Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha | Dream Before Dusk

Two weeks ago, in honor of the game-changing Madoka Magica’s 10th anniversary, it was announced that a sequel to 2013’s Rebellion movie had begun production, reuniting Madoka’s entire lead production staff, including the long-absent but pivotal creative voice of writer Gen Urobuchi. Even though the anime landscape is overflowing with twisted magical girl subversions eight years later, fans are still hungry for a shocking resolution to the darker storyline posed by the Madoka movie trilogy—soon to be a quadrilogy at least. That once-edgy idea of “mahou shojo for adults” has certainly cemented into a stronger and more established genre today, but as a wise man once said, “To understand the future, we have to go back in time.” Or was that Pitbull?

My point is that I’m not here to talk about Madoka today. Instead, its revival has made me nostalgic for those bygone years when the Dokes’ wild success had not yet been imitated to the point of monotony, back when its release was met with irritation from a subset of hipster otaku who were quick to insist that its adult “innovations” on a children’s genre were old news—you’d know that if you were a serious mahou shojo fan. Snobbery aside, the nerds did have a point. Magical girl subversions aimed at an adult audience not only existed before Madoka, they were becoming a hot trend as early as 2004, when My-HiME, Rozen Maiden, and other genre hybrids sought to bridge the gap between childlike, feminine flights of fancy and the complex speculative horror that their late-night audiences craved. Far from being failed experiments that aired before their time, these anime quickly became underground hits, franchises that all continue in some form or another to this day. But if any of them could fairly be called an ancestor of Madoka, it would have to be the one helmed by Madoka’s own director, Akiyuki Shinbo. Its own four-word title even sits atop Madoka’s on Shinbo’s curriculum vitae: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha.

Seriously, if you were to compare just the first episodes of these distant cousins, you might conclude that Madoka was ripping Nanoha off completely. After a few placid scenes with 9-year old Nanoha’s picturesque family, where she laments her inadequacy compared to her parents and older siblings, Shinbo’s trademark atmosphere of dread takes over the episode. Oblique, fish-eye camera angles and clinical, washed-out lighting press pervasively on your nerves, even throughout scenes where the music and acting remain bright, and Nanoha’s daily life with her two flawlessly supportive (and obscenely wealthy) best friends seems otherwise hunky-dory. It’s not long before this peace is interrupted by the arrival of an adorable wounded creature—an alien boy in ferret form named Yuuno, who turns Nanoha into a magical girl after she rescues him from certain death. Her new duties as the youngest defender of earth are certain to distance Nanoha from her family and friends, and her fascination with another—seemingly villainous—magical girl named Fate Testarossa drives a greater wedge between the naïve Nanoha and more pragmatic heroes protecting the galaxy above her. Beat for beat, this beginning is absurdly familiar in its tone and focus. It’s hard to deny that Urobuchi took inspiration from Nanoha specifically when director Shinbo hired him to write Madoka several years later.

But while the two stories start out damningly similar, their paths quickly diverge to paint a more edifying picture of how magical girl anime would evolve, and how Nanoha would learn to run so that Madoka could fly. Unlike its darker descendant, Nanoha does not chug forward with a propulsive or cohesive vision from the jump. Early episodes of the show could be scattershot and frivolous, with a modest but indelibly uncomfortable level of fanservice (an upskirt shot here, a hot springs vacation there) that hard-panders to the genre’s least respectable niche in ways that we would not see reprised by Madoka. Mercifully, the underage cheesecake does get thrown out early in season one, and once the story begins taking itself seriously, Nanoha’s hidden darkness took on a completely different form than I expected.

After farting around with monsters-of-the-week (and her enigmatic rival Fate) for a while, Nanoha’s seventh episode takes a hard right turn from fantasy to sci fi, when a city-wide magical disruption demands the attention of the Time-Space Administration Bureau. The whiplash is real when we cut to the bridge of a massive spacecraft above our planet, bustling with astro-naval officers we’ve never seen before. Chrono, Lindy, and the other crew members immediately broaden Nanoha’s humble story, teleporting the elementary schooler away from her bland best friends and boring family. Nothing of value is lost in the trade; those characters were already struggling to carry their own weight, and they will only flicker faintly in the rearview mirror for the rest of the show, as the franchise realizes its true audience. That’s not to say that the TSAB officers are much less bland in personality, but the galactic stakes they carry give them far more complicated things to talk about. The only characters that actually matter are other magical girls, because Lyrical Nanoha distinguishes itself from its family-friendly contemporaries with baby steps compared to the capital-D Darkness we expect from post-Madoka mahou shojo—now the magical girls fight each other more often than they band together to fight monsters, but Nanoha’s reasons for this focus on human combat are far more optimistic than fans who started out with the more cynical Madoka might expect.

Nanoha and Fate are young children with limited perspectives, but as magical girls, they have theoretically limitless power, making them hot potatoes for older characters with more grown-up concerns to juggle. The Bureau knows it would be easier to arrest or annihilate Fate before her doomed quest to gather magical power for her Evil Mom’s approval destroys the known universe, but Nanoha refuses to cooperate with such cold-blooded protocol. She’s just a little girl who sees another girl suffering and wants to help her. Since the genre around Nanoha has shifted from fantasy to sci fi, she begins to understand that her magic wand, Raising Heart, is a piece of technology, no different from her flip-phone in its pure and simplistic intelligence. Nanoha’s optimism drives her to use Raising Heart as a unique tool for communication with Fate on the battlefield instead of destruction, in the same way that e-mail still connects Nanoha to friends and family far away. There are no Faustian bargains or malevolent cursed wishes like the kind that forced Madoka Magica’s victims to turn on one another for survival. The “magic” of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha does not stem from an emotional connection to an otherworldly power, but one’s own personal fortitude, mental strength, and an undying optimism that even mankind’s devastating inventions can be used for the betterment of all and the salvation of the weak.

Over its first two seasons (and possibly beyond, though that’s as far as I’ve gotten), Nanoha’s focus on communication, curiosity, and acceptance of technology as a neutral tool for good or evil takes it about as far from Madoka as you can possibly go. Futurism reigns as we learn about how each magical item is “programmed” like any other piece of technology, to be abused or misunderstood by we fallible and impure meatbags, but ultimately decoded and innovated on for the sake a brighter future. Since all the “villains” are other misunderstood little girls being manipulated by cruel adults or corrupted technology, Nanoha can use her aptly named Raising Heart to defragment their scrambled souls, expanding her world in the process to include more magical new friends. No matter how dire their circumstances might be, and no matter how close the Time-Space Administration Bureau might come to deploying the nuclear option on Nanoha’s misunderstood future friends, the darkness that pervades Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha only comes from without, never within the girls themselves. With enough patience and research, any problem can be solved and any soul can be saved.

It’s an optimistic perspective for an “adult” magical girl anime, especially compared to what we’ve come to expect from that genre today, but this optimism is easier to accept in a story where all the heroes remain children. By the 2010’s, most magical “girls” in post-Madoka anime were magical teens on the cusp of womanhood, with a greater potential for twisted motivations that blur the lines of good and evil between them in battle. But for Nanoha, Fate, Hayate, and all their familiars and friends, it doesn’t matter to them that their magic wands are technically weapons of mass destruction instead of candy-colored friendship dispensers. Their hearts remain pure, their bonds remain true, and the citywide destruction they endure while firing off their pink space lasers is just another adventure for their scrapbook. It’s definitely a “dark” magical girl anime, aimed at adults, but Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha never seeks to interrogate themes of girlhood, womanhood, or the true weight of a wish your heart makes. Making friends and doing the right thing is easy when you’re 9 years old, even if your side hustle is blowing shit up with magical space weapons.

I enjoyed my time with Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, but despite its greater focus on combat, technobabble, and tragedy than your average season of Pretty Cure, it ultimately feels closer to the family classics of its genre than the late-night horrors its legacy would eventually conjure up in Madoka Magica. And it feels almost a thousand years removed from Madoka’s imitators like Yuki Yuna is a Hero or Day Break Illusion, which bristle with so much bleeding edge and sanguine surrealism that they can be downright unpleasant. I’d much rather watch Nanoha than the more mean-spirited Madoka descendants, but that’s sort of like saying I’d rather eat a kid’s meal burger than a burnt-black steak. We’re assuming the best option, a meal meant for me that’s not overdone, is not on the table. Even in the darkest moments of Lyrical Nanoha’s plot, we know that Nanoha and her friends will come out the other side just as hopeful and spirited as always. Even if Madoka copied Nanoha’s pilot script paper and snatched up several elements of its story structure, they feel so distantly related in the evolution of the dark magical girl genre as we know it today.

By the end, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (and its second season, Nanoha A’s) feels like one last dream before dusk, a pleasant—but still just weird enough—fantasy you have after succumbing to a power nap too late in the day. There were fun moments, rejuvenating feelings, and maybe even a whisper of true inspiration in its sci fi take on a children’s genre that was just starting to follow its fans into adulthood. However, it’s easy to forget Nanoha’s optimistic innovations when you awake to see that dusk has fallen upon you, and a long night of Madoka imitators has clouded over its faintly shining star.

Special thanks to leafbladie for commissioning this review!

Symphogear | Shoot the Moon

Anime is a medium, not a genre. Maybe that sounds like common sense now, as we’ve recently seen anime become more popular with wider demographics of new fans thanks to the ubiquity of streaming libraries. Netflix alone has increased people’s interest in several underappreciated kinds of anime genres like slice-of-life and sports dramas. It’s hard to imagine a teen melodrama like Your Lie in April becoming such a hit in English before streaming, and it took Haikyu! a few years and a similar increase in availability to break past the “sports anime curse” that used to doom home media sales in the genre. However, even just a few years ago, discussing anime with anyone outside the weeb-o-sphere tended to reveal a lot of biases about the medium’s perceived patterns and limitations.

