detailing his personal struggles or development, and we never really understand what his conclusion was or how he reaches it.

Weak AI

And if you’re not Tatsuya’s classmate or part of his circle of friends, then you’re not even portrayed like you’re a competent human being. Let me explain what I mean using the Nine Schools Competition (NSC) as a case study. The NSC is an Olympic-style competition between a number of well-renowned magic high schools, First High School included. It is comprised of a number of different events, including an ice-pillar breaking event and magical variations of skeet shooting and wakeboarding. From these events, we definitely see how resourceful Tatsuya and his friends can be. We see them creating an underwater explosion in the wakeboarding event to delay the other wakeboarders, and we see them use creative techniques to break their opponents pillars in the ice pillar event.

The NSC is kind of like a high school track meet, but with magic and violence.

The NSC is kind of like a high school track meet, but with magic and violence.

The events are fun to watch, but after a while, you notice something strange. Where are the strategies developed by the other schools? We are told that the elites of each school have been chosen to compete, and we know that this competition is a big deal for everyone involved, so why is it that only the students from First High School are using magic in creative ways? Sometimes, it can seem like the other schools aren’t even trying to win.

For example, in the battle board (magic-powered wakeboarding) event, it is specified that racers may not use magic on their opponents but that they are allowed to use magic on the water itself. We know from the underwater explosion demonstrated by the First High competitor that casting magic on or in the water is a super effective method of gaining an advantage, so why do we never see the racers from the other schools even attempt to cast magic on the water? Maybe it’s just me having unreasonable expectations but I have to ask: where’s that school with the student whose main tactic is to freeze the water behind her, or where’s that competitor from last year who can mysteriously move her board twice as fast as other racers?

The answer that the anime seems to give to these questions is that these opponents don’t exist. The other competing students are simply sitting ducks whose sole purpose for being there is so that Tatsuya and co. have a target for their brilliant strategies. This made watching certain episodes feel like playing the tutorial level of a video game. It’s cool seeing what the main characters can do, but it’s no fun if there’s no challenge.

Animation and Sound

Animation and sound were great. The spells were flashy and fluid, and the accompanying sound effects were always on-point and rarely ever annoying. The music was well-done, too. I am not aware of any instance throughout the season where the music did not fit in with the onscreen action, but conversely, nothing about the music stood out to me as exceptional.

Summary

The Irregular at Magic High School seems to have been created as the answer to a thought experiment: “What if we stick a couple of insanely overpowered students into a magical school setting typical of the shonen genre, and see what happens?” The result is a season filled with seemingly difficult obstacles just waiting to be stylishly and effortlessly steamrolled right over by the Tatsuya-Miyuki duo. Overall, the anime is fun to watch, and there is a sense of awe that fills you upon seeing a powerful enemy being defeated in a matter of minutes, but it would be much, much better if the siblings actually fought opponents who are on their level. Here’s hoping to a potentially much more epic second season.

Overall Rating: 7/10

Shingeki no Kyojin Youtube Parody Series #3

Shingeki no Kyojin is so depressing that any parody becomes 10x funnier. Here are some highlights:

SnK + Ke$ha’s “Die Young” Crossover – this is perhaps too obvious a parody (unlike the Frozen crossover before) and thus, too uncreative. So Ke$ha sings about not dying young and you mesh that song with an anime where everybody is just born … to die young. But! Someone has to do it. And it’s still funny, especially since various characters get different lines instead of having one character sing all the parts … and watching Eren hate on Jean never fails to amuse me.

Shingeki no Kyojin Youtube Parody Series #2

Shingeki no Kyojin is so depressing that any parody becomes 10x funnier. Here are some highlights:

SnK + Frozen Crossover: Watch Eren’s lovely rendition of “Do You Want to Kill Some Titans?” If you’ve watched Frozen (which I hope so, because then you’ll really get this video), you’ll know that Anna grows up while singing this song — the first couple of lines are when she’s singing with a baby voice at five years old to the last couple lines where she’s a full fledged “adult” (teenager) and her voice has changed significantly. This parody just works so well because SnK has a couple of significant time skips so Eren was actually a kid in the beginning before transitioning to a front line combat fighter in the survey corps several years latter. The parody singer does a fantastic job of changing her voice to match Eren’s age changes and the lyrics and video are just lovely, chosen to match well with SnK and the original Frozen vibe.

