A Delicate Balancing Act- Anime Critique: Akame ga Kiru!

Title: Akame ga Kiru! (Akame ga Kill! Akame Slashes!)
Format: TV anime
Genre: Shonen, fantasy, action, pseudo-harem, gore
Series Creators: Takahiro & Tetsuya Tashiro
Series Director: Kobayashi Tomoki
Studio: White Fox
Series length: 24 episodes
Original Airing dates: July 6, 2014 – December 14, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs

Manga cover
Manga cover

Synopsis:

Tatsumi is a fighter who, accompanied by his two childhood friends, sets off to the Capital in search of a way to make money to assist his poverty-stricken village. After being separated from his friends, Tatsumi not only fails to enlist in the army, but is swindled out of all his money. He is then taken in by a noble family who offer him help, but intend to torture and kill him, just like they did with his friends and dozens of other people. Tatsumi is rescued by a group of assassins known as Night Raid; who are also part of the revolutionary forces assembled to overthrow Prime Minister Honest, who manipulates the young emperor for his and his men’s personal gain, leading the rest of the nation to poverty and strife.


Critique:

In my view, Akame ga Kiru! is one of those rare series that takes established genre tropes and not only subverts to a degree but comfortable balances them with other common & uncommon elements -such as humour, emotion, fan service & extreme (& I do mean extreme) violence.

This delicate balancing act is the key strength to the series -but it is also its greatest weakness to a degree- as it takes many of the ideas of your typical Shonen narrative -such as ideas of justice, self-empowerment, overcoming more powerful opponents through strength of will & ignoring powerful female characters- and skews them into something basically other to the narrative norm.
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Primary to this is the central protagonist, Tatsumi, who seems like your typical Shonen manga hero. In that he is idealistic, naive & stubborn in his beliefs. The way that he is set up in the beginning, as a teenager coming to the capital to meet up with his two best friends so they can make enough money to save their village which lies along the farthest boards of the empire. Even though he is rejected for the army, swindled & exposed to the corruption of the capital, he maintains his naive idealism & is eventually taken in by a young noble woman who promises to help him find his friends and get into the army with her father’s connections. When the noble girl and her family are targeted by the assassins, Night Raid, Tatsumi does his upmost to protect the girl he believes to be his saviour -even going blade to blade against the titular Akame- but when it is revealed that the girl and her family tortured & killed his friends for their own sadistic pleasure, he shows no hesitation in being the one to kill her where she stands.

This juxtaposition of being naive morality and responding to the harshness of reality is what makes Tatsumi -& the series as a whole- interesting. Because even though he wishes to be moral, freeing the citizens of the empire from the corrupt tyranny of the manipulative Prime Minister -ironically named Honest- he is aware of the practicalities of achieving this. He accepts that he must become a murderer -even if the people killed are the worst humanity has to offer- but he does not let such darkness cloud that what he does is for an ultimate good. Yet a good that must always come at an exceptionally high price as people will suffer & die, even if you have the power to stop it.

The majority of the characters are also subversion of the standard genre tropes & cliches -for the most part that is.

They often fall into the typical archetypes that we come to expect -such as the unemotional one, the tsundere, the perv and the homo (how they refer to him in the series)- yet, for the most part, the characters are given context as to why they are like they are and are even given a change for develop, so that they have an arc to journey. What gives another good twisting to convention is that this development is also offered to the major antagonists of the series -the Jaegers- so that they aren’t just cardboard cutouts being bad for the sake of it (for the most part that is).

While Tatsumi is the naive idealist who grows to accept his roll as a killer, he is never shown  having the typical weakness of trying to spare his enemies or get them to see his point of view (such as Emiya in Fate/Stay Night). He grits his sense of mercy against having to do what is right in the situation, even if that means performing a brutal or underhanded act to win. He does gain more strength and power as the series progresses, as well as gathers a kind of harem around him, which are typical of the Shonen genre yet his development is never as clear cut as it would be in a more down the line (cliched) story like Bleach or One Piece. Since the manga is still continuing, the team behind the anime made an exceptionally brave way to resolve Tatsumi’s story arc, which was extremely unexpected & whilst a lot of people will be upset by it, I salute them for such a brave way of ending.