If anime was a dirty word to you, you probably thought that every anime had giant robots, scantily clad magical girls, cheesy music, and convoluted plots to kill god or remake the universe that just didn’t make any sense. Unless it was made by Studio Ghibli, (which meant it didn’t count as anime), that was the cynic’s perception of 99% of the anime “genre”. I’m glad those stereotypes aren’t all-consuming anymore, and people are more open to considering what anime can be. It’s not a genre with all those same ingredients stamped in all the same places.

But then there’s Symphogear.

Senki Zesshō Symphogear, aka Superb Song of the Valkyries: Symphogear, aka that one anime along with Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure whose fan fervor frightens you even if you know absolutely nothing else about the show, might be one of the Most Anime that I’ve ever seen. Conceived and pitched at the turn of the 2010’s by prolific music producer Noriyasu Agematsu and his good friend Akifumi Kaneko, the creator of Media.Vision’s surprise hit RPG Wild Arms, this original series was a shot in the dark from Studio Satelight at generating a multi-media hit, complete with powerhouse soundtrack and toyetic super-suit designs. That description might make Symphogear sound like a deeply calculated product, but there’s a brazen passion to the show’s downright excessive cliché-blending that makes it feel more like a wanton experiment from the minds of two uninhibited otaku instead. Watching the first season escalate, it’s as if Symphogear reaches a point where it bursts past the “too Anime” barrier so hard that the end result feels less commercial, not moreso—like it’s the fake anime that anime characters are watching in a real anime.

Mind you, my appraisal is based purely on Symphogear’s first season, which to my understanding is the least wackadoo in its five-season run, just a faint pastel shadow of the madness that would come to define the franchise to its fans. Symphogear had a gradual rise to success in Japan, and it was even slower to develop any presence in English-speaking fandom, but every new season has performed better than the one before, presumably by going bigger and wilder in the same vein as Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. While I’m sure that I’ve only seen the least of what Symphogear has to offer, this first season was already doing the most.

Symphogear’s overextended ambitions are baked right into the premise. The setting is a futuristic Japan terrorized by advanced bio-weapons called the Noise, but our heroines’ own weapons are ancient Babylonian and Norse relics that can only be activated by the power of song. World-famous idols, traumatized child slaves, and ordinary schoolgirls alike adopt their own unique frequency to unlock the power of a relic that their voice can synthesize into a “Symphogear”—basically, they get a magical girl transformation into a robotic suit that’s powered by literally singing during battle, transforming the traditional anime insert song into a diegetic combat technique. Since Hibiki, Tsubasa, and Chris are so different in personality and motivations, they must spend several episodes dueling and duet-ing each other before they can harmonize with the power of friendship to decide the future of humanity or something.

They are aided in their personal journeys by the requisite gaggle of bridge bunnies in a top-secret underground government research lab—there’s a beefy lion-haired commander with preposterous martial arts prowess, a flirtatious full-figured scientist with dubious allegiances, and there’s even a minor classmate character who occasionally shows up to mention some corny or convenient possibility that won’t happen because “this isn’t an anime”. Little does she know that Symphogear is the Most anime, so something even more corny or convenient tends to follow her lamp-shading remarks.

Since most of its runtime must be spent getting all this incongruent anime iconography to gel together enough for the story to make sense, Symphogear’s overall narrative is best not scrutinized too closely. Moments like Chris defecting to join the good guys or Tsubasa rekindling her love for music over battle don’t come out of nowhere, but these story checkpoints are so requisite and familiar to anyone who’s watched an anime before that the show doesn’t waste much time justifying them with nuanced setup. Chris reflects on her lost childhood before tearfully collapsing into the arms of a paternal savior figure. Tsubasa is humbled by an outpouring of love from her fans at her last concert before touring overseas. Hibiki goes berserk with an uncharacteristic feral power when she sees her friends get hurt. You could watch these scenes out of context, like they really were snippets of a fictional anime within a real one, and you would instantly recognize them as more over-the-top reflections of anime climaxes you’ve seen before. But because all these peaks and valleys don’t normally belong in neighboring episodes of the same show, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching an uninspired pile of clichés, but rather a pastiche of clichés that’s been reworked into its own thing that should be too silly to be sincere—and yet, Symphogear is extremely, even embarrassingly sincere from start to finish, perhaps especially at the finish.

After ten episodes of comfortably archetypal character development has bonded our initially hostile trio of heroines together to take down the Noise legions across the city, the true villain emerges for a final confrontation. Symphogear once again skirts the tedium of more traditional setup and payoff by just reaching for the obvious Anime conclusion to all this and turning the cliché up to 11, when it’s revealed that the ingenious scientist with the same sultry voice and Amazonian build as the white-haired witch who’s been pulling the strings was indeed the witch in disguise all along! Like most of the show’s reveals, this twist is so obvious that Symphogear doesn’t bother to waste time treating it like a dramatic reveal. Nobody in the show except the pure-hearted Hibiki even seems surprised by her betrayal; the commander actually saw his partner’s double-cross coming and prepared a contingency plan that naturally falls through so the Symphogear-wielders can take center stage. And that’s when the show decides to shoot the moon.

No, literally. The witch Finé’s plan is to shoot the moon. You see, when all the power of the ancient relics is enhanced and condensed in one location, the tower of Kadingir (aka that tower) will rise from the earth as a big-ass cannon that can be used to blow up the moon, which represents disharmony. This will (somehow?) rewrite our world into one where all people speak the same common tongue, eliminating war alongside the Noise, and enabling Finé to express her undying love for the Creator in his own language. But the Symphogear trio knows that the world already shares a common language: music! Even after they’re cut down one by one, their friends’ raised voices will revive them, stronger than ever, to defeat Finé and convince her that the world cannot be united by force, only by love.

Up until this point, I was on the fence about Symphogear’s imitation-game style of storytelling. It was a smart move to hang the plot around familiar beats from the show’s potentially incompatible blend of popular anime genres, instead of burying us all in freshly convoluted lore that would just weigh down a world that was becoming too overstuffed to take seriously. But when I saw the heroine trio revive from the brink of extinction with the power of song—multiple times, because there are several death fake-outs in the finale—I realized that I had to accept Symphogear’s cheesy casserole of anime tropes at face value. For better and worse, the show is a purposeful distillation of images, moments, and plotlines that only exist in anime, presented at the confident zenith of emotion that anime fans would remember from seeing those ideas expressed for the first time at a younger, more impressionable age.

Despite lunging forward like a Frankenstein of mismatched clichés from episode to episode, Symphogear never feels like a parody or a cash-in or even an homage to any specific title. It simply takes all the sleaze, all the cheese, and that distinctly adolescent sense of revolution we associate with anime as a “genre”, and then shoots its enthusiasm for all those things straight through the moon. In a world where anime is only becoming more mainstream, Symphogear is one of the more blatant examples of an anime that only makes sense to people who grew up loving this stuff before it was cool. I didn’t love this first season or resonate with all of its goofy choices, but it’s definitely a song sung by weebs for weebs, unabashedly screaming at a frequency few in the world can hear. For that reason alone, I’ll be excited to see how far this weird show can shoot its shot in the more ambitious seasons to follow.

Thanks to Ethan for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts | Wolf’s Clothing

Before I became the massive weeb I am today, I was first drawn to anime not out of an interest in Japan specifically, but out of love for the unique storytelling power of animation. Now’s a great time to be an animation fan, as popular interest in the medium’s potential grows alongside advances in technology and accessibility that allow for more diverse and ambitious cartoons worldwide.

And yet, I still don’t watch as much domestic animation as I probably should for one simple reason—most of it is aimed at children and families. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed great kids’ shows like Gravity Falls and Steven Universe as an adult, two drops in a big bucket of quality children’s programming that’s more clever and thoughtful today than ever before, so I’m not blaming my lack of interest on any lack of complexity out there. Most family cartoons today are bound to be more edifying than the pile of brain-dead anime comedies I’ve binged for no good goddamn reason, and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a perfect example.

I would’ve been obsessed with a show like this if it aired when I was as a kid. Post-apocalyptic adventure in wild pastels, a universe bursting with creative creatures where knowledge and communication always saves the day, a music-loving cast primed to break out into a diverse array of catchy tunes (my personal favorite was the Wu-Tang-flavored “Newton Wolves Rap”, co-written by GZA himself)—there’s a little bit of everything to love in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts. The series also sports impressive racial diversity in its casting, and not just for token cameos halfway down its credit list. The core four heroes are all played by POC, and the most important male character, Benson, is gay, which we learn in an extremely charming and affirming scene early on in the series. No matter your age, it’s easy to get swept up in Kipo’s relentlessly positive creative energy, as she and her new friends band together to search for her lost people, secretly hiding in a burrow beneath a world that’s been re-populated by Warriors-esque gangs of super-evolved animals who dislike humans only slightly more than they distrust the other critter cliques.

But by the end of season one, all that positivity and creativity was starting to wash me out with its brightness, and I began to wonder if a younger Jacob wouldn’t have started to feel alienated from it as well. The dissonance between Kipo’s perspective and my own life experiences reminded me all too often that this was a show aimed at not just children, but a kind of child that I had never been. I was starting to feel like a wolf in sheep’s clothing watching along—or maybe a human in wolf’s clothing, just like the only character in the core four I related to: Wolf.

Sadly, I think my real stumbling block when it comes to enjoying family shows is their omnipresent focus on family itself. I don’t have children of my own to share these stories with, and my relationship with my own kin is too troubled for me to find warm, marketable messages about functional families relatable. Even in anime aimed at children, mom’s usually dead and dad’s often evil—it’s edgy and over the top, but it does feel closer to my own experiences than the idyllic relationship with her father that heavily informs Kipo’s character. Professor Lio Oak is hyper-capable, eternally good-natured, and flawlessly supportive of his precocious daughter. It’s even made explicit by several other characters that Kipo’s wunderkind ability to bring every species of Wonderbeast together in pursuit of world peace comes from her privileged upbringing, where “can’t” was never an option. Despite growing up underground and losing her mother in infancy, boredom seems to be the only thing Kipo really struggled with before coming to the surface.

