Simple ≠ Simplistic – Literary Critique: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publishe: Headline Fiction
Year of publication: 2013

Cover of the US editon
Cover of the US editon


Synopsis:

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.


Critique:

The mistake that so many people make that if a book is written in a simple style, without flourish, embellishment or wankery, it is therefore a simplistic tale & not worthy of comment. This a basic flaw in the logic of the self-appointed Literati who wish to be gatekeepers of all that is “true & good” in literature. This means that so many genres -such as Fantasy, Science Fiction, Magical Realism & Young Adult Fiction– are often dismissed because they do not “speak to the higher truths of Art & human spirit”. Often, nothing can be further from the truth because the aforementioned genres too often speak to the truth of humanity & the human condition. So even if they are done in a simple, minimalist fashion that does not strip them of soul or intent.

Upon this liminal precipice of the Simple & the Complex is where authors such as Neil Gaiman so comfortable dances & his 2013 work, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is proof of this convergence of styles, ideals & themes that the self-appointed Gatekeepers so willing dismiss.

On its surface, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story about a man remembering a time when he was a boy when the world suddenly changed & he was exposed to both the dangers of adulthood & the supernatural. It can so easier be read as another example of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces as a boy struggles to confront the task in front of him before things return to the status quo of a more settled time yet that does not truly express what this narrative is about. It speaks of the liminal time in a young person’s life when they are beginning to realise not only the inherent dangers of the world around them but also the dangers & mysteries of adulthood & the realisation that once things change they can no longer return to the better state that they were in before.

The story seems imbued with biographical aspects of Gaiman’s own childhood, in evoking the sense of time & play that our unnamed narrator finds himself remembering. They speak of truth of a geographical location as well as the mentality of not only a child but of the adult suddenly remembering what it felt like to be a child beset by forces beyond childish knowledge -all of which are gleamed from books & television.

The story itself begins with our unnamed narrator returning to his childhood home in Sussex for a funeral &, wishing to escape the pressure of dealing with so many faces he has not seen in years, heads for his old home -which has long since been demolished. As he the place where his old family home stood, he recalls the mysterious girl -Lettie Hempstock- who lived down the end of the lane & all her fanciful claims -such as their pond is The Ocean & her grandmother was old enough to have seen the moon being born. Venturing down to the Hempstock farm to see what happened to the girl all those years ago, our narrator begins to remember the events of when he was seven years old & the world began to change.

There is an saying that goes: “childhood ends the moment that you realise that all things must die” & it is that which becomes the catalyst which eventually beset our unnamed narrator. When his parents are affected by an economic downturn, they are forced to rent out the narrators former bedroom -with its perfect child-sized sink- to a number of lodgers. It is the South African opal miner who triggers the first calamities, when he commits suicide in the narrator’s family car -a Mini (which gives a sense of time & place in the past)- because he had stolen money from various people. Having found the body, our narrator is taken in by the Hempstock family -Lettie, her mother & her grandmother- & begins to question the nature of the world as he notices the odd things that the Hempstocks seem to know & say.

One could argue that it is this confrontation with mortality -especially in the form of suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning– that opens our narrator’s eyes to the otherworldly around him. His contact with the eternally 11 year old Lettie & her family is but the first step to his awareness of the wider world that haunts our mundane plane of existence. Yet would he still be granted this awareness of or be affected by these otherworldly forces if he had not encountered the Hempstocks? That is hard to say, because the death of the Opal Miner helped to summon something into the world that does not belong. Something that thinks that it is doing good by making people happy yet has no concept of human happiness or humanity itself. & this is seen by how it forces money -mainly small coins- onto people. Our protagonist finds himself afflicted by it when he awake choking on a coin that has been placed in his throat by some supernatural means. This event of course sends him to seek the aid of Lettie, because he knows that she will have some knowledge of it. On the surface, this could just be the actions of a 7 year old boy seeking reassurance from an older neighbour when he is too scared to speak to his own family yet that does not fit the narrative mould &, even if the supernatural is not implicit in the narrator’s knowledge, he is armed with enough education from his various books that if there is an otherworldly cause there must therefore be an otherworldly solution & his only connection with the otherworldly is Lettie & her family.