Tatsumi isn’t the only one who undermines standard Shonen characterisation, because his friends & enemies -whilst being cliched or archetypes at time- tend to have fleshed out backgrounds to explain their personality & behaviour.
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The titular Akame seems to be the usual taciturn killer obsessed with food but because she was raised solely and brutally as an assassin she lacks social skills and she constantly needs to eat to fuel her incredible abilities; also: despite appearing utterly emotionless, she cares deeply for all of her comrades, even if Tatsumi can’t understand how she does this at first. The sniper Mine (pronounced like mine as in the game Minecraft) seems like your typical tsundere but her emotion and arrogance fuels the power of her Taiga (Relic/Imperial Arms) weapon, Pumpkin, which grows stronger the more trouble its wielder is in -as well as the fact she is a half-blood child, which meant she was ignored & bullied all of her life, so she uses her arrogance to hide her fragility. The lion-like Leone (see pun in name) seems like your typical morally dodgy hedonist, actually swindling Tatsumi out of all of his money when he arrived in the Capital, but she has an exceptionally deep sense of loyalty to her friends & believes in personally punishing those who commit the most wicked sins upon the innocent -acting both as Night Raid’s spy & powerhouse in a fight. She also has a softer side, caring for Night Raid, insisting that they all refer to her as “onee-san” (big sister), which Tatsumi dutifully does despite their 1st interaction. Lubbock is seen as your typical amoral pervert who’d do anything to see the female Night Raid members naked but he never lets himself fall for enemy tricks -especially those involving beautiful- because he will do absolutely anything for his beloved commander, Nijenda.

Unfortunately the two remaining characters, Bulat & Sheele don’t really get time to develop but do have interesting backstories.

Bulat at first is shown as the butch homo (the translator’s term for him) with flamboyant hair but he acts like an older brother and mentor to Tatsumi (who refers to him as “aneki”). Despite his pretty boy appearance, he is a powerful fighter who is trying to make amends for the slaughters he committed when he was a soldier in the imperial army. I would’ve liked to have seen him develop much more outside the tender tough guy/queer trope but, alas, media has no issue in killing off homosexuals or deviants.

Sheele isn’t deviant in the traditional sense but she also doesn’t get time to shine. She’s shown as clumsy, airheaded & a tad useless but one of the most brutal killers in the team when armed with her giant scissors (yes, scissors like you do Arts & Crafts with). She claims a neurological condition, a “twisting inside my brain”, makes her useless at everything life but fighting & killing. After saving her best friend from a brutal assault & near rape, she discovers her talent for murder, becoming an assassin before being recruited by Night Raid. Unfortunately she’s turned into a sacrifice to demonstrate the power & brutality of the series’ main antagonists, the Jaegers (German for Hunters even though Germany doesn’t exist within the series).

The Jaegers I find a really interesting set of characters, proving the axiom that for a series to work you must have deep, complex villains who are twisted reflections of the heroes. Each member of the Jaeger is given details on their backgrounds & time to develop on screen, with each not only mirroring Night Raid but also displaying the issues inherent within the corrupt Empire.
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The Jaeger’s leader is the insanely powerful & brutal General (Shogun) Esdeath, who’s motto is “the strong survive and the weak die”. She also wields one of the most powerful Taiga in the series, the power to manifest ice in any shape or amount from out of nowhere. Her utter brutality lies in stark contrast to how she cares for her subordinates, even if she believes that if any of them die it was because of their inherent weaknesses (also blaming herself for not helping them overcome their weakness). She also wants to know what it is to be in love, falling for an undercover Tatsumi when he won a tournament set up to find her to perfect mate. Her devotion towards him boarders on the Yandere but she is shown to have genuine affection for him, even though he keeps trying to escape her.