Things were very different for Wolf, a four-foot-nothing string bean with a bad attitude who was raised by mutated wolves on a surface that’s grown hostile to humans. We don’t learn more about her upbringing until near the end of the season, but it’s easy to assume the worst, since Wolf wears the child-sized hide of a fellow pup everywhere she goes. That wolf-skin’s vacant mauve eye-holes remain a jarring visual in an otherwise optimistic story, which gave me the impression that this series was going to have a more complicated perspective on its Wonderbeast apocalypse than it ended up having.

The season does start out by making overtures toward a push and pull between Kipo’s “trust everyone” and Wolf’s “trust no one” dichotomy, but Kipo’s faith in the best intentions of beastkind is consistently rewarded, while Wolf must gradually learn to connect with others and accept what it means to be part of a family. She does protect Kipo at times with her honed survivor skills, but by the end of any given episode, Wolf’s self-preservation tactics are never a better solution than Kipo’s open-hearted diplomacy. Kipo’s childhood built on love and affirmation has ironically prepared her for life in the apocalypse better than Wolf’s childhood of manipulation and abandonment, so Wolf is the one who has to do all the growing, while her once-dark world slowly molds to Kipo’s bright ideals.

Look, it’s a good message for kids. It makes more sense to build a family-friendly theme of unity and communication around the idea that no one really has any enemies, and all barriers of tribalism can be broken down with enough honest effort. Apocalypse aside, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts does technically take place in the future. I would love to believe that we’re moving toward a world where no child has to find a safe way to live around enemies who cannot be reasoned with—but that’s not the world I was raised in, and it’s not the world Wolf was raised in either. After a shocking reveal pushes Wolf away from Kipo late in the season, we finally get a glimpse of her early years, where an ascetic wolf couple raised her alongside their pups to train them in hunting humans. Wolf believed she was part of the pack right up until the betrayal, so when Benson tries to convince her that Kipo is her sister now, and you can’t fake family, Wolf responds with stone-cold confidence: “You’re wrong. You can fake it.”

The conversation ends there, swept to the side by an action scene where Kipo does indeed return to save Wolf from a different pack of wolves, and all is forgiven. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts doesn’t offer any other answer for Wolf’s formative encounter with unshakable bad faith and heinous lies told to sustain tribal supremacy, because that’s the only example of it we ever see in Kipo’s world. Everyone else in the series, even the maybe-evil mastermind mandrill Scarlamagne, speaks and acts with such overwhelming emotional honesty that you can’t imagine calling them evil. I guess you could call Scarlamagne evil, as Kipo does, for wanting to kidnap and control human beings, but when the finale reveals that Kipo’s dad probably created Scarlamagne in a lab somewhere, it’s easy to assume that this is all some kind of interpersonal misunderstanding instead. Good or evil, there’s a bigger villain out there somewhere, so Scarlamagne almost feels as though he’s not meant to be taken seriously at all.

There’s also the aptly named Mulholland, a massive tardigrade who shows his victims their most beautiful fantasies while his water bear agents consume their brains. Somehow, Mulholland is unaware that his victims don’t enjoy being absorbed down to the bones until Wolf tells him explicitly, and he decides that going on a road trip of self-examination should be apology enough for the slow liquefication of so many sentient beings. And then there’s Jamack, a Mod Frog whose life gets dramatically ruined when his fellow amphibians disown him for failing to catch Kipo too many times. After he finally gets his webbed mitts on our heroine again, he decides to not only let her go, sacrificing a lifetime of riches and power alongside Scarlamagne, he even goes out of his way to rescue her from competing gangs. Kipo did save Jamack from getting eaten once, but he’d already confidently re-kidnapped her a few times since then. His only explanation for risking such a dangerous face-turn comes in the form of a warning.

“Up here, you have to be selfish to survive. You don’t seem to know how to do that. You insist on helping and talking. One day, it’ll be your end.”

It seems like Jamack ultimately decided that Kipo was a “good guy,” and if he didn’t want to be a “bad guy”, he had to let her go. He wasn’t won over by anything Kipo did for him specifically, and it costs him greatly to give her up, but if you’re righteous and kind enough, even a Mod Frog will want to act in good faith toward you. So if Kipo’s tactics always work, then Jamack’s warning feels weightless. Helping and talking does solve every problem in season one, even in a world full of feuding monsters who accept “live and let live” surprisingly fast after centuries of “survival of the fittest”.

Wolf’s clothing is one of the show’s only unsettling reminders of bad faith, failure, betrayal, and even death in the world, so it’s no wonder that her more fun-loving friends encourage her to leave it behind. Stories about damaged survivors and loners finally finding a safe place to belong are slam-dunk heartwarming, and I have no problem with the idealistic world Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts has chosen to show kids, especially when it’s told with so much talent and enthusiasm. But I’m afraid I don’t believe there’s an Age of Wonderbeasts ahead of us, and I can’t blame kids like Wolf for clinging to their dark security blankets no matter how many Kipos and Bensons try to soften them with their best intentions—it’s not that Wolf doesn’t believe in a better world, but the way she survived the world she’s got has made her who she is. Now she’s found herself in a story where Kipo, a character who’s never known trauma or hardship, effortlessly undercuts all the darkness in her path with songs and sunshine.

By the end of the first season, Kipo discovers that she has mutant jaguar superpowers, which makes total sense for her character as the bridge between the human and animal worlds, but it also worries me for the future direction of the show’s message. As if her spirit wasn’t overpowered enough, making Kipo physically stronger than everyone else gives her an even more unrelatable advantage against any truly evil opponents acting in bad faith. Now she can just dominate anyone that she couldn’t win over, wielding the same mantras of peace, love, and understanding with the long paw of the law. It’s much easier to be kind when you wield power, and I can only hope Wolf isn’t expected to rise to the same rose-colored standards as her sister, not while she’s still bearing the weight of that wolf on her back.

Thanks to Corey for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

I Just Read Gen Urobuchi’s Equilibrium Fan Fiction

If the title of this post already makes sense to you, then you are welcome to sit by me in our tiny sliver at the center of an incredibly nerdy Venn diagram. Maybe you’re familiar with the beloved writer of such hits as Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero, and Psycho-Pass, and maybe you know of the cult sci fi flick about clerics who wield gun-fu in a dystopian world where feelings are illegal. But would you be surprised to learn that before Booch made it big writing anime, the beloved weeb wordsmith published an entire fan visual novel in the Equilibrium universe?

Actually, it might not surprise you. Once you get past the hilarious novelty of anime Christian Bale, Jouka no Monshou‘s existence makes total sense.

I can’t believe Batman: Gotham Knight wasn’t the first time that Christian Bale became anime. Booch beat DC by a whole five years!

Equilibrium was neither a critical nor commercial success upon its release in 2002, but of the many black leather trenchcoat action movies our world weathered in the wake of The Matrix’s success, it’s managed to stick around longer than most in the hearts of a devoted few. It’s easy to see how this movie could spark some imagination despite its notoriously sophomoric script. Writer/director Kurt Wimmer is far more skilled as a director than writer, so even when Equilibrium’s story stumbles by painting strokes too broad to make its “future without feelings” believable, the action stays imaginative, propulsive, and too much fun to take seriously, keeping all boredom with the movie’s pretensions at bay in ways that duller Matrix clones couldn’t. Equilibrium still looks great for its miniscule budget, with cinematography and production design just artful enough to weigh down the corners of its paper-thin ideas. It’s easy to see how mall goths and chuunibyou everywhere would be tempted to mine its shaky core for greater meaning.

Enter Gen Urobuchi, self-proclaimed adult chuuni and writer at the modest visual novel imprint, Nitroplus Games. It’s the early 00’s, so cyberpunk thrillers about dual-wielding badasses are all the rage with chuunibyou, and Booch is busy trying his hand at the genre for both fun and profit. Jouka no Monshou—or “Emblem of the Sacred Flame”, the most chuuni title I’ve ever heard in my life—is a visual novel in the truest sense, with no game elements beyond the progression of text. It’s just a fanfic with pictures and music to be sold for spare change at 2003’s Summer Comiket, but reading this Equilibrium doujinshi still gave me newfound appreciation for one of my favorite anime screenwriters. Take my Booch stan opinion with a grain of salt, but I think this little story with only two characters and three fights is better than the movie it’s based on! If nothing else, it’s a captivating kernel of concepts that we wouldn’t see pop into their fullest potential until Booch’s career blossomed in later years.

Now, I realize it’s not exactly fair to say Booch’s Equilibrium fanfic is better than the movie it relies on to even exist. Jouka no Monshou only has the opportunity to explore its own twisted ideas because it doesn’t have to spend time developing the prototypical savior arc that carried the original story. Equilibrium is a by-the-book Hollywood dystopia, where the initially icy Christian Bale stops taking his emotion-numbing Prozium drugs to discover that feeling your feelings is good, actually. Humanity should never have gotten rid of love and art just because they also bring hatred and war! Really makes you think, bro. However, this thought-crime (known as sense-offense) becomes evident to Bale’s fellow clerics when his softening heart won’t allow him to kill rebels anymore, so he must use all his badass powers to lead the resistance and take down Big Brother (imaginatively called Father) once and for all. Stylistic charms of the movie aside, it’s got the kind of lukewarm blockbuster script that’s a little too weird for most meatheads but a little too dumb for most nerds. So, what spice could Booch possibly add to this basic broth to make it more thoughtful?