Wishing to discover the source of this mysterious money appearing all over town, Lettie insists that the boy accompany her, telling him that he must not let go of her hand no matter. This sets up an interesting dilemma & contradiction within the tale -as Lettie has no need for our narrator to go with her into the depths of the pocket worlds beneath our own. So why does she wish to bring him along?

One could make an argument that it is simply for the sake of creating the narrative & plot drive -for without this journey the story could not progress- yet that is not the entirety of it.

Lettie has a need for the boy that goes beyond simple narrative imperative.

As an eternal child, maybe she is seeking a brief companion to lighten her burden of loneliness? Maybe she simply wishes to have an audience to show off to, proving that she’s every bit as capable as her Grandmother in dealing with these otherworldly intruders? Or does she simply want someone with her to ease her own worries despite her own goddess-esque level of power & knowledge?

The story never explicitly states an answer yet I feel that it is that she wishes for both companionship & an audience. She, like so many children on the cusp of puberty (yet she’s been that way for thousands of years), she wants to stand in the shoes of the adults & prove that she’s just as capable as they are. To further this she needs an audience to prove herself too but she also needs a companion to give her the confidence that she can make a place for herself in an adult world. & who gives greater devotion than an awestruck 7 year old?

Yet, this is not the entirety of the narrator nor is it the central theme of story. That actually belongs the unnamed narrator as he is forced to understand the nuances of the adult world & adult relationships as well as the horror that lies in the heart of the human world -even when it isn’t beset by otherworldly forces.

This is all pushed to the fore by Lettie & our narrator encounter the “flea” (parasite) that is creating the coins. Lettie attempts to bind it but doesn’t know it’s name (the oldest rule in magic really) & our narrator lets go of her hand trying to protect himself from an attack by the tent-like flea -exposing him to unnatural infection which infiltrates his everyday life.

This is the point that the story switches from the perception of a “simple fairytale-like story” to a true faerytale. In so much that it’s filled with darkness, sex & savagery yet these things cannot truly be understood by the narrator at the time (only as he reflects back). A true faerytale (as opposed to fairytale) is brutal, designed to reveal the horrors of the world & act as a warning. This is reflected in the perceived horrors of adulthood & a child powerless against adults.

This is displayed through the appearance of Ursula Monkton, who ostensively is there to look after the narrator & his younger sister as their mother goes back to work but seems to have a strange control over everyone in the household except for our unnamed narrator.

Her very presence causes our narrator-protagonist to release the inherent danger and power that adults possess -especially when Ursula manipulates his father into trying to drown him in the bath as punishment for disobeying her as well as a display of her power (mentally & sexually) over the boy’s father.

Through the novel, our narrator reflects on how he feels as though he’s a let down to his father for not being a rough-&-tumble boy like he was, into sports & mischief. Saddened that his son prefers to read & copy the experiences from books rather than take to the rugby field or cricket pitch. This is in fact a great part of the process of maturity -when you are forced to look at yourself through your parents’ eyes & come to realise that you may never be as they wanted as well as the fact that you should be your own person.

This attack by his father forces our unnamed narrator to return to Lettie for help, fleeing through the night from the nearly god-like power that Ursula now displays. In response, the Hempstocks show their own power but this merely escalates matters until Lettie summons the the Hunger Birds -“varmints” (as her grandmother calls them)- the carrion eaters of reality who destroy & devour any fleas who linger too long in the real world (with references being thrown back to a powerful flea during Cromwell’s Day). Having disposed of the flea, the Hunger Birds turn on our narrator because he still carries the infection flea in his heart (a literal wormhole between worlds). They cause him to confront his love & fears -especially the fear of not being loves & eventually rejected by his family- but it is here that Gaiman truly brings out the utter devotion that a 7 year old can have to promise. Since he promises Lettie that he won’t leave the Fairy Circle that protects him from the varmints until she returns for him. After suffering the torments of the varmints & their illusions, our narrator is exposed to the titular Ocean at the End of the Lane -which Lettie & her grandmother have forced into a bucket so our narrator can escape.