Shingeki no Kyojin Youtube Parody Series #1

Shingeki no Kyojin is so depressing that any parody becomes 10x funnier. Here are some highlights:

#1: Shingeki no Kyojin becomes kpop band Shinhwa, performing “This Love.” This is maybe not so much funny (which it is, to start with) as it is pretty damn awesome. After a while, you stop laughing at SnK characters being a kpop band and doing the This Love dance to being stupendously amazed at the level of skill and time involved to animate SnK doing a dance routine.

Let me digress into a brief rant about animation. If you’ve never thought about making an anime, you probably don’t realize this, but animating dancing, or anything with non-regular movement, is *hard* / time consuming. That is a whole lot of panels of drawing for just 5 secs of video – most professional animators (i.e. people that make anime) don’t even do it, which is why unless some guy up top pours an insane amount of money into a sports anime, most of them just plain suck. It just takes too much time and energy to animate a soccer or basketball match in real time, which is why most people just slice in lots of observers explaining the match scenes or generic hitting sounds while zooming away from the match (*cough* Prince of Tennis *cough*) to avoid doing lots of live frames. Prince of Tennis was still wonderful though, but Area no Kishi, Diamond no Ace, Dear Boys, etc. all didn’t live up to their potential. Which just makes Kuroko no Basuke all the more awesome.

[Chinese Movie] Tai Chi Zero

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Synopsis

Yang Luchan was born with a “horn” (a peanut potusion) on his head that destined him to be a martial arts prodigy. When his horn is hit, Yang turns into a berserker and crushes everything in his vicinity. However, the berserker mode severely depletes his life force, so Yang travels to far away Chen Village to learn a powerful form of Tai Chi that can slow down the progression of his illness. Though the Chen villagers are forbidden from teaching their martial arts to outsiders, Yang becomes their best hope for survival when a man arrives to build a railroad through the village.

Storytelling

Two phrases come to mind: unrepentantly cliche and wonderfully funny. This is not a kung fu film that is all gloom and doom – think less “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and more “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer.” Tai Chi Zero watches like a blend between a comic book and a video game adaptation (though it is completely original). The movie’s whooshing cinematography and chop chop editing slices to flashy bold comic book pages to transition between settings and preview the next “story arc.” Unknown places are colorfully annotated on screen with their titles, ranging from hard fact “Ancestral Hall”, “Windy Mountain” to witty commentary “Uh? A Side Door…?”. Opponents (and their epic skills) are introduced via character cut screens (cool pose and bold calligraphy titles like “SHEN SI, BROTHER TOFU, 12th generation Tai Chi Master” included). The face-off starts with a “X VS Y” panel and ends with a dramatic “K.O.”

It’s all very Street Fighter-ish, including an overused plot. So don’t go in expecting deep philosophy from Tai Chi Zero. The most serious topic, the fate of the village, romance, death, etc., that touches the main character turns comedic in five seconds. It’s a movie where you know the ending (MASSIVE SPOILER: …the good guys win) from the beginning, … but it’s still definitely worth it to watch how they get there. Just for complete disclosure, let me tell you the biggest wtf right here: there’s a foreigner in the movie. OMG. And she’s not just some minor background character. She’s a love interest of the villain. She gets lines. Chinese lines. *insert whistle here*

Tai_Chi_ZeroClaire

Gasp! A Foreigner.

Also, Tai Chi Zero gets extra kudos for being a kung fu + steampunk movie.