Well, what if a cleric stopped taking their Prozium not because they sympathized with rebels, but because they wanted to enjoy the work of killing them? Before Kyubey, before Kirei, before Makishima, before all those compelling villains that would come to define Booch’s style, you can see him explore his fascination with psychopathy in Bartholomew Tirelli, the partner and mentor of protagonist Melvin Barnard. After Barnard catches Tirelli smiling while executing a rebel, he plans to emotionlessly report his other half for sense-offense, but Tirelli catches wind of the betrayal and kidnaps Barnard, forcing him to endure Prozium withdrawal for days in isolation. When Barnard emerges, he’s malnourished and delirious with emotions he’s never felt before, but instead of bringing him closer to Tirelli, the new gulf in their ability to feel empathy forces the once-synchronized duo apart. As they fight to the death, Barnard realizes that Tirelli is desperate not just to silence him, but to make him accept that taking joy in the “art” of murder would make him a better cleric.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I thought it was just the right mix of clever and bittersweet, classic Urobutcher style stuff. Jouka no Monshou is now the oldest work of his that I’ve read and obviously far from his best, but it seems like Booch has always had great storytelling instincts. If you’re a fan of his style, I’d highly encourage you to read this fun little fic for yourself, after you’ve already seen Equilibrium. Reading Booch’s prose as text instead of seeing it adapted for TV gave me fresh admiration for his unique strengths as a writer. I never realized before that he was so good at describing action scenes! Most of this novel is detailed gun-kata choreography, which could read like the lamest thing on the planet, but I couldn’t believe how exciting and punchy his timing was, and how precise the characters’ positions came across without seeming clinical. It turns out that Urobuchi’s knack for breaking extremely complicated worldviews down into little human pieces that everyone can understand also carries over to how he describes the moving parts of a gun battle. It made me want to read the action scenes in his anime scripts someday, too.

Who knew an Equilibrium doujinshi could be so illuminating? Okay, that’s a little misleading. Jouka no Monshou would not be known as an Equilibrium doujinshi in Japan. Like many exported blockbusters, the film’s title was changed overseas.

Its Japanese title is Rebellion.

Thanks to leafbladie for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Weebsday Q+A | 11/25/2020

It is Weebsday, my dudes! This week’s question is all about Bush-era political commentary in anime. I guess it’s what the 2020 holiday season deserves.

I recently rewatched FMA03 and was struck by how well much of it’s politics still holds up/is relevant. I’m curious what you think about 03’s politics especially it’s allegories to real world conflict. – @JulianMorein

Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 is one of my favorite anime of all time. Nothing special about that opinion; it’s like saying SpongeBob SquarePants is one of my favorite cartoons, which is also true. I could toss a rock out my window and hit someone who feels the exact same way—or at least, I could have a decade ago. Nowadays, that poor concussed pedestrian would probably append one word to the name of their favorite anime: Brotherhood.

I can’t help but wonder how many of today’s weebs have even seen the first anime adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist. Slowly but surely, both Hiromu Arakawa’s original manga and the anime remake produced to hew closer to that source—2009’s Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood—have been replacing FMA 03 in the popular zeitgeist. It’s weird to think that one of the most successful and acclaimed anime of its decade has already been supplanted by a remake that began before the ’00s ended, but I do understand why the rawness and cynicism that overwhelmed FMA 03’s last half would fall quietly out of favor compared to the more adventurous and hopeful Brotherhood. Anime fandom has become much more mainstream these days, and everything that made FMA 03 popular is still present in Brotherhood, with most of its controversial edges safely sanded off.

But I remember. How could I forget The Terminarcher? How could I forget my high school’s water-cooler discussion of the show suddenly mutating into uncomfortable teenage debates on the Thule Society?

I think FMA 03’s galaxy-brain additions like The Other Side of the Gate are mostly summoned in whispers these days, rumors of some freaky mirror universe where Hohenheim knew Winston Churchill for some reason. In retrospect, it’s absolutely wild to me that director Seiji Mizushima and writer Shou Aikawa got away with so much politically provocative stuff in a prime time hit like this. Fullmetal Alchemist was not a late-night anime! Children watched it on weekend afternoons like they watch My Hero Academia today! Brotherhood’s ultimate direction is more sensible—it remains rooted in fantasy, everyone finds a fitting redemption, and good triumphs over evil. The 2003 anime is not the version of FMA for everybody anymore, but it’s the version of FMA I fell in love with. The show’s fearless embrace of sensitive topics and unanswerable questions was always a feature for me, never a bug.

You don’t milkshake duck the most beloved character from your TV show unless you think you got somethin’ to say.

But if you don’t remember FMA 03 being all that “political”, you’re not alone. Ultimately, I think FMA stays high-concept enough to act as a Rorschach test for the beliefs of fans across a wide spectrum, especially since “there are no concrete solutions for life on this bitch of an earth” is one of the intended messages. Even when the series ends by dropping its hero off to develop rocketry in 1920’s Munich, you could handwave FMA 03’s real-world parallels in many different directions, but if I start going in on its Archie Bunkerism now, I’ll be here all day.

At this point, I’m gonna have to assume you’re already somewhat familiar with the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the tragedies that followed. I don’t feel more equipped to explain the Iraq War than Wikipedia, and my word count is already doomed to spin out of control as usual. While support for the War on Terror grew in the States, Japan was just one of our many international neighbors to widely disapprove of it, and FMA’s writing team had current events firmly in mind when detailing the fall of Liore in their anime’s last quarter. I wouldn’t say Fullmetal Alchemist is unique in its characterization of the conflict, but it’s gotta be the first foreign work of Iraq War criticism to become wildly popular in the States—even if its fantasy framing kept many fans from picking up on those parallels.

At the start of the series, Ed and Al expose an alchemist posing as a priest in the formerly impoverished city of Liore. The sun-god-fearing citizens have been thriving with the help of Father Cornello’s “miracles”, and the state military wants to prevent an insurrection building under his influence. Edward traveled to Liore on assignment as a state alchemist, but the 15-year old doesn’t actually care about enforcing the state’s authority. He only wants to expose Father Cornello for personal reasons, suspecting that the fake priest has discovered the Philosopher’s Stone that Ed could use to restore his brother’s lost body. Edward and Alphonse don’t believe that they’re fighting on behalf of the power-hungry military or the ignorant Liore denizens, only for their personal redemption. In the process, Ed relishes in flaunting his atheism and prodigious scientific knowledge before believers like Rose who’ve been putting all their hope in their faith. Ed’s not wrong to overthrow the duplicitous Father Cornello, but his brother Al (and the audience) can sense that his self-righteous adolescent cynicism isn’t helpful to the suffering populace, either. Edward ultimately leaves a weeping Rose behind to clean up the fallout of his act of “salvation”, telling her only to move forward under her own will from now on.

Soon after, Edward learns more about the war in Ishbal that defined the careers of state alchemists in the generation before him. Ishbal’s own insurrection curiously mirrors his experience with Liore, but it all ended much more tragically. With the support of the state, alchemists tried to bring their mystical flavor of science to the people of Ishbal, but the Ishbalans considered alchemy blasphemous, leading to civil unrest and occasional outbreaks of violence. After one soldier accidentally shot an Ishbalan child, this unrest exploded into all-out war, and state alchemists were sent in to exterminate the Ishbalans and raze their country to the ground. Left without a home, the remaining Ishbalans live in hiding across a series of camps and slums in Edward’s now-expanded home country of Amestris. Edward is shocked to learn about this tragedy at first, but he concludes that the war was no one’s fault, just another senseless footnote in the cycle of violence. It helps that a survivor of the war, an Ishbalan terrorist code-named Scar, has been vengeance-killing state alchemists in the name of Ishbal, which Edward views as equally bad.

Replace bringing “alchemy” to supposedly less-developed nations full of brown people with bringing “democracy”, and you can probably see where this parallel is going. Unbeknownst to Edward, the military rushed into Liore after Cornello’s fall to quell the fighting between believers and non-believers—by murdering both in equal measure. The truth about Ishbal was also vastly different from what Ed’s fellow alchemists had told him. Ishbalans already knew about alchemy, and their alchemists had mastered their own techniques long before the military invaded. It was considered a heretical practice, but Ishbalan alchemists arguably had more knowledge on the subject than Amestrians—at least, they knew how to make a bigger Philosopher’s Stone. And that accidental shooting of an Ishbalan child? That was the cover story for a far more inflammatory act of war the state committed, when they sent a special ops team to murder many of Ishbal’s unarmed religious leaders in the night, and took advantage of the ensuing chaos to invade and instate their own narrative the following day. Amestrian propaganda would have you believe these people need to be saved from their backwards religious zealotry, but the state has clearly been starting wars unprovoked for its own reasons—the Fuhrer wants the same thing Edward wants, and the boy’s service, however half-hearted, has only been bringing his troops closer to it.

Sidebar: Kimbley’s character in FMA 03 is basically a cartoon SS officer, and most of his lines are prejudice posing as nihilism. He goes out like a bitch in that version, but he gets a more badass sendoff in Brotherhood, where he beats a bigger villain. I remember it seeming cool at the time, and Kimbley might be characterized differently in ways I forgot, but I’m…not sure how I feel about that now.

When Edward meets Scar in Liore, the pieces start falling into place. Scar plans to use Ishbalan alchemy to turn the thousands of invading Amestrian soldiers into a Philosopher’s Stone—but that’s also what the Fuhrer wants him to do. Sure, he would rather sacrifice impoverished brown foreigners to acquire the Stone—a supposed weapon of mass destruction that could become an elixir of life in his master’s hands—but he doesn’t mind throwing his own troops into the meat grinder instead if it gets the job done. The Philosopher’s Stone is the only thing that the state cares about, and you can only make a Philosopher’s Stone by sacrificing a warzone’s worth of human lives. That’s not to imply that Amestrian soldiers are harmless pawns in all of this. Psychopaths like Frank Archer and Zolf Kimbley are quickly promoted to positions of power for their readiness to sacrifice lives in Liore. There’s plenty of human cruelty to exploit on the battlefield before you even get to the more monstrous conspiracies at the top, but the truth is that there were never two sides to this war. It’s just systemic racism and poverty being exploited by men (and women, shout out to Dante) at the top out of bottomless greed. Ed never thought his personal search for the Philosopher’s Stone would affect the world in such a hellish way, but after Scar gifts the completed Stone to Edward in the form of his own brother, Ed is forced to accept the responsibility of living with the compromised reality at the end of his childish dream.