I found these scenes the most invocative of the novel. As our narrator is forced to confront his worries & fears but is also exposed to the Ocean -which is hinted at actually being as aspect of the Universe itself- that fills him with utter knowledge of everything yet will dissipate him if he lingers in it too long. The notion of having absolute knowledge & then having it taken from you with only a fragment of feeling about what you once knew is a common trope in fiction yet its something that Gaiman spins well again & again -having been used masterfully in his novel American Gods (2001) and The Graveyard Book (2008). It also echoes the duel tragedy that closes the book, where our narrator loses part of himself, his friend & his memory of al these events.

The fragility of memory is one of the oldest tropes within literature & how Gaiman uses it within the novel is very clever indeed.

He presents us with a duel voice of a single character: his narrator.

He is simultaneously the 40-something adult suddenly remembering all that happened within the passed & the 7 year watching things unfold as they happen. Gaiman weaves these two voices together to give an unreliable account of fantastical events but showing that it wasn’t part of a child’s overactive imagination but rather him being victim of forces so far outside of himself that they are almost impossible to comprehend let alone face. The fear is rife in the voice of the child, as is the longing in the voice of the adult. It also shows the juxtaposition of how one perceives people & events as a child & how they do as an adult. This is highlighted when our narrator, as an adult, meets with Lettie’s unaged mother & now sees her in the sexual light of adulthood rather than the wonderment of child. This forces our narrator to accept that he has changed & he can no longer view things as they once were. That he must accept what he has become, even if it is not entirely his fault after what he endured at the age of 7 -both self inflicted & put upon him. The notion of how one can regrow the heart that was taken from them & satisfy the one who gave themselves for them in order to live a proper life.

Whilst reading, I was forced to constantly recalled Gaiman’s previous work Coraline (2002) -which is one of my favourite works of his. Both books deal with similar themes of otherworldly entities attempting to take control of a child’s life as well as acknowledgement of the adult world with all of its complexities. On the surface, you could take these tales as being pretty much two sides of the same coin -the same basic story being told from different perspectives & by different genders- yet that does not do justice to either. Yes, both novels deal with common tropes of YA Fiction & have similar imagery of horror imposed over the mundane but they are things that Gaiman writes so very very well.

The language between the two books are also vastly different. With The Ocean at the End of the Lane breaking so many rules that were drilled into me as part of the many Creative Writing courses I’ve done in college & university over the years. Yet that is one of the strengths of the books, because it’s told in a 1st person perspective, with run on sentences & asides. It’s how a child talks & how you think when you’re reflecting on past events.

It is hard to cite a negative for the story, other than it seems a little too plain for me. Though that might be more because I had it set aside for so long as I read dense epic fantasy stuff (a ten book series which I’ll get around to critiquing one of these days). So my expectations for it were rather high. This does in no way detract from the writing but does mean that I’ll have to read it again in a few years once it’s begun to drift out of my addled brain (but I was going to do that anyway).

So, to return to where we began: this story is simple. It is without burdensome flourish or heavy handed description. It follows one of the oldest patterns of storytelling that we know yet the story is not so simple. No Young Adult stories truly are (unless you count badly written shite like Twilight but that’s another kettle of fish altogether). A good story should be like a good fluffy pastry: it needs to appear light but actually has layers within layers; enticing you in until you are as consumed by it as it is by you.