The other really interesting members of the Jaegers include the flamethrower using Bols, who hides his face behind a gasmask & comes across as intimidating because of his huge, scarred body. Whereas, in truth, he is a gentle soul who cares for his team members, is a skill cooked & likes being as helpful as he can. He also has a loving wife & daughter but is fully aware of the atrocities that he has committed in the name of bringing peace to the empire -including burning an entire village to ash so to stop the spread of a plague. He knows that he will one day be judged & punished for the crimes that he has committed but that doesn’t stop him from being open & caring for everyone around him -despite his painfully shy nature & dark self awareness.

The other interesting member of the Jaegers is Seryu Ubiquitous but for opposite reasons as Bol. She’s utterly obsessed with justice & with becoming a Hero of Justice like those whom she idealised. Unfortunately those whom she idealised were either murderously corrupted -such as the Capital Guard leader Orge- or dangerously insane like Dr Stylish. Her version of justice is twisted & absolute, with no room for subtlety or reason; so she responses with extreme violence. Often using her dog-like Taiga, Koro, to devour the so-called “evil doers”. Her mentality is further twisted when Sheele severs her limbs at the cost of her own life, making her believe that “good” (herself) will always triumph over the forces of evil (everyone else). Though when she is introduced she is shown as your typical, bumbling & airheaded “ally of justice” type because that is what she believes herself to be. Except her mind is so twisted that even her comrades don’t trust her -especially Wave.

Wave is Tatsumi’s mirror. In that he is also naive & idealistic, believing that he must serve the Empire no matter how twisted it is. Because a righteous heart can heel any wound if they stick to their path. He isn’t entirely stupid, seeing the wrong doings enacted upon the populace -especially by other Jaegers (mainly Seryu)- but he still acts, along with Bol, as their anchor to normality & morality -especially for Kurome, Akame’s mentally-warped younger sister.
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Both Kurome & Akame share many similar traits, such as insatiable appetites & incredible, inhuman fighting skills. Yet whereas Akame feels the burden of all the lives that she has taken, Kurome feels their comfort. More considering that her Taiga, Yatsufusa, can turn anyone it slays into undead puppets. Her sense of being abandoned, stemming from being separated from her sister & experimented on, shows through in the use of her weapon to keep those whom she loved close to her -usually by mercifully ending their lives or murdering them when she thinks that they’ll leave her. Her character arc is minor yet interesting in how she develops outside seeing herself only in relation to her sister, especially when dealing with people as emotionally open & supportive as Wave.

There are heaps of other characters in the series too but in translated many from an on-going manga to a 24 episode series meant that they often appear, are introduced & then killed off without much fanfare.

In fact, there are several aspects & characters from the original manga that are removed or completely changed to fit with the new format but this doesn’t detract from it. I actually like how they were brave to give a solid ending to an continuing narrative rather than leave everything up in the air for a series that may never come (oh, how you betrayed me Horizon In the Middle of Nowhere!). Whilst some may quibble with the ending, I felt that it fitted for the most part but do be prepared to have your heart torn out a little if you’d grown attached to characters.

As well as playing with narratives & tropes, this series is also exceptionally violent. Surprisingly so in fact if you’ve never read the original manga. With blood spumes & dismemberment par for the course. Often shown in unflinching & uncensored fashion (unlike the TV broadcasts of Tokyo Ghoul or Gokukoku no Brynhildr). Yet the series does flinch away from the more sexually violent aspect, such as hints of rape & molestation. This is a positive in my view but it does mean that they cut out one of the best mini-arcs from the manga, where naive girls from the country are brought to the Capital, spoilt for a day before being assaulted & molested then addicted to drugs until they die a brutal death. This segment is important to show how vile the Empire has become & the lengths Night Raid go to in order to dispense their brand of justice.