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Steampunk. O.o

I picked up the movie without knowing it was a steampunk movie and was pleasantly surprised. Of course, the steampunk is like 20% based on reality and 80% fake science, and requires everyone to stop rationalizing and just believe to enjoy the movie. Be forewarned that 99% of the giant gears in machines are just there to look cool and only 1% is required to make it function. But that’s cool. I buy that.

Character Development

Character development can be summed up as “nonexistent,” which meshes quite well with a thoroughly cliche plot. But that… actually doesn’t matter. Who has time for character development anyways in a kung fu movie anyways?! The motto of Tai Chi Zero rings tried and true: they either come awesome, or not at all. Vice versa also applies. Once a loser, always a loser.

This last line is made to describe the sad pathetic life of the villain. He was bullied as a kid in a kung fu village because he was forbidden from learning kung fu. Cue huge inferiority complex. As an adult, he studied abroad in London, learned fake science, and came back to show his “backwards” village the might of Western technology and his newfound superiority. Unfortunately, he failed and thus, remained a loser for life. Sorry buddy. You tried, but it was never going to work.

I mean, technology vs. kung fu? Pfft. In Kung Fu Hustle, I saw some guy just nuke a huge complex with his hand and left a Manhattan-sized palm print on the ground. Obviously, Kung Fu > Technology, via the the Theorem of Boundless Imagination (what you envision as a kung fu power will always be stronger than fake science, which is crippled by a reliance on explanation). I say, therefore I am. While there’s no obvious overpowered cheating in Tai Chi Zero, this generous graciousness comes only because filmmakers had to make the villain at least somewhat threatening. The absolute dominance of kung fu can’t be too obvious (even though it kind of is). How do I know this? Soldiers armed with guns vs Chen village armed with fruit. Fruit won. QED.

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The West just can’t win… (in a kung fu movie)

The only thing that put a dent in my carefree enjoyment of Tai Chi Zero was the main character, which makes it hard for me to give this movie a super high rating. I don’t go into a kung fu movie expecting much brain action, but I was still taken aback when the main character is an idiot. This is not an exaggeration; he is legitimately born with cognitive issues and spends most of the movie getting manipulated by people who just use him for kamikaze missions. Main character literally spent a week getting beaten up by various people, but that experience of failing was just wasted on him. Despite being able to copy any martial arts moves he sees, the thought of using those same moves against the people he is challenging again and again never even passes his thoughts. This is a guy who, after failing to invent the lightbulb 10,000 times, will go on to fail another 1,000,000 times. His mentor literally had to tell him straight up to use his new moves and MC has to digest this information twice before applying it and finally winning a fight, proving once and for all that brains > brawn. No matter how strong you are, you can’t win at life if you can’t think.

Yet, in the end, the idiot hero defeated the smart villain. The moral of this development? Luck beats all. Continue reading

[Korean Movie] Penny Pinchers Review

penny pinchers 1

Synopsis

Penny Pinchers is a romantic comedy that follows the story of two individuals who are complete financial opposites. Ji-Woong (Song Joong-Ki) is a lazy and unemployed deadbeat who is months behind on his rent and can barely scrounge up enough pocket change to survive. Hong-Sil (Han Ye-Seul) is the epitome of the titular penny pincher. She routinely rummages through junk in search of valuables and has no qualms with taking up morally shady odd jobs in order to make some money. Near the start of the film, Ji-Woong gets evicted from his apartment, and for her own reasons, Hong-Sil decides to take him under her wing, promising him $5000 if he follows her directions for the next couple of months.

First Impressions

Okay, I admit. At first glance, this movie sounds like a typical romcom, but there are a few subtle differences about this premise that drew me in and made me decide to watch it. On a surface level, the movie is about two very different individuals who come from very different backgrounds meeting unexpectedly and potentially falling in love. What came off to me as strange, however, is that the film somewhat inverts the typical rags-to-riches story. Usually, Korean dramas and movies have plots about a poor working-class girl meeting a rich guy from a prestigious family, or about a commoner falling in love with a member of an elite family… or about promising young talents who must face and overcome difficult obstacles on their path to success, etc. You get my point. The plot is rarely about someone who learns how to be poor, and yet, that’s exactly the story that this movie is telling. And it does a pretty good job of delivering this story.