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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.
Akame-ga-Kill
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.
Akamegakillcast
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.
The_Jaegers
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.
akame1
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.

mt-inc-akagakill-01-214783a8-mkv_snapshot_15-30_2014-07-09_20-02-42

Again: why did I bother? – Anime Critique: Hitsugi no Chaika ~Avenging Battle~

Title: Hitsugi no Chaika ~Avenging Battle~ (Coffin Princess Chaika: Avenging Battle, Chaika of the Coffin ~Avenging Battle~) [2nd series]
Format: TV anime
Genre: fantasy, action, steampunk, spellpunk
Series Creator:  Ichiro Sakaki
Series Director: Soichi Masui
Studio: Bones
Series length: 10 episodes
Original Airing dates: October 8 – December 10, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fansubs

Light novel cover
Light novel cover

Synopsis:

“After the events of the 1st series, Chaika, Toru & their companions are still searching for the remains of Emperor Gaz. But now Chaika is beginning to question her own identity as well as her mission. Spurned on by the mysterious Guy, Chaika leaves Toru & heads to a hidden island to recover the ‘Emperor’s Fortune’ & learn the secrets of her past. Toru, unable to abandon his duty as a saboteur & realising his growing affection for the mysterious girl, sets off the save Chaika from whatever dangers she may face -even if that danger is the truth of her own being.”


Review:

I vaguely recall not being overly found of the 1st season of this series when it screened earlier in the here. In fact, my review of it was rather blunt in my general dislikes of it -especially the unresolved ending- because of its rushed yet dragging narrative, dull visuals & loli fetishisation. In fact, re-reading my original review, I saw how nice & generous I was being towards the series as a whole. No idea why but that’s how it was.

Anyway, now we have a 2nd season of Chaika, which does bring resolution to many dangling plot points & backgrounds but it all feels meaningless in a way. No matter how it all resolves, it still feels both rushed & slow. The pace is broken, the characters flat & uninteresting & motivations as murky as some of the visuals.

What it does have going for it is resolving the mystery of the various Chaika who pop up & why the character Vivi was turned into a half-Chaika at the end of the previous series (at the shock death of her beloved captain who, surprise surprise, isn’t actually dead -yeah, who couldn’t see that coming except for mister thicko over there).

Going to go into SPOILER territory right here & say that our protagonist Chaika Trabant (AKA the White Chaika) isn’t actually the real Chaika. In fact: there never was a real Chaika. They were all orphaned girls programmed with magic & reacting to certain triggers to transform into Chaika. Each pre-programmed with various skills & reasons for wishing to gather Gaz’s remains. This revelation is spread out over the entirety of the series, making it the focus of it, unlike the haphazard “collect the parts” driver from the previous. Of course, Chaika (& Red Chaika) can’t accept this but central Chaika begins to question her reasonings & resolve to see her mission through -which in turn affects Toru’s resolve & motivations.

This should’ve been a big emotion kick & play but since the characters are so poorly rendered, it doesn’t do anything. The twists to whether or not Chaika is actually the REAL Chaika don’t matter in the end.

This is because the characters are so poorly rendered, cliched & two dimensional (aside from the fact they are traditionally animated that is) that nothing that happens to them matters in the end.

Add to the fact that the entire last few episodes of the series are rushed & clumsy because they only had 10 episodes to work with rather than the 12 of the previous series & because the source material is still going. They basically pulled an ending out of their arse but unlike Akame ga Kill! (Akame ga Kiru! -review coming soon), this one feels haphazard, inconsequential & relying on a sudden, stupid case of Apò Mèkhanès Theós using a typically emotive device that evokes no emotions & a boring Good End coda to finish that also does nothing to stir the heart strings because it is entirely riddled with cliché.
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In fact, things that were once interesting become boring with explanation. Primary how magic is created & used within the series. I had complained that they didn’t really go into this in the last season but their explanation for magic & Emperor Gaz’s desire for it just seems so ham-fisted & half explicated that it becomes an entire waste of a plot point. More so with Gaz’s Treasure (also translated as Fortune) being a gundo (magical weapon) that then becomes a useless Apò Mèkhanès Theós is also a waste. Same with Gaz’s ultimate plot & resurrection, how he manipulated almost all events to achieve his goals. It was so all rushed & hand-waved through that I stopped caring.