While FMA 03 is never gauche enough to reference 9/11 or the Iraq War directly—even after Ed travels to our world, the furthest he sees into the future is the invention of the atomic bomb—it’s hard not to see the Bush years reflected in Ishbal and Liore. Even the nuances of how Amestris characterizes their warmongering to citizens versus the crass truth behind American (uh, I mean Amestrian) hegemony just east of where the white people live rings uncomfortably true to history. It’s a massive topic to tackle, so Fullmetal Alchemist spreads its commentary nice and thick across dozens of characters and subplots with their own perspectives and conclusions to compare. In terms of how I think it “holds up”, I could spend hours discussing where an Iraq War reading of Liore succeeds or fails, but FMA 03 is such a chimera of diverse influences that I don’t think it’s fair to judge it as pure allegory, even if the show’s ultimate WWI setting makes it clear that Mizushima and Aikawa did hope viewers would draw real-world parallels. Fullmetal Alchemist is its own fantastical story with its own context that was inspired by current events, but certainly not defined by them. It tells that story with a great depth of humanity and unflinching criticism of the frequent intersection between war and science in a world where people in power are always motivated by deadly sins.

Turning from the geopolitical back to the personal, I was most struck on rewatch by how the War in Liore affects Edward. I think that message about accepting personal responsibility in circumstances that seem beyond your control has aged extremely well. Ed has no desire to aid the military in any way, and he justifies his enlistment by seeing himself as the one using them, but he’s always been living off of privileges afforded to him by the state’s subjugation of less fortunate people. Every little decision Ed makes under the state’s authority has state consequences, even if he’s pursuing the Philosopher’s Stone for his own reasons, and even if he thinks he’s helping people along the way. Ed learns that wars aren’t just something that happen to soldiers in faraway dangerous places that have nothing to do with him, especially when he passively benefits from those wars. They might think they’re only looking out for each other, but the Elric brothers’ good intentions and rational motives can easily be exploited for national interests, just like so many bright-eyed scientists have been used before them.

Edward does get the Philosopher’s Stone, but he certainly didn’t earn it through his own efforts, and it comes at a human cost that makes him unwilling to accept it. You and I will probably never receive such a cursed gift at such a grave price, but it’s true that growing up means accepting personal responsibility for what your society has given you, even if it’s not something you chose or even believe is right. Because even if you pretend that the state of the world has nothing to do with you and your dreams, your choices will still impact the people around you, usually in ways you never intended. Fullmetal Alchemist 2003 drives home that for as long as you’re alive, you can’t opt out of participating in the world, broken and unfair though it may be. I think that’s a worthy message in a year where personal accountability and community support have become more vital than ever.

You can submit your own questions for Weebsday Q+A on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Three Episode Test | Daily Lives of High School Boys

The “three episode test” is a largely unspoken tradition of modern anime fandom. The idea is that most TV anime are paced and structured to cement the impression they want to make on viewers by the end of episode three. If you make it that far and still want to see how the story ends, then you’re hooked for the long haul. Though the exact origin of this test is unknown, it has become trendy enough to influence the production staff behind many anime series today, creating a feedback loop where third episodes are often developed with the expectation to impress in mind. Today’s test subject: Daily Lives of High School Boys.

One of the best things about taking commissions is that I get the chance to look back at all kinds of anime that time forgot, shows that I would never think to check out again myself. Getting a request for Daily Lives of High School Boys sent me into full Obi Wan mode—the only thing I remembered about this 2012 comedy anime with the world’s most innocuous title was a scene where one of the titular high school boys smushes a hornet that landed on his mouth by crushing it against his friend’s lips. It’s a hilarious scene, but unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in the show’s first three episodes. Considering the bits that did make it into the show’s first quarter, I can see why that hornet’s kiss was the only thing I still remembered.

Comedy is subjective enough to begin with, before you even get to the language barrier that can restrict anime comedies in translation. Even the most successful comedy anime in Japan (Shin-chan, Gintama, Osomatsu-san) tend to attract a much smaller niche of English-language fans. Unless there’s a ton of action, fanservice, or an endearing love quadrangle supporting the stream of gags, pure silliness is a tougher sell for English speakers who have no shortage of animated comedies in their own language to choose from. As its title implies, Daily Lives of High School Boys trades in casual, mundane gags for the most part, with just enough absurdity in moments like the hornet’s kiss to give the show its own personality. It’s too bad that the show’s personality has to be split up so uniformly over a dozen faces in its cast.

Tadakuni, Yoshitake, and Hidenori are the central trio of troublemakers in an all-boys school overflowing with other sardonic numbskulls. On the surface, Tadakuni seems like the everyman, while Yoshitake has a vaguely delinquent energy, and Hidenori is the outspoken nerd. But in practice, there’s not much daylight between their personalities in the show’s revolving door of sketches. Each new comedy routine seems hyper-aware of the fourth wall, like the boys are trying to provoke the audience just as much as each other, so they’ll all switch places in the straight man or buffoon part, depending on what the skit needs in the moment.

This SNL energy did help set Daily Lives of High School Boys apart from its peers, especially back in 2012 when this level of snide self-awareness was less common in anime comedies. It’s not the sitcom setup we might expect, where laughs come from the way that each clearly defined personality clashes in their world. Daily Lives of High School Boys is an irreverent sketch comedy about absolutely nothing. Every character seems motivated purely by the pursuit of a laugh, a groan, or hopefully both at once.

The lads don’t need much reason to put on their sisters’ underwear, pretend to join a JRPG party, or improvise a romantic sunset confession with a complete stranger on the riverbank. They seem to know that an audience is watching them, so they’ll always be down for anything, just for the sake of the gag. The possibility of any sturdier reality behind the shaky plywood set of their world gets thrown out the window in the first episode’s first bit, where the guys run to school while wolfing down curry and ramen instead of the stereotypical slice of toast. Choice moments like this breakfast gag and the hornet’s kiss do yield solid laughs, but ultimately, I think this sketch comedy structure deprives the show of the stamina it needs to be funny for twelve episodes—it’s barely funny enough for three.

When every high school boy in the cut is a vague variation on the same archetype—a fun-loving dumbass who inevitably takes a daily exercise in improv too far—even frequent changes in the scenery or cast aren’t enough to break up the monotony of lesser sketches or emerging patterns that tend to affect every character the same way. This hit-or-miss, anything-goes style of comedy could balance out its inconsistent quality with a higher quantity of sketches, but the lackadaisical pace of Daily Lives of High School Boys hurts its best bits with the stinkers that linger too long. At the end of episode 3, there’s a four and a half minute sequence where Hidenori debates whether or not to tell a girl that she has a hair growing out of a mole on her neck. The punchline is that it ultimately doesn’t matter—he wasted his time worrying about it, and you wasted your time watching him. Shaggy dog jokes like this can be funny—this infuriatingly hilarious bit in Cromartie High School is almost seven minutes long—but it’s a major waste of precious screentime if it doesn’t pay off. For me, that was the last straw for a repetitive sketch series whose misses were quickly outpacing its hits.

If you like irreverent, sketches-over-sitcoms anime in this style, I would recommend Osomatsu-san or Asobi Asobase first. Both anime embrace their mundane and absurd sides more intensely at a faster pace, with the support of a more memorable and distinct cast. Daily Lives of High School Boys does have a scene where a guy accidently shaves his nipple clean off, but I don’t think its tight handful of laughs is enough to save the overall rocky ride from obscurity.

Daily Lives of High School Boys is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Thanks to Charlie for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust | HanDmade Horror

Happy Halloween, boils and ghouls! It’s the spookiest time of the year once again, and while many weebs are bound to celebrate by binging the newest revival of Higurashi—it’s a reboot that’s secretly a sequel in disguise or something? Why can’t Ryukishi07 make things simple for once?—I find myself feeling nostalgic for a more handmade flavor of fantasy horror, and nothing fits that bill quite like Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust. Perhaps I’m just thirsting for more grain and grit and sinew at the end of a year where the tangible joys of life have been harder than ever to come by. (Or maybe somebody commissioned me to write about this movie with frightfully perfect timing.) But Bloodlust has held a special place in my heart ever since I first heard the line “It’s zombie time”, so I was happy to revisit this unique film’s legacy as it nears its 20th anniversary.

There’s long been debate within that vigorous overlap between anime fans and horror fans over animation’s capacity to convey horror well. While animation can easily outpace live action in its limitless potential for shocking imagery, the artificial nature of the medium also tends to diminish the fright factor of those images. It’s disturbing to see a real deluge of blood flooding out of a real elevator in a movie, but translate that into a flood of red paint in a painted world, and it’s more likely to come off comedic—usually, the blood gets off at the second floor. Choosing to embellish the animation of blood and gore with greater detail will diminish the comedic effect, but it might only exchange it for a beautifying effect that can dampen the intended horror too, as the audience becomes enchanted or excited by a meticulous or attractive rendering of violence and decay. Far beneath the higher concepts or deeper thrills that accompany a great horror story, that vicarious reaction of being afraid, the terror that comes from imagining that something so vile could happen to you, is bound to lessen when you feel further from the animated world that danger lives in.