Characters

The characters are… interesting. For the first half hour of the movie, I really, really wanted to stop watching because of how one of the protagonists, Ji-Woong, was depicted. He is, for lack of a better word, a loser. Despite having a college education, his incompetence causes him to fail all of the job interviews he has, and even though he is unemployed, he lies and says he got a job working for SK-Telecom in order to impress a girl he likes. In another scene, his mother calls, and he lies yet again, telling her he needs a lot of money in order to pay the “job application fees” for the jobs he’s applying to. He does this shamelessly, even though he knows his mother, who runs a small restaurant, barely has enough money to make ends meet herself.

Ji Woong is told he can't continue deferring his student loans.

Ji Woong is told he can’t continue deferring his student loans

Even though I had to give props to the actor for portraying such an irritating character so successfully, I really didn’t like the thought of having such an undeserving protagonist be the shining star of the story. Fortunately, this movie is about change. And both Ji-Woong and Hong-Sil develop significantly throughout the duration of the film. We find out more about Ji-Woong as a person, and we learn the reasons behind why Hong-Sil is such a miser. The development is a little on the quick side, but that’s expected because this is a movie and not a 50-episode TV series.

Story

The story is a little on the predictable side, but it is delivered extremely well. I was never surprised by any of the decisions that either protagonist made as each of these decisions is hinted to way in advance. To be honest, though, a romantic comedy is all about the people, and I’m completely fine with a little less emphasis on the plot if it means there’s more time fleshing out the characters.

One thing that Penny Pinchers does well with the story was the way in which it mixed together extremely serious and dramatic problems with lighthearted, comedic moments. When Hong-Sil approaches Ji-Woong with her offer, he has already lost his place to live and has less than $5 in his pocket. Later, we find out that he has maxed out his credit card as well. In other words, if Hong-Sil hadn’t picked him up, he would have had no place to stay and nothing to eat anytime in the foreseeable future. Likewise, Hong-Sil has her own troubles, no less serious than Ji-Woong’s. With only a little bit of tweaking, the director could have easily turned this comedy into a tragedy, but I’m glad he didn’t. He instead chose to mix the serious and lighthearted moments to create a comedy that has a little more depth than the typical romcom.

Romance

Ji-Woong and Hong-Sil feel more like friends than lovers.

Ji-Woong and Hong-Sil feel more like friends than lovers.

I felt the need to add this section because for a romantic comedy, the romance in Penny Pinchers was a bit lacking. At the beginning of the film, the two protagonists each have their own crush (and no, they didn’t crush on each other). They spend a good chunk of the movie’s duration separately chasing their own crushes, and not much time was devoted to their feelings for each other. We do see many moments of character development where one of the two changes the other’s perspective or ideas about life, but it’s debatable whether these moments could be considered “romantic”. As a result, the romance aspect of the movie feels rushed and seems like it was tacked on at the end rather than being integrated as a core element of the story.

Conclusion

Though the storyline is a bit predictable, the strong character development and the deft fusion of serious and lighthearted moments makes Penny Pinchers a pretty good movie.

Overall Rating: 8/10

[Light Novel] Mushoku Tensei – Isekai Ittara Honki Dasu

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Summary

After the death of his parents, a 34-year old NEET is chased out of the house by his siblings. Homeless and penniless, he is filled with regret at accomplishing nothing in his life despite being born into a good family and blessed with above average intelligence. At this low point, he saw a truck heading at full speed towards three high school students. Mustering all his strength, he pushes them out of the way of the truck at the cost of his own life, and ended up being reincarnated as Rudeus Greyrat (Rudi) in a world of swords and magic.

Read Mushoku Tensei (english translation) here.

Read Mushoku Tensei (manga adaptation) here.