Yet, as it shies away from aspects of sexual assault & molestation, it still has a lot of blatant Fan Service. Which is many cleavage on display but occasionally taut male muscle for the ladies. The Fan Service is never graphic or ogling, never really lingering or shoving your face in it but it can distract from the overall scene and series. This was also an issue in the manga but felt more satirical there, whereas the anime just has the jugs out on display (although covered up in some aspect).

TITTIES!!! Covered but still titties!
TITTIES!!! Covered but still titties!

The Fan Service and Sexualisation aren’t deal breakers or annoying but they do feel jarring out of place at time.

The fight scenes are often exceptionally well depicted, with fast paced brutal action always centred so you know what’s going on. Unfortunately, it still falls into many annoying Shonen tropes, such as taking time to explain “Special Moves” and attacks as well as every character having a hidden “trump” (turumpu) card ability that they always expound upon during battle. I personally find this trope to be overused & very annoying but the fights themselves are bloody & enjoyable (bloody enjoyable you might say, gauffered laugh).

The series is also beautifully animated, with interesting anachronistic designs that juxtapose our modern with classic fantasy -especially in regards to clothing design. With Tatsumi & Akame both wearing what look like school uniforms. It’s also vividly colourful, using lots of scenery, such cityscapes & nature, but it does look all the same after a while because they reuse the same backgrounds a lot (cash saving measure).

Overall, I thought that this was a brilliant series that translated many of the positive & transgressive aspects of the manga to the TV medium whilst still maintain a delicate balancing act of using & subverting standard tropes & cliches.

Whilst it might not be for everyone, I still found it immensely enjoyable -especially with its tender moments and quick fire humour. Some may not be able to get passed the extreme violence with it’s rivers & fountains of blood or forgive it for killing off characters whom you’ve come to love but stick through it all before casting your judgement -just like I’ve done.

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Subversion succumbs to cliche – Anime Review: Witch Craft Works

Witchcraft_Works_manga_vol_1Title: Witch Craft Works (Witchikurafuto Wakusu)
Format: TV anime
Genre: supernatural, comedy, romance, fantasy
Series Creator: Ryu Mizunagi
Series Director: Tsutomu Mizushima
Studio: J.C. Staff
Series length: 12 episodes + OVA
Original Airing dates: January 5, 2014 – March 23, 2014
Reviewed format: HDTV download with fan subs.


 

Synopsis:

Takamiya Honoka is a regular student whose only problem seems to be that he sits next to Kagari Ayaka, the school’s “Princess”. They have never spoken to each other before and any small interaction between them immediately results in her fanclub beating him. Yet when a falling part of the school’s building is about to send him to the afterlife, it’s Kagari that comes to his rescue. Only she’s dressed as a witch, carrying him in her arms and floating on a broom. Kagari tells him it is her mission to protect him and that now she can finally protect him openly rather than undercover.


 

Review:

I have a confession to make, I first became aware of Witch Craft Works when a friend sent me a hentai dōjinshi that they wanted identified. Once I found the original manga, I instantly was drawn to the series.

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The main reason for this is that it sets out to subvert so many tropes of Shonen style action narratives, by positioning the male lead, Takamiya Honoka in the role of the princess to be protected & rescued, with Kagari Ayaka being the knight who protects him at all costs. The reasons for which are slowly revealed over the course of the manga (less so in the anime) & whilst it is a good first step in terms of subverting & parodying the narrative norm, it still falls short in so many ways.

That is because of my two usual bugbears: Fan Service & cliche.

Pretty much, in my view, every two steps both the manga & anime make in a good direction, they’re both pulled back a pace by reverting to Fan Service or not doing enough to twist around cliché into something truly subversive or unique.