A lot of the plot seems, again, both rushed & dragging. It had the grand ambition of wanting to philosophise on the ideas of war, human nature & what it means to be true to yourself vs. a task that you are driven to achieve but it just rings so hollow. All of these themes we have seen tackled in much better anime over the decades & it just gets stuck on such basic concepts. Mainly the idea that once someone has tasted war or conflict or been solely designed/trained for it, they cannot live in peace because they cannot change their fundamental nature. I personally find such concepts to be bullshit & utterly demeaning to those who have suffered through conflict & trauma. Saying that they can never find peace or cannot be happy unless they are killing. Some people do get trapped in such mindsets but there are those who can move on -especially when aided by others (such as I have done over the years with people I know with PTSD)

It also has to be mentioned how blandly this show is animated. There are so nice notes in the character design but the scenery & extra details are so fundamentally lacking that they might have well just reused any generic fantasy anime background. The fights are still fairly well done but lacking in excitement. The colour palate is dull, especially the toned down blood splatters.

The only good thing to note is the reduction in Fan Service & the (hyper) sexualisation of the loli-like Chaikas. They still have fetished appearances but so do most of the females in the series. I pretty much chose to ignore it this time around between it becomes “Sky blue, water wet” syndrome (stating the fucking obvious in other words).

In the end, I have no idea why I bothered with the series overall & curse my compulsion to find narrative resolution, even in things that I don’t really like or care for. Can’t recommend. Try the manga & original Light Novel, they actually look good & tell a better story.

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A pointless adaptation – anime critique: Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky

Title: Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky (Esuka & Roji- no Atorie ~Tasogare no Sora no Renkinjutsushi~)
Format: TV anime
Genre: game adaption, fantasy
Series Creator: Gust Co. Ltd.
Series Director: Yoshiaki Iwasaki
Studio: Studio Gokumi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Studio_Gokumi
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: 10 April 2014 – 26 June 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

In a far away place to the west of the Twilight Land where the local administration hires two new alchemists, Escha and Logy as members of their R&D division. While learning the ropes of their new occupation, Escha and Logy gather friends and companions as they unlock the secrets of the nearby ruins and help the citizens in a world that is still recovering from a catastrophic event known as “The Dusk”.


Review:

Am going to be very quick with this review.

I haven’t played the massively expansive games series that it’s adapted from due to only a few being released outside of Japan & the general premise &, more especially, the terrible translating & voice acting never grabbed me.

I guess that it was popular enough to warrant an anime adaptation but I personally don’t find it interesting enough for that.

It sticks pretty rigidly to the source material, as a lot of game adaptations do, meaning that you lack lot of context & the series tends to throw a lot of random scenarios & characters at you that viewers more familiar with the series would get more out of but as a non-invested viewer, I just found it annoying. Too much lore & too much backstory without actually developing the story & lore on screen. The alchemy that they used isn’t really explained & all hand waved past like such great magical wonder. Yet it’s not magic & the magic that in the series, cast by the egoistical witch Winbell, is also hand waved -at 1st said to be secret & impressive but by the end of the series, no one even blinks when she casts it.

The main premise is the relationship between Escha & Logy.

Escha was born in the city of Corsit, part of a long line of alchemists & she had two dreams. To be a great alchemist like her long dead mother & to explore the floating ruins that hang above the town. Whilst Logy is a more taciturn alchemist from the capital who is running from a personal shame. Surround them are a fairly 2 dimensional cast that might’ve been interesting in a series that took more time to develop them but the whole thing reeks of the rushed brevity that I’ve complained about in my past few reviews.

In this series is comes out as too much time spend on the mundane & uninteresting & then suddenly rushing the ending & the majority backstory in a few episodes -bring out the secret pasts of primary & side characters in a muddled rush.

To be honest, unless you’re invested in the series, you probably won’t enjoy it. It brings nothing new to the adaptation genre, reeks of poor sexualisation & characterisation & was generally unentertaining for me. You might have a different view but it’s not something that I can willing recommend.