I think D vaults this hurdle more spectacularly than most horror anime, but not because it taps into some surprising vein of visceral realism—quite the opposite. The film’s scope is fantastical, its atmosphere often dreamlike, and despite its lurid title, I’m not sure Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust can fairly be called a horror anime at all. (That edgetacular “Bloodlust” was only added to the film’s name to distinguish it from a humbler VHD movie adaptation from 1985.) The titular D—short for either dhampir or Drac Junior, I think—lives in an eclectic world torn between the past and the future, where the vampiric aristocracy that once ruled over humanity has fallen into decline. Vampire hunters who wield supernatural powers or futuristic weapons are the only line of defense for mankind’s remnants struggling to rebuild their lives on a rustic frontier, as a smattering of isolated vampires plot world domination from the shadows with the help of their monstrous servants. The resulting world is a casserole of popular fascinations from Japanese genre fic of the ‘80s, when this 2001 film’s source material was written. It’s Hammer Horror meets Mad Max, with just a dash of tragic romance and a pinch of spaghetti western for spice, but it all blends together surprisingly well!

It helps that VHDB is far more concerned with spectacle than lore, centering all its action on a thin but propulsive plot. The noble vampire Meier and his human lover Charlotte, with no place to live in peace on Earth, decide to flee by carriage to the site of an ancient rocket ship that will hopefully bear them up to the stars together. D pursues the pair after Charlotte’s father offers him a rich bounty, and adventure ensues across a pastiche of genres that sees our antihero coolly escaping Mexican standoffs in western settlements, dodging the post-apocalyptic artillery of rival hunters, and weathering surreal waking nightmares in the final boss’ futurist palace. While the movie shines with a dark glaze of gothic horror imagery throughout its run, I’d struggle to place VHDB into any one genre. It’s easier just to call it a Yoshiaki Kawajiri movie.

Most people know of Kawajiri from his 1993 shlockbuster Ninja Scroll, which enjoyed greater success in America than Japan for its painstakingly animated feudal brutality. Like VHDB, the plot of Ninja Scroll is uncomplicated, but it’s still easier to describe the experience as a collection of high-concept set pieces with their own climaxes and turns of momentum that eventually chain together, rather than one cohesive story with a familiar structure defined by its genre. Kawajiri has legendary instincts for choreographing action and capturing details in motion, but the pace and execution of every shot within a scene is more important to him than how those scenes will flow together over the larger film. This sequence-driven approach allowed Ninja Scroll to play better to Americans seeking taboo thrills in short memorable bursts from their Blockbuster rental. So when the anime boom of the late ‘90s began surging in earnest, Kawajiri, already a big fan of Hollywood action movies, embraced his style’s compatibility with US audiences like never before. His next feature was to be one of the most involved East-West collaborations in anime history up to that point. Ninja Scroll captured the attention of edgy American teens by accident. Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust sought to do that on purpose.

After VHDB’s animation production was completed by Madhouse, the movie’s sonic side was produced entirely in California, with an American musical score, sound mix, and English voice cast; the movie was even shown in English with Japanese subtitles in Japan before receiving a Japanese dub on home video later—creating an unusual licensing situation where the Japanese version of this Japanese movie can’t actually be released in America, just the English “dub”, which is technically the original version. The ultimate marriage of Vampire Hunter author Hideyuki Kikuchi’s dense fantasy worldbuilding with Kawajiri’s passion to deliver a punchy action spectacle for Americans pumps too many ideas into Bloodlust for it to resonate emotionally, but all those ideas are insanely cool in an unapologetic mallgoth kind of way. It’s a gorgeous slice of rich, dark excess that remains effortlessly fun to watch, so if I was forced to assign a genre to Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust, I think it would be most flattering to call it an action movie in horror’s clothing, if anything.

And yet, I believe Bloodlust’s unique pedigree should give it a permanent pedestal of recognition as a horror movie, too. At the turn of the millennium, anime was rapidly completing its transition to digital painting techniques over hand-painted cels, not just in television, but even for theatrical features. Studio Ghibli had changed over to digital coloring techniques for Spirited Away by 2001, lending movies like The Cat Returns and Howl’s Moving Castle a squeaky clean brightness that seemed alien compared to the softer and dirtier textures of films like Princess Mononoke. Pre-digital Ghibli films instantly looked older and earthier than they had before. That aged earthiness of a physical hand-painted cel breathes life into D’s gothic horror aesthetic in a way that no computer can replicate. You’re always vaguely aware that the blood dripping down that vampire’s fangs was dripped by hand, as film grain dances over the action like dust blowing over a grave.

VHDB is not just one of the most impressive visions of gothic horror ever hand-painted into cinema, it’s also one of the very last. It’s a swan song for a uniquely tangible appeal of the artform that we will never know again. The film’s nightmarish action is too beautiful and surreal to be “scary” exactly, but you can sense that it was smeared into life directly by human hands—there’s an eerie warmth to the fingerprints and brush strokes that bleeds into your soul through the screen. It makes your heart pound a little faster to see Carmilla’s corpse sop and writhe with blood that you know had to be splattered over and over onto hundreds of sheets of warm, slick plastic to resurrect her. It’s like a quieter whisper of the ineffable feeling we lost in the changeover from practical effects to CGI in live-action horror. Maybe that rubber mask wasn’t always as scary as the motion-capped monsters of today, but it was a real artifact created by a real artist to scare humans, and now it’s rotting away in a warehouse somewhere, its golden eyes forever peeled open until all their golden paint has peeled away.

If you’re resigned to celebrating Halloween from behind a screen this year, perhaps Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust will warm your heart like it did mine. It’s a wonderful sendoff to a bygone era of anime horror aesthetics. At least we can take comfort in the knowledge that while those analog methods of creating animation have gone away, VHD Bloodlust’s handmade spirit still lives on in print. Hideyuki Kikuchi wrote every one of his Vampire Hunter novels by hand, and he continues to pen new adventures for D into the present day! Suddenly, D’s persona as a stoic badass whose deeper feelings are mostly betrayed by his outspoken left hand makes a lot more sense.

Thanks to Gero Bruemmer for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Joe Pera Talks With You | The Right Things

“Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my morning coffee. Just kiddin’. I’m happy to talk anytime.”

Joe Pera is not the first person you’d think of to host a television show about his life. He might not even be the 51st person you’d think of. In his own words, Joe Pera is a soft-handed choir teacher who lives in awe of Michigan’s geological splendor. He spends his days living at his own gentle pace in the city of Marquette, nestled under the belly of Lake Superior, where he looks after his only living relative, Nana Josephine, and his sleepy basset hound, Gus. Only nominally in his early 30’s, Joe radiates a delicate diffidence that hovers somewhere between childlike and ancient—a lightly fermented second childhood that matches the energy of the elderly company he prefers to keep, far from the raucous intensity of local bars or the teacher’s lounge populated by his peers. Joe suspects that something about the teacher’s lounge turns people into lust-crazed animals, so he prefers to enjoy his humble ketchup sandwiches in the comfort of the Buick Park Avenue he inherited from his grandfather. If he’s feeling especially zesty that day, he might even drive by the Dairy Queen afterwards. It’s hard to imagine a life like Joe Pera’s commanding your attention even over a dinner date, much less a TV show that plays in the wee hours of the morning on Adult Swim.

But the tranquil simplicity of his life has given Joe a great deal of down time to think about all the things that matter to him, like beans, jack-o-lanterns, and the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada. In Joe Pera Talks With You, he tempers these thoughts into 11-minute passages that reveal a greater depth to the smallest parts of life we take for granted. Living at such a measured pace has given Joe more room to relish excitement in unexpected places. He can stay awake for three days on the euphoria of hearing The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley” for the first time, or he can face his fears of mortality by laying the pumpkin he carved to rest in the same way he hopes to leave this world, tumbling down one of the 300 beautiful waterfalls of the Upper Peninsula. Joe Pera Talks With You provides wholesome escapism that anyone can appreciate in guilt-free morsels—and its lazy atmosphere is especially potent in times of unparalleled stress like these.

However, Joe Pera is not really a choir teacher from Marquette, Michigan. Joe Pera is a comedian who grew up in Buffalo, and spent years hustling and refining his persona in the aggressive world of New York City stand-up. There must be a worldly man with a fastidious mind dwelling quietly underneath his Junior Grandpa demeanor, which means the real Joe’s passion for mining deep humanity out of esoteric topics isn’t limited to soothing subjects like fir trees and agates. Joe Pera the choir teacher can’t express these greater anxieties so plainly, so we see them reflected in the new band teacher who captures his heart, a secret survivalist named Sarah Conner. (The show’s numerous tongue-in-cheek movie references provide another glimpse into Joe Pera the comedian’s love of film.)

Like most couples, Joe and Sarah’s first fight isn’t over anything important, but its very lack of importance is what makes Sarah angry. After many relaxing episodes spent listening to Joe ramble about breakfast and fireworks, Sarah demands he turn his attention to Real Stuff, to the world that’s been raging beyond anyone’s control—there’s rising sea levels, drone strikes on civilians, and much closer to home, a desiccating power grid that could go down at any time and take their city with it.

As Joe and Sarah take a break in the last episode of season one, Joe can’t seem to keep his mind on things that used to matter to him, like his high school’s hockey games. Even if only for Sarah’s sake, maybe it’s time he focused his energy on more important questions, like “Will America pay for what we’ve done?” It’s a transformation anyone in 2020 will recognize, an urgency to turn our wandering minds to the “right things”, lest we be unprepared when the horrors of the real world roll up to kick down our front door. Maps of old mining towns and rusting railroads are folded up to be replaced by charts tracking COVID infection or the unprecedented spread of natural disasters. The simple joys that filled Joe’s heart seem insignificant now, but dwelling on the darkness of the world outside his childhood home only drills a void into him that no amount of trivia from a Farmers’ Almanac can fill. Joe grows weary as Sarah’s mind speeds ahead of his on all the Right Things to think about, and his once-soothing show slows to a lonesome stop.