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The one of main reasons for this is because of the male protagonist, Honoka, who despite having the role of the one who needs to be protected actually wants to be the one protecting others. Because is constantly targeted by various groups & individuals who are seeking the White Stuff within him (which leads to a lot of bad comedic misunderstandings), he always has Ayaka fighting for him but, in order to satisfy his own sense of justice & male ego, he tries to be the one to protect her. This usually results in both of them getting hurt in some way, even though Ayaka’s magic means she suffers no harm when she’s close to Honoka’s hidden power source, & drives him to do stupid things in order to achieve some sense of control & empowerment within his own life. He is also the constant victim of bullying, because of his closeness to Ayaka -who is worshipped like an idol at their school & has a devoted fan club/following- & he always tries to enforce the Consensus Society rule that the bullies are right & that he has no business being near Ayaka (despite her clear love for & devotion towards him). This shows the greatest of cowardice because at the same time he desires the power & ability to protect those around him, he gives in to pressure & bullying & shows utterly no backbone when dealing with problems. This carries over to the whole cliche of the ‘purity of love’, where Honoka is too much of a bloody coward to even touch Ayaka in any significant way, even if it means saving her life through a simple kiss (this is a trope that pisses me off no end & will write about it at a later date).

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Unfortunately Ayaka doesn’t fair that much better in terms of depictions. Despite being one of the most physically & magically powerful people within the narrative universe, she has a blank cold exterior, refuses to explain anything to Honoka -even if it would mean he’d stop doing stupid things- & is creepily obsessed with him (to the point of sitting by his bed all night to watch him sleep). She also has very large breasts, which aren’t flaunted in the usual Fan Service hypersexualied way but are always emphasised whenever she is shown. Was very much surprised that they didn’t have a beach or onsen but doubt they could’ve fitted it into the very close following of the first story arc of the manga without utterly destroying the quick flow of the narrative.

Before I get into the positives of the series, one more quibble: the anime isn’t as pretty as the manga. Which is a shame because it has the potential to be an exceedingly visually beautiful series. The manga has some pretty images whenever magic is being used or the witches reveal their true powers but they don’t really explore that in the anime. I understand the whole cost factor & the like but it does seem like a shame. Hopefully they will amend this in the Blu-ray releases.

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Anyway, the good of the series.

When it’s funny, its very funny. With lots of good visual gags & running jokes (such as Ayaka easily beating the KMM Gang witches who try to kidnap Honoka or the random unexplained llama).

The side characters are a hugely diverse bunch. With Ayaka’s mother Kazane -the head Workshop Witch- who is powerful but incredibly slow on the uptake. Honoka’s mother, who is emotionally immature from being a victim of extreme bullying in high school & openly admits to a lesbian love for Kazane, who used to protect her growing up, to the point of asking her to marry her (but unable to do so, says that they arranged for their children to eventually marry).

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The 5 KMM Gang witches are also very amusing in their failures & over-confidence. More so when they are captured & enslaved by Ayaka.

Then you have Honoka’s younger sister, Kasumi, who is a violent, loud bro-con who over reacts to everything -especially Ayaka’s presence near her beloved onii-chan.

The villains Medusa, Chronoire & Weekend are al interesting but not enough time is spent developing them unfortunately. Even though the overall machinations of Weekend is what drives the plot & action of the series.

One draw back is there isn’t a great deal of development of some themes & characters, with many popping in during the 2nd half of the series without any context or explanation yet somehow vital to the plot. There is also an ongoing thing that Ayaka & Honoka have a deep connection in their past but something has altered their memories of their connection. Same with why Honoka is possessed of the power that he is. I know this is all future set up for the ongoing manga but a bit too much time is spent going over it in the anime.

At any rate, despite all of my griping with characters & cliche, Witch Craft Works is still a very interesting & unique series. It has good plot progression & the pay-off at the end in terms of narrative outcome is good (except for Honoka’s bloody cowardice over a little fucking kiss!). Depending on how BD/DVD & manga sales continue, we might see a sequel series in a year or two but am not holding my breath over it with how media stakeholders tend to act.

Still, given a bit more spit & polish, I believe that is can truly break out of all the things that are holding it back for utter greatness (which I think the manga does improve on). I honestly do recommend this series & hold it up as an example of progress in getting over so many negative tropes & cliches.

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