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.
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.
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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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The Kick That Never Came – Anime Critique: Isshuukan Friends

mpage001Title: Isshuukan Friends (One Week Friends)
Format: TV anime
Genre: slice of life, romance, drama, tragedy
Series Creator: Matcha Hazuki
Series Director: Tarou Iwasaki
Studio: Brain’s Base
Series length: 12 episodes
Original Airing dates:
Reviewed format: high def download with fan subs


 

Synopsis:

High schooler Yuki Hase notices that his classmate Kaori Fujimiya is always alone and seemingly has no friends. After approaching her and becoming acquainted, Kaori reveals that she loses every memory of her friends each Monday. Despite learning this, Yuki endeavors to become her new friend every week.


 

Review:

There is an old saying that goes “the worst kick is the one that never comes”.

The basic meaning of it is the more you dread something bad coming, a kick or other such physical assault if you will, the worse it will be in your mind than the actually reality of it because the fear & expectation has made you build up something far more torturous (more torturous than my allegories to be sure).

This is the pall that hangs over Isshuukan Friends.

The constant dread that you are going to be hit by something monumental emotionally painful yet, it never comes, making that dread all the more worse.

Although that might be my expectations from watching anime that delights in really kicking you in the guts once you think you’re going to be blessed with Sweetness & Light.

The reason you are waiting for this phantom kick is from the central conceit of the series, that being amnesia. A very old chestnut indeed in terms of media tropes -especially in Japan- yet within Isshuukan Friends it stems more from plot driven psychological & physical trauma then some mere need for a character to begin as a Blank Slate.

The major praise that one can give this series is that it attempts to handle such a fanciful contrivance as emotionally realistic as they can -without the central idea feeling too contrite or merely there to heighten the drama or emotional reactions from the audience.

Yet you do not come here to see praise painted upon the page, so I shall return to the (fairly bitchy) critiquing.

The plot of the series revolves around