The Good

The premise of this story is just plain awesome to me so when I first stumbled upon the newly released manga (only 2 chapters thus far), I just had to go read the much more developed light novel. Whenever I read Chinese online novels, I basically always focus on the “modern day character crosses over time and space to another world” storylines because I find that 70% of the time, this guarantees a smart and epic main character that I can empathize with. Now think about this. Normal young adults in today’s world (like me) live an average life as long as they possess no particular skills that they are experts in and people can look up to them for. Nevertheless, they still dream about being super awesome, winning at life and taking over the world.

How can they actually fulfill this dream? Simple. If they can’t change themselves, change their environment. Place them in a world where their “average” knowledge is enough to give them a huge edge in life. Ergo, you take them back in time. If I could go back ten years, for example, I would invest all my net worth in Apple and automatically become a millionaire in 2014. But financial power is not enough for these dreamers. They also want to take over the world, which is kind of hard in the 21st century where people are all enlightened and democratic. So you take them back to the age of empires. But that’s still not enough. Back then, if people aren’t born into the royal family, they might never become king despite their intelligence and contributions to society. Moreover, even kings are far from infallible. Dreamers don’t want to be kings; they want to be gods.

So you take them to a world where personal might can decide the ruin or prosperity of continents, some kind of supernaturally powered RPG-esque society where level-cap characters can just change the laws of nature at their whim. And you not only displace them, but you also reincarnate them so they arrive as a baby and can build their character from infancy. This…is the good life. This is the story of Mushoku Tensei.

{Complex Magical System – Checked}

{Intelligent/Tactical Main Character – Checked}

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The Bad

“Amateur handling of character control” (I can’t find the right word exactly so be patient with me here) is my one high-level criticism of this light novel. Granted, I do recognize that Mushoku Tensei is a light novel so I can’t expect some “serious fiction”-level of character control but the element is a true failing of the series by detracting from plot realism. By character “control”, I am referring to the way the author balances between the main, side, and background characters in the series. The author focuses on several main characters, writes occasionally from those characters’ POV, but fails to color in any side characters for anything else in this fictional world to seem real aside from Rudi’s story. When I read and imagine the story in my head, everything about Rudi’s in-the-moment life and interactions is colorful and 3D but the setting, background, and larger world is black and white and 2D.

The author does a good job at developing the main characters. However, as he is creating a whole new world, he also has the responsibility of fleshing out that world. Additionally, his wacky character control also means that character development is unrealistically linear. Rudi starts out by knowing only 3 people: his parents and the maid. Those three gets fleshed out in several initial chapters. Then Rudi gets a home tutor, who gets fleshed out in the following chapters. Then Rudi gets a best friend, who gets fleshed out in the chapters after the home tutor spotlight series, and so on and so on. I might be nitpicking here, but this pattern of introducing characters to the storyline is just … unreal. Nobody meets the important people in their life one at a time, like they’re in a line waiting to meet you. Nobody gets to know each one really well, adapts to the person’s presence, and then immediately meets another important person once the first relationship is settled. Nobody’s life is this systematic.

The Ugly

And… the reason why character introduction is systematic in Mushoku Tensei is highly likely because the genre is “harem.” Anyone who has any exposure to harem plot lines should know that the girls (or guys in reverse harem cases) are always introduced linearly and never together because authors want to take their time to flesh out the importance/storyline of each girl and thus magnify the impact of focusing all their adoration at one target of envy. But this light novel’s harem genre is not the “ugly” of my review. I am perfectly fine with harem plots as long as they are done in a classy manner (i.e. Shokugeki no Souma, The World God Only Knows).

What I am vehemently averse to in Mushoku Tensei is Rudi’s utter creepiness and perversion. I feel that the author has gone overboard in trying to portray the main character as a social failure/NEET that he overplayed the otaku/hentai stereotype. I understand that MC has spent 20+ years as a hikikomori developing unsavory habits/instincts but I did not feel comfortable at all reading the first chapter about a baby delighting in burying his face in his mother’s chest and smiling creepily. And let’s not talk about the reference to the baby’s reaction to breast feeding. Just one mention of that is too creepy for me. And when he’s five and stealing his home tutor’s underwear? No, that’s not ok.