Uh, yeah, well, that’s about it really – Anime Critique: Hitsugi no Chaika

chaika 01Title: Hitsugi no Chaika (Chaika of the Coffin, Chaika ~the Coffin Princess)
Format: TV anime
Genre: fantasy, action, steampunk, spellpunk
Series Creator:  Ichiro Sakaki
Series Director: Soichi Masui
Studio: Bones
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: April 9, 2014 – June 25, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fansubs

 

 


Synopsis:

5 years ago, the 200 year war between the alliance of six nations and the Gaz Empire comes to an end when Emperor Arthur Gaz, the Immortal Emperor of the Gaz Empire, is finally killed by eight warriors known as the Eight Heroes. After the war, the Empire’s lands were divided by the alliance who later formed the Council of Six Nations to bring peace and order to the land. In the present, Toru Acura is a former Saboteur who lives with his sister Akari. Toru is unable to settle in this peaceful era as his Saboteur skills are useless and sees no meaning in his life. While out foraging at the forest, Toru encounters Chaika Trabant, a white haired Wizard with a white headband and a coffin, saving her from a man eating unicorn. Seeing their skills as Saboteurs, Chaika hires Toru and Akari for an important task; to steal the remains of Arthur Gaz from the Eight Heroes.”


Review:

I’ve detected a trend in this season of anime (other than sexual assault & the hypersexualisation of underage girls) & that’s that pretty much all series that I’ve seen so far seem both rushed & drawn out.

That is to say: they seem to skip a lot of important character & background development, rushing through so many what should be crucial foundations to understand & enjoy a series yet they get bogged down on certain scenarios or tags of information, devoting too much time what isn’t really important or using vital time to dangle plot threads that might never get resolved within the span of the series.
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I really wanted to love the anime of Hitsugi no Chaika, I truly did because the universe is full of amazing ideas & details. Almost all of which are skipped over & then we are hit by a huge chunk of background at the end (leading into a 2nd series in October). This is very particular to the primary characters, Toru, his adopted sister Akari & the titular Chaika.

I genuinely wanted to know Toru & Akari’s backgrounds, especially their roles in the last days of the war. What we are left with is unexplained info, just showing Toru as a moppy spod longing for the action & mindlessness that the war provided whilst Akari is rendered too much like Mikasa from Shingeki no Kyojin -in that she’s a total bro-con who is obsessed with protecting & deferring to Toru despite being the better of the duo (’tis a pity that she lacks Mikasa’s bitching abs). At least Chaika is supposed to be mysterious with trickled out development but they tend to rush over what should be crucial emotional development of the character.

You see, Chaika claims to be the daughter of the Wizard-Emperor Gaz (or Good Old Gazzah to his mates) yet that affirmation is constantly called into question by those who seek to stop Chaika in regaining the magically imbued pieces of the Emperor’s body that were taken by the 8 warriors who killed him. Primary to counter her claims are other Chaika’s, who look similar to her in terms of face but the two others seen within the series (referred to as Red & Blue Chaika) have differently rendered bodies. Yet all have silver-white hair (denoting supernatural connections) & scars around their necks like their heads have been severed. This confrontation of the self should cause an ideological & psychological schism & in most others (darker) series this would carry a lot of the internal action yet it’s pretty much brushed over in favour of focussing on less important things (in my opinion at any rate).
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Similar rushed development can be seen in the erstwhile antagonists, the Post-War Kleeman Agency (similar to Section III from Pumpkin Scissors but with a cat-boy instead of a tank killing super-soldier). I think it took about 3 episodes before I learnt their names & what their goals were. They appeared at first to be agents of violence, under the command of the driven & uncompromising Captain Alveric Gillette, seeking to stop Chaika through any means they can but as the series progresses you see that they are more a desperate group trying to stop a return to a war that could destroy the world. Again: I really wanted to know more about them & how they came to be formed. Especially the cat-boy Leonardo, who was supposedly created as a tool for war. His backstory should have naturally parallelled with Toru & Akari’s, who come from a village who’s only function is to produce Saboteurs to fight in the once endless (200 year long) war. There should have also been parallels drawn between the driven nature of Gillette, who is willing to do whatever he must to ensure a stable peace, & Toru, who is so willing to give up his agency as a human & become a tool for Chaika to use just to feel as though he is of some use.
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The strengths of the series though lies in its fairly original use of magic & technology. Wizards are actually a form of sniper or riflemen, who use weapons called Gundo to channel spells. Since these often take a bit of time to set up, they either do this from afar or under the protection of mid or close range fighters. The spells that the Gundo can cast range from complex attack formulas to silencing spells to producing simple light sources. The Gundo, & all other magical technology, are powered by Magic Fuel which is produced from fossils because it relies on memories & trauma to convert thought into energy. In a pinch, a Wizard can use their own memories to operate their weapons or vehicles but they can’t select which memories to use.
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The nature of the magic & the technology of this world is fascinating but under-explained in the series. With a lot of exposition being dropped on you in the last three episodes, where supposedly major antagonists are brought into the fray yet they basically do nothing. The idea behind their floating fortress was pretty cool but under played & developed.