I write about cartoons for a living—well, at least it’s made me a living now and again. So, it’ll shock no one to learn that I’ve never been good at thinking about the right things either, spending more of my adult years than I’d like to admit in arrested development. Long before the urgent climate of the Trump Era blew in, I was criticized by my family for not caring enough about the “real stuff” that consumed them as evangelical conservatives. And as I grew older, I found partners and friends frustrated by how little I thought about the real stuff that consumed them as progressive activists. (I hope the quotation marks make it clear that I don’t think of both sides the same way, only that I’ve found myself lonely at both ends of the pendulum.)

I try my best to care about the right things, especially these days. I don’t want to shut out anything important, but in a brighter world, I know I wouldn’t think about real stuff much, because for whatever reason, I’m wired to think about cartoons instead. Growing up nerdy means coming to understand from a young age that the things that matter most to you don’t matter at all to most people. That real stuff starts mattering to us more as we get older, especially when we see it affecting the people we love. When Joe sees how important all this real stuff is to Sarah, he’s even willing to give up the aimless, placid tenor of his show if it means keeping her in his life.

Just like Joe, I didn’t spend my time wondering if America will pay for what we’ve done before the last few years, when it’s become impossible not to think about that. But I also never thought about beans, jack-o-lanterns, or the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada. Nobody considers those to be the right things for you to care about, so I never had to feel bad about that. But they were the right things for Joe Pera to think about. Watching his show made me think about those things in my own way for the first time. It brought new and unexpected flavors of peace and joy into my life that I wouldn’t have known, not if someone like Joe didn’t choose to think about something that doesn’t seem to matter to the rest of the world. If I get the chance to carve a pumpkin this Halloween, I’ll think about giving it 1/16th of my soul like Joe did, but I’ll dispose of it the way I’d like to go out, not gently over a waterfall like Joe, but in as messy and explosive a fashion as possible. It’s the right way to process mortality for me this year.

In hard times like these, I often wish that I was knowledgeable or passionate enough about the real stuff weighing down our world to write about it. I worry that I’m not spending my time writing about the right things. Gems like Joe Pera Talks With You remind me that the Right Things to spend time thinking about are just what’s right for you, because when you care about something enough to dig as deep as you possibly can, you’re bound to find something human down there that makes it real to someone else, who’s never thought about a jack-o-lantern that way before. Anyway, if you’d like to see how Joe’s relationship with Sarah plays out, I can’t recommend this wonderful little show enough. You can start with this free special on YouTube, which was made specifically to help people relax during the pandemic, in Joe Pera’s own unique way.

Thanks to AndalusianDoge for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Magia Record | Needle in the Air

It’s been almost ten years since Puella Magi Madoka Magica punched through the placid atmosphere of magical girl anime as we once knew it, scorching a still-expanding crater into the landscape from which all manner of twisted life has emerged. Legions of imitators like Yuki Yuna is a Hero and Day Break Illusion have blazed forth from that explosion, each striving to marry Precure and Faust in their own way for just a taste of Dokes’ roaring success. Naturally, the Madoka comet at the center of this subgenre continued to burn bright alongside its imitations. From movies to manga to mobile games, there was too much money to be made for even a powerfully conclusive TV series ending to stop Madoka from spinning off into the present day. Most of these releases have spun right past me, but I perked up when it was announced that Madoka would make its triumphant return to the small screen last year, with an anime adaptation of the midquel-based mobile game, Magia Record. It would be the first time I engaged with Madoka’s world since the Rebellion movie in 2013, and by the end, I was left with mixed feelings.

Since Madoka Magica joined the pantheon of the most famous and popular anime ever made almost overnight, it’s fair to say that fans of all stripes have been drawn to the franchise for completely different reasons as the years have gone by. I can only speak for myself as a “Madoka Deist”, when I say that I don’t care much about this universe without the presence of the writer who first gave it life, Gen Urobuchi. For other Dokes fans, it may be the nightmarish cut-out art of Gekidan Inu Curry that captures their imagination. Cosplayers may be thrilled with the endless array of new costumes to recreate, and SHAFT fans are bound to enjoy the idiosyncratic direction of Akiyuki Shinbo, drawing them to the equally blockbusting Monogatari series or the experimental Kagerou Project. But I’ve never cared too much about Madoka’s pretty face—my heart was captured by its spirit, and Gen Urobuchi’s passionate core argument that hope can triumph even against inescapable entropy, and that even the smallest acts of defiance and perseverance can build into something that will change people enough to transform the world around us. My relationship with Madoka Magica is defined by how it started my relationship with Boochi’s writing, and even a decade later, it remains one of the strongest stories in his staggering career.

As a Madoka Deist, what would something like Magia Record even be to me without Gen Urobuchi in it? Is it just all costumes and tea parties interrupted by scrapbook nightmares and crying girls? Could new writers, tasked with building a plot complex enough to carry an online RPG for years, possibly add anything to the seamless mystery box its creator closed (and briefly cracked open again with Rebellion) years ago? Well, even if they could, I wouldn’t know who to thank for such an incredible feat. The Magia Record mobile game’s story is attributed vaguely to the “f4samurai scenario team”, and the animator duo known as Gekidan Inu Curry have graduated to both heads of story and chief directors of the anime adaptation. People already joke about highly commercial anime series—particularly mobile game anime—being written by committee, but Magia Record’s story is literally credited to a committee. All I can do is examine this record on face value, and try to find some meaning in its music beyond the need to encourage regular in-game purchases.

Right away, Magia Record faces unique challenges as a midquel written to slot into a story that must follow a concentric pattern of soul-crushing twists to move every character forward to the same conclusion, in a vicious cycle of despair and annihilation. Madoka Magica’s very premise, the system that defines its world, is the true villain, and it cannot be defeated until Madoka Kaname’s sacrifice at the end of the original story. Before that happens, without exception or escape, all magical girls must fight until they either die in battle or live long enough to become Witches. This pattern can’t be rewritten by any specific choices made by different characters in a different plot—replacing Madoka and Homura with new faces like Iroha and Yachiyo will not change the dead end of their fates. Their record must follow the same spiral pattern across the same grooves toward the silence of entropy. The only solution left for Magia Record’s writers is to hold the needle in the air, as the table turns gently in place to nowhere in particular for a while.

Magia Record takes place in a city cut off from the Incubators’ influence, where Witches run rampant and Grief Seeds are never in short supply. A mysterious cabal known as the “Wings of Magius” has been calling magical girls from across Japan to this Kamihama City, promising salvation from the cycle—even Kyubey has been replaced with a teensier and more marketable version of himself that prefers to squeak rather than speak. While a life spent fighting Witches could never be considered paradise, Kamihama City is about as good as it gets for magical girls in search of mutual support. With such bottomless resources to mine from increasingly powerful opponents, magical girls are encouraged to rely on one another instead of competing for once. They even have the solace of a safe home base watched over by the Coordinator, a magical girl who uses her powers not to fight, but to strengthen others’ Soul Gems in exchange for surplus Grief Seeds. (To Magia Record’s credit, there aren’t many times when obvious game mechanics leak into the linear televised version of its story, but the Coordinator does stand out as a former Shopkeeper NPC of some kind.)

While every character still gets her own sad backstory and passel of personality problems—some (Sana) more compelling to watch than others (Felicia)—this new robust magical girl economy is mostly reminiscent of the carefree first act of the Rebellion movie, right down to its silenced Kyubey. Over the course of 10+ episodes, each character’s plotline weaves pretty neatly into the others, as they build a network of friendship together in a dangerous but not hopeless world. Witches are defeated in batches without much fanfare, while new foes called Uwasa drive the greater mystery forward. Uwasa are experimental monsters created by the Wings of Magius that operate on specific rules and conditions, unlike the senselessly nuclear Witches, which means there are ways to “solve” their interference with humanity beyond simply pushing forward with magical power until one side breaks. At the center of it all, our new Madoka, named Iroha, searches for her forgotten little sister, but she secretly fears that other lost ghosts from her past will meet her along the way with answers she can’t handle. Classic Madoka characters like Mami and Kyoko pop up to make largely fruitless cameos. There are Uwasa to solve and clues to gather and lots of cute new friends to be made, but no matter how fervently the record spins on its table, the needle stays in the air.

Just like the first act of Rebellion, this relative peace cannot last. No matter how funny or heartwarming their antics, all these new magical girls are destined to evaporate by record’s end. Once the needle starts passing through those necessary grooves—the reveal that magical girls’ bodies are zombie shells, that destroying their Soul Gems will kill them, and that continuing to fight will eventually make them into Witches—all of their relationships are doomed to end tragically. Magia Record’s replacement for Homura, named Yachiyo, already knows this terrible truth, so she’s reticent to form relationships with other girls. Despite Iroha’s persistence eventually pushing her into a new found family, Yachiyo’s already started back-pedaling by the time the needle finally descends in this first season’s last few episodes—but not for the reasons we think. At last, the fine print of Kyubey’s contract is blown up for all our new characters to see, but before any of them have time to process this life-changing new information, a surprising solution is offered—the needle may be down, but records can still skip.

Yes, the Wings of Magius have found a way to twist the system by trapping magical girls in a cycle within the cycle, allowing them to flirt with Witchification by shifting into a “Doppel” state that trades their sanity for raw magical power in short bursts. Yachiyo has known this all along, so she’s been desperately hiding the “monster” inside of her from her new friends. They didn’t bother to explain exactly how this works as of season one, but given that the mad scientist behind Doppel-ing is a stereotypical child genius, I have to assume it’s a technological breakthrough rather than a loophole in Kyubey’s own magic. Anyway, the “how” doesn’t matter. By forcing a repetitive skip in magical girl playback, Magia Record is trying to offer a contextual solution to what was originally a cosmic problem, revising the original story’s bigger ideas into much smaller ones.