To be completely fair, this is just my personal reaction. Rudi’s mental maturation and transition is a focus of the author’s plot for the first volume. Rudi is reincarnated with a determination to turn over a new leaf and correct all of his past bad habits. As such, it is very realistic that Rudi was the creepiest as a baby (when he was just a NEET a day or two before) and his perversion decreases quite a lot over three to four years as he works at being a “better” person. Nevertheless, I have severe difficulty reconciling Rudi’s physical age (young child) with his X-rated thinking. I don’t like that he’s already mentally assigned his same-age best friend into his future harem and put the moves verbally on his much-older home tutor when he’s younger than ten.

My Ratings

Ok, I got a private comment that the harshness of my review for Big Money didn’t match well with the 5/10 rating that I gave the show. Reading this review again, I realize that I gave Mushoku Tensai a 6/10 rating but criticism took up 2/3 of the page, which seems contradictory. However, I stand by my rating because I am just a very critical person. I tend to overanalyze flaws in the material. Elements that irritate me stand out and I feel very strongly about them.

To me, Mushoku Tensei is appealing on multiple levels: the premise, the character development, the intelligent (“genius”) MC, the interesting magical system. However, the harem/hentai play docked points off in my book. The story would have been much better without that element so in conclusion, Mushoku Tensei is only slightly above average.

Rating: 6/10

[Anime] No Game No Life – An anime that could have been great

No Game, No Life

[Warning: This review contains plot spoilers]

No Game No Life is an anime series that follow the adventures of two NEET gamer siblings (read: genius slackers) as they are transported to a foreign world called Disboard where murder and robbery is prohibited and where conflicts are resolved through playing games.

The pair consists of elder brother Sora (空) and younger sister Shiro (白),two genius-level individuals who together form Kuuhaku (空白), an entity in the gaming world that has gained a reputation for being unbeatable at every game. Of course, the games in Disboard are unlike any they’ve played before, primarily because the other races in the world (e.g. elves, demons, warbeasts, etc.) have a tendency to use magic to cheat their way to victory. As humans, or “imanity” as they are called in Disboard, Sora and Shiro possess no magic, so they must use their intellect and teamwork skills to win even the unfairest of games.

The premise sets this series up to be an epic underdog story full of mind games and ingenious tricks (a la Death Note or Code Geass), but it ultimately, and understandably, fails to deliver anything truly mind-blowing.

Characters:

In Disboard, there are 16 races, each with their own unique characteristics and special skills. Throughout the 12-episode season, we get to see about 4 or 5 of these races, and from these races come a fairly small main cast consisting of 6 or 7 individuals. I’m happy to say, though, that this core cast is presented well. Everyone is fairly like-able and interesting, and the key protagonists all seem like they have the potential to be complex and multi-dimensional.

In particular, I want to draw attention to Stephanie Dola, the naive princess of the “imanity” kingdom. We first see Stephanie in a pub, playing and ultimately losing a game of poker. Almost immediately, it becomes evident that Stephanie is the “normal” character that we as the viewers are supposed to empathize with. She is the one who asks all the questions and who allows us to fully appreciate the tactics and strategies of the genius siblings. Usually in this kind of genre, characters like Steph eventually become the annoying and useless damsel-in-distress or the klutzy side character who accidentally ruins the masterful scheme of her teammates. However, it was a pleasant surprise that Steph did not fall into this cliche. In fact, I found that I could actually relate to her struggles.

It is gradually revealed in the first half of the series that Steph is actually a capable politician and very book-smart. We are told she graduated at the top of her class from the best university in the kingdom, and we see that she has been doing a good job of utilizing connections and executing political strategies to maintain stability and prevent an uprising. She simply lacks the street-smarts and keen intuition that makes for a good gambler. Her skills, despite being presented as the butt of a running joke in the series, make her 3-dimensional and relatable. Other main characters are also depicted in a similarly complex fashion, which makes for very interesting interactions overall.