The other plus of the series are the numerous action & battle scenes, where you see Toru & Akari in full effect. They are both agile combatants, leaping & dodging as well as throwing blades in the midst of close quarters conflict. Akari is more of th powerhouse that Toru, wielding a spiked hammer whilst Toru has twin blades with wires hidden in the pommels, allowing him to escape or entrap opponents. Both the siblings also use what is called “Iron Blood Transformation” which heightens their abilities & lessens any pain felt -although there are some logically inconsistencies in their use but that stems from the lack of explanation. The Red Chaika also wields a Snake Sword to great visual & battle effect.
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Visually, the series is pretty fantasy standard. Not as flashy as it could’ve been, not as visually dull either. There is an odd thing with the blood in the TV broadcast being toned down so it’s a weird browny colour & the series does get pretty bloody towards the last few episodes. Nothing to complain about but once you notice it, you can’t stop seeing it throughout.

One last complaint & it is pretty petty but I DESPISE the fashion in which Chaika (& Red Chaika) speak. It’s a clipped broken fashion where so can only say the most basic form, usually object & action without any joining words. So, if she wishes to express her belief that Toru is safe she’ll say “Toru, safe!” or similar such thing. Yes, it’s a petty petty gripe but enduring 12 episodes of it is pretty annoying. Plus I do DREAD how they’ll render her speech in the eventual English dub.

I’m genuinely hoping that they put more development into the upcoming 2nd season because there is so much to otherwise recommend the series. I managed to read a few chapters the manga adaptation (originally a Light Novel) some months back, so my expectations were high for the series. Yet it is still highly original in parts with interesting visuals. I will make my usual criticism of the hypersexualisation of a (gothic) loli character (the main Chaika) as well Akari’s cleavage always being on display but it seems like a moot point right now. The Blue Chaika is also hypersexualised but she’s depicted as an adult with a loli’s body rather than a child or teenager (unlike so many other series this season).

This is one that I’ll leave up to you, the reader, to make a decision on -especially if I am right or wrong about the rushed yet dragging nature of the series. I dig have high expectations coming into the series, so that would’ve affected my opinion somewhat but as long as you, the reader, likes it, it’s all good.

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“Then I’ll make my own series -with lolis & tentacles!” – Anime Critique: Seikoku no Dragonar

Seikoku_no_Dragonar_light_novel_vol_1Title: Seikoku no Dragonar (Dragonar Academy, The Star-Marked Dragonar)
Format: TV series
Genre: fantasy, ecchi, harem, action, hentai
Series Creator: Shiki Mizuchi
Series Director: Shunsuke Tada & Tomoyuki Kurokawa
Studio: C-Station
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates: April 5, 2014 – June 21, 2014
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


Synopsis:

“In a land of dragons, where citizens called breeders tame their dragon pals. Races of dragons are born from breeders who are given a Seikoku: a dragon star-shape brand.

Learning to ride and tame dragons comes easy to most students at Ansarivan Dragonar Academy—except for first-year student Ash Blake, who is known by his classmates as the “number one problem child.” Despite his unfashionably large star-shaped brand that marks him as a future dragon master, he has nothing to show for it. His dragon has never appeared. Until now, that is. One fateful day, Ash’s dragon awakes in full glory, but appears different than any dragon ever seen before—in the form of a beautiful girl! What’s more, Ash soon discovers that this new dragon has attitude to spare, as she promptly informs him that she is the master, and he, the servant. Ash’s problems with dragon riding have only just begun.”