Magia Record plants plenty of seeds in its dialogue comparing Witchification to a seductive kind of power to prepare us to accept this reveal—but that’s not what the Witch state represented in the original Madoka Magica. Becoming a Witch meant being crushed by the cruelty of the world, falling into absolute despair and therefore emotional powerlessness, regardless of how much havoc your soul’s lethal fallout wreaked after your death. Witchery was not a powerful state to be in, because it was devoid of consciousness or control—becoming a Witch is akin to straddling an atomic bomb as it crashes to earth. At most, you could maniacally embrace your dead-end despair and die laughing instead of screaming. (Most Witches laugh and scream simultaneously, in a nice touch of horror.) My point is, becoming a Witch never represented being tempted to acquire greater power, not before Magia Record asked us to reconsider by skipping in place.

Transforming Kyubey’s one-way escalator to oblivion into a balancing act where magical girls can just Jekyll and Hyde the nuke inside them was probably one of the only solutions available to Magia Record’s writers room, but that still doesn’t make it thematically interesting to me. It’s gotta be a risk/reward-based battle mechanic from the original game, because that’s exactly how it comes across in the anime, right down to the dark upgrade’s seemingly minor and reversible consequences. Nothing about this Doppel twist approaches the unforgettably desperate emotional stakes that drive Madoka’s world outside of Kamihama City—in fact, it just made the Magia Record cast’s already rosier situation that much cooler. Having a Doppel is badass enough to be a common foundation for no end of superhero stories where the good guy wrestles with his more powerful dark side, like The Hulk or Spider-Man’s Symbiote. It feels like a climactic turn this story just needed so that it would have one at all; otherwise, this would just be a plot about friendly magical girls who whittle their time away on Witches and Uwasa until Madoka Kaname’s sacrifice makes things slightly better for them without their knowledge.

Although we get a hint of the darker consequences to Doppel-ing after seeing Mami’s powers go out of control (poor Mami, it’s always Mami), becoming a Doppel is so obviously preferable to becoming a Witch that the story has to introduce another twist for us to feel like our heroes are facing any kind of greater threat instead of a relative victory against entropy. Not content just to save magical girls from their hellish fate, the Wings of Magius are planning to conquer humanity itself in some kind of Magical Girl Supremacist assault around Walpurgisnacht—you know, the day when Madoka Kaname’s sacrifice will nullify all of this completely. The oppressed somehow becoming the oppressors to start a war we already know they will lose—you hate to see it.

Look, the committee did their best here, but Madoka Magica is such a closed circuit of ideas that spinning it off was bound to be a thankless task. Some of this side story’s side stories do shine—Sana Futaba’s arc almost brought me to tears—and the others are at least competent in structure and tone, if uninspired in content. As an eternal middle state, a broken record, Magia Record could probably have played around with new character arcs and mini-mysteries forever, and I would have been content to watch it—slice-of-life comfort food in the Madoka universe, made just for die-hard fans, isn’t a bad idea. But somebody at corporate decided they couldn’t just keep spinning a record where the needle never dropped. In terms of generating revenue, going bigger was probably the right call, even if the writers’ only options for escalation were doomed to pale in comparison to the source material. So, now we get a Doppel War against Mahou Shojo Nazis, I guess.

Like so many stories, your investment in Magia Record will probably come down to how compelling you find its individual characters, and I personally found them too numerous and slight to draw me into their internal lives beneath the show’s greater focus on plot twists and new lore. Maybe future seasons will see Iroha facing her past as a stronger person and Yachiyo accepting the true meaning of friendship, but no matter how loudly this record skips in place, I already know how this story must end, and it has nothing to do with pedestrian platitudes about how power corrupts or whatever Magia Record is trying to say by gamifying its Witch imagery. It wouldn’t generate as many downloads on the App Store, but for the sake of this story and characters, maybe it would have been okay to write a midquel that remained forever in the middle. Maybe it would have been better to leave the needle in the air.

Madoka Magica: Magia Record is currently streaming on Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE.

Thanks to leafbladie for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤

Three Episode Test | Gleipnir

The “three episode test” is a largely unspoken tradition of modern anime fandom. The idea is that most TV anime are paced and structured to cement the impression they want to make on viewers by the end of episode three. If you make it that far and still want to see how the story ends, then you’re hooked for the long haul. Though the exact origin of this test is unknown, it has become trendy enough to influence the production staff behind many anime series today, creating a feedback loop where third episodes are often developed with the expectation to impress in mind. Today’s test subject: Gleipnir.

You know, I’d like to think that I’m a pretty tough cookie. I’ve got my fair share of crippling anxieties and irrational fears, but I try to face them with a smile, so I can gradually build up a tolerance to all the stuff that makes my skin crawl. I’ve just got two dumb phobias left, horrors that still grip my heart and seize my brain with a fervor I can’t shake until I get the fuck away from them. I’m afraid of fire, and I’m afraid of fursuits.

In the first episode of Gleipnir, our protagonist gruesomely transforms into a mascot costume to rescue a half-naked girl from a burning warehouse. My jeebies were 110% heebied, watching Shuichi live out my own personal hell.

I know most people don’t share my disgust for anthropomorphic suits, so I appreciate how thoroughly Gleipnir has embraced their potential for horror. Sure, they’re warm and fuzzy and they make children smile, but underneath those oversized frozen grins, you know it’s probably just a sweaty pervert. In Shuichi’s case, his entire body morphs into the costume as if it were an autonomous creature, so underneath the zipper, there’s nothing but a hollow void of clammy flesh, like his body has been turned inside out, stretched and warped into the facsimile of a childlike animal. The immediate question is why (god, why), but there are no answers yet, and the morbid chaos that followed this bizarre premise was just as engrossing as it was gross.

I was shocked by how much I enjoyed Gleipnir’s first three episodes, because it belongs to a specific class of anime horror that usually does nothing for me. Future Diary, Deadman Wonderland, and Happy Sugar Life are just a few examples of this genre, where kid-friendly images like candy, theme parks, and stuffed animals are constantly juxtaposed with shocking displays of gore and sex for maximum shock value. Most of these stories are aimed at teenagers, but they’re so blunt and self-aware about bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood that their attempt to ride a bleeding edge just reads jagged and dull to me. “Stop trying to shock me and shock me,” I want to say every time another uninspired anime trots out a 6-year old girl who puts bombs in teddy bears. Gleipnir seems to understand that the gap between children’s toys and adult weapons is not scary on its own—it’s mostly distracting, because we know those things don’t belong together and don’t tend to overlap in real life. It’s much more disturbing to watch innocence and corruption ooze together naturally, until the gulf between them just disappears.

After Shuichi saves Clair from a suicidal act of arson with his mascot-morphing powers, she thanks him by stealing his phone and taking blackmail photos of his monstrous alter ego. As it turns out, she was trying to take her own life because her sister had undergone a similar transformation that resulted in the death of her parents. Now Shuichi is her only lead for resolving the tragedy that ruined her life, whether he likes it or not. Shuichi himself has no idea why he’s become a were-furry (all signs point to aliens so far), and he wants nothing more than to get rid of this power, but he’s tender-hearted enough to trust Clair’s leadership in this mystery, if it means she’ll stop trying to kill herself. And that’s when we get to the real meat of Gleipnir.

In a stomach-turning, baldly sexual sequence, Clair strips down, unzips Shuichi’s costume body, and plunges inside. The moist, pulsing folds of his innards wrap around her limbs as he submits to her control, her grief, her hatred, and above all, her lust for vengeance. I found this role reversal fascinating, seeing a girl who was cast into adulthood too fast dominate a boy who’s been transformed into a symbol of his own desire to remain childlike, happy, and ignorant. I took it all in thoughtfully, with rapt attention. I definitely didn’t prance around the room squealing “ew, ew, ew”, flapping my hands around on the ends of my arms like a toddler with castanets at the ren faire.

Look, it ain’t high art, but there was something unexpectedly captivating about Gleipnir’s balance of the infantile and macabre that its peers in this subgenre have not had the confidence to pull off. There are no doe-eyed, rosy-cheeked moppets shouting obscenities or giving their victims poisoned lollypops. For once, this anime’s visceral vision is cohesive enough to close that gap between cute and creepy and genuinely unnerve me. Instead of trying to shock me with deadly babies or child-minded adults, Gleipnir exposes the horror in the minds of teenagers kicking and screaming at adulthood, developing kids who look in the mirror to see bags under their eyes for the first time and begin to fear that these empty summer days at the end of high school are as good as it will get for their lives.

Shuichi wraps himself up in denial, confronting the ugliness of death and loss around him with random acts of kindness in a friendly form, ignoring the hormonal impulses of the dog inside him in favor of its cartoonish smile. By contrast, Clair lost everything so abruptly that she can’t imagine ever being happy again, so she just wants enough power to punish the world (and her sister) for ripping it all away from her. It’s a chemistry that just works for this twisted nightmare of a premise, and there’s plenty of room for these two to push and pull against each other inside that stuffy suit. After three episodes of vile and upsetting imagery, I still hadn’t rolled my eyes once, and I never found the lack of explanation for all this madness irritating. The story had the confidence to make me believe it would dole out answers at the most dramatically potent time down the line.

If you’re in the mood for a shamelessly ugly twist on teen romance with some wild sci fi hooks and a snappy pace, Gleipnir passes the three-episode test with flying colors. I don’t expect Shuichi and Clair’s death-wish-fueled fling to resolve happily, and I’m not in the mood to watch more of something so dark and bitter right now, but I have to respect its successful shock factor in a playground over-populated with anime that try and fail harder to make teddy bears scary.

Gleipnir is currently streaming on Funimation.

Thanks to Ethan for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