Story:

Unfortunately, the characters were the strongest aspect of this series. The games themselves are, simply put, a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong. The rules of the games they play are very interesting. You have chess where the pieces actually have emotions; you have classics like blackjack and poker; and you have a virtual-reality fps shooter. I get excited at the start of each game when the rules are explained and again in the middle when their opponents’ advantages are revealed. “There’s no way they can win,” I think to myself.

Perhaps I’ve spoiled myself with deeply tactical and psychological anime like Death Note, but whenever I start to think that there’s no way the protagonists can turn the tables, I expect there to be a mind-blowing reveal when I’m inevitably proven wrong. Perhaps there’s a loophole in the rules I overlooked, or perhaps the main character still has a trick up his sleeves that was foreshadowed by a scene several episodes back. Unfortunately, the games in No Game, No Life have no such mind-blowing reveal. The writers definitely intended for the final reveals of each game to be mind-blowing, but to me (and I suspect to a lot of viewers out there), they seemed an awfully lot like dei ex machina.

Let’s take the chess match as an example, the one where the pieces had emotions. As the game was originally explained, it seemed as though the match was a fairly standard chess game, the only difference being the pieces could move extra spaces if the leader was charismatic or would refuse to move if they knew they were being used as sacrifices. When Sora makes his comeback in the match, it is accompanied by the several reveals: that the morale of the pieces could be improved via a motivational speech, that one could act out of turn, and that pieces could change alliances. Perhaps I might not have taken issue with any one of these reveals by itself, but together, they created chaos.

By the end of the game, I had no idea what the rules of the game were anymore. Likewise, with only a few exceptions, most of the other games in the series were resolved with a tactic that seemed to have been pulled from thin air. It seems almost as if the “tricks” used by the protagonists were decided on in the last minute, with little regard for whether they actually made sense or not in context.

Sound and Animation:

I grouped sound and animation together because in an anime that places an emphasis on games of wit and strategy, the aesthetics play second fiddle to the characters and storyline. In general, the art and music were both well done but not anything particularly awe-inspiring. They did not distract from the plot nor from the games, which in my book makes them successes.

Conclusion:

Overall, this anime was pretty decent, but it had the potential to be so much better. The world was interesting and so were the characters in them. It was a good try, but it falls short where it actually counts. If there was just a little more foreshadowing, and if the games were just planned out a bit better, No Game, No Life could have been a masterpiece. Instead, it is just a step above mediocrity.

Overall Rating: 7/10

[J-Drama] Big Money: The Three Fallacies of Jdrama

Big Money Cover

Synopsis

Big Money is a human drama with a suspense twist about a young man who learns the tricks of the trade about stock exchange from a well-experienced investor. The backdrop of this story is the elaborate world of banking and the stock market. Shirato Norimichi (Nagase) lives off the money his parents send him, and his winnings at pachinko while waiting to find permanent employment. One day, Shirato is recruited by a mysterious elderly gentleman by the name of Kozuka Taihei (Ueki). Shirato later finds out that the small, yet mild mannered Kozuka was once a legendary trader. Although clouded by the mystery surrounding Kozuka, Shirato begins to work for him. In time, Shirato finds himself being mesmerized by the wave of numbers of the market.

First Impression

My initial rating for this drama was a 3/10. I’ve heard that this drama involved geniuses, psychological dueling, strategic battles across a human chessboard, etc., which brought back fond memories of Liar Game and Death Note Before L Died (DNBLD). Alas, reality is cruel and the drama in no way played up to expectations. Thus, 3/10 is my “what a letdown” score but “5/10” is the unbiased “true” rating of this show.

What’s so terrible?