Review:

When I wrote my review for Strike The Blood some time back, I had a check list that cited the genericness & cliche of that series, so here we shall repeat that list to see what Seikoku no Dragonar adds to the realm of anime (other than sweet fuck all!).

So, for the sake of repetition & making a point, here’s the list:

Does Seikoku no Dragonar have the following?:

  •     One male protagonist with hidden power? Check!
  •     Also slightly perverted? Check!
  •     Redeems himself by having a pure heart & protects his friends to the risk of his own life? Check!
  •     Tsundere style violent love interest? Check!
  •     Female characters as potential love rivals for the female protagonist? Check!
  •     Secret supernatural powers? Check!
  •     Plenty of useless fan-service? Once again: Check & motherfucking check!

So, what does Seikoku no Dragonar add?

Well, lolicon & tentacle rape. (SFW link)

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That’s pretty much it.

I despised this series so much.

Despised it for being cliche. Despised it for rewarding the male gaze every chance it got. Despised for pushing the hypersexualisation of female characters to new lows in a TV broadcast (although I think Kenzen Robo Daimidaler still holds that title, which is why I warned you all from watch it). Despised it for being everything wrong with modern Japanese media.

When the tentacle rape happened in such a blatant & disgusting way I honestly should have stopped watching it & wrote a rant about why it was despicable. Yet it was so like a car crash & I couldn’t turn away out of the dissonant belief that it couldn’t get any worse than it did.

Oh, how wrong I was, dear reader. As the tentacle rape & extreme hypersexualisation only got worse & worse as the series progressed. Every shot of the female characters was sexualised in same way. From the camera just staring at a pair of tits as their owner talked -their head out of shot- to how every female action is performed in a way that the camera pans up & down their bodies. How even if the female characters are powerful & empowered in their own right, they are still turned into nothing but a pile of meat for the eye to absorb. How during the attack of the tentacle rapey undead dragons (not a phrase I’d every thought I’d write yet anime does it to me again) all the women’s clothing was torn off yet the men remained dressed, despite being restrained in the same fashion. The two worse things were how they had the tentacles probe every part of the female anatomy whilst the victims gave off pleasured noises Actually even worse than that were the two loli characters & how they were brutally sexualised by the oft mentioned tentacles or spent the majority of their onscreen time either naked or in a state of general undress.

The non-female designs are also just plain ugly. Especially the dragons.

They all look the same (just like white people really) but are so brutally ungainly & clumsily designed it borders on the sickening. They don’t look in any way graceful or powerful, just lumps of scaled muscle with stubby wings & hideous heads. I suppose this is because they spent the majority of their animation budget on the female characters tits (or the lolis’ lumps).

Maybe I’m just a media sadomasochist who can’t crawl away from what he hates (see my rant on the Little Busters! series).

I should spend more time deconstructing the series, saying how badly rendered all the characters are, how cliched it is or how the relationships between the characters & their various overlapping backstories are formed but it’s all fucking meaningless when the series is so devoid of taste, charm or moderation.

I don’t recommend this series to anyone & if you like you are one sick sad fucker you needs serious help in the form of a knee right to your fucking jaw.

It’s also based upon a Light Novel series & I despise to think how close the anime is to that. The manga is worse in terms of hypersexualisation, so avoid that more.

Now have to scrub my skin with acid to get this series off me!

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SHE Who Walked the Land – incomplete fantasy novel

SHE Who Walked the Land – incomplete fantasy novel

this is part of the transworld fantasy novel that I’ve been working casually for the past couple of years (academia takes time away from it unfortunately).

 

The plot (so far) is basically: a young woman from our world is (literally) thrown into another world & must discover why she’s there, working her will against the powers that seek to control her & those that wish to see her destroyed.

Lots of grammatically mistakes but it’s still only a draft.