Big Money unfortunately hit three of my biggest pet peeves about Japanese dramas. The “5/10” rating is given in consideration that it is a jdrama. If I had compared Big Money to the best of Asian dramas in general, it would have really deserved my initial “3/10” rating.

#1 Pet Peeve: Absurdly Exaggerated Acting

Maybe over-acting is just a negative externality of producing a show in the birthplace of anime. Maybe too many mangas have been converted into jdramas that comic book expressions are the new normal. Maybe the Japanese just vocalize and express their emotions more than other cultures and thus in dramas, expressions just become even more dramatic. Whatever the reason, when MC is angry, he clenches his teeth and opens his mouth so wide that we can see his entire set of pearly whites. When MC is shocked, he jumps back ten feet and hugs a door frame for protection. When MC is stunned, he is actually frozen for thirty seconds.

I get that this over-acting is supposed to provide the comedy element in this serious drama, but instead it just makes the actors look like bipolar amateurs and the screenwriters look like they need some serious inspiration. When the male lead continues to be spooked back ten feet by the silent entry of a yakuza thug after their twentieth such meeting, the writing is not just bad, it’s also lazy. Character development exists for a reason. Even the pigeons on the street don’t fly away anymore when humans approach because they learned that no harm will come to them. MC is becoming a stockpicking hotshot. His brain can’t be smaller than a pigeon’s.  

#2 Pet Peeve: Juvenile Suspense

The writing in Big Money is so terrible that a suspense drama doesn’t even create suspense. No matter how much you play that suspenseful music in the background, my heart just will not jump into my throat if you already tell me what will happen. Imagine an auction: Bad Guy B wants item. Good Guy A wants to make trouble for him. Ergo, whenever B places a bid, A jumps in with a higher bid, forcing B to bid even higher. However, what nobody knows (except the viewers) is that A was the one who put the item up for auction. He wants to get X amount to make a really nice profit, with X being the highest that B can tolerate. A jacks up the price in the bidding war with B and stops bidding when B finally bids X. And viola! A triumphs over B!!! YES!!! WOOHOO!!! …we totally didn’t know this was going to happen…yay…

In Big Money’s financial battles, there are no “random”, third party factors. Because the leads are really smart, everything goes according to plan, except Bad Guy B’s plans always fail and A’s plans always work. And not only does A’s plans always work without a hitch, he always explains how they would work … before he executes the plan. This would be nice … in a “how things work” show. Sadly, this handholding happened in a suspense drama instead.

#3 Pet Peeve: Too Cliche

Don’t want to beat on a dead horse…but I can’t help it. The writing. Big Money is just filled with an incredible amount of cliches. The wise old man who guides and trains the MC. The girl-next-door childhood best friend who sticks by MC through thick and thin, but whose love is ultimately doomed to failure because he doesn’t see her as a “woman”. The rival who is a genius stock trader and has already made billions (of Yen) but who nevertheless will fall before the rising amateur MC. And last but not least, the deadbeat MC – unemployed college graduate working at a fast food restaurant and wasting his money gambling all day – picks up awesome opportunity to become a stock picking god’s disciple because he unknowingly helped the old man out of the kindness of his heart (among other things). Yes, this kind of good fortune just happens everyday…

I don’t particularly mind the suspension of disbelief required (this is fiction, after all) but the show should then follow up with something amazing and novel. Not a parade of walking stereotypes. This drama might have more been interesting in 2002, when it first aired, but not in 2014 when audiences are just tired of the same old tropes again and again.

Conclusion

To summarize, I’m just not impressed. Big Money does have a few redeeming spots – the premise is still interesting even if the execution is terrible. It also earns points for practicality. The financial spiels and tactics depicted in the show are true (though not all legal) and applied in real life today so viewers can actually learn quite a bit about stockpicking from watching Big Money. Nothing gets too complex so the setting of Big Money serves as a nice introduction to the financial world. That said, there are some really good jdrama out there (GTO, Jyoou no Kyoushitsu, Ninkyo Helper, etc.). And this is not one of them.

Rating: 5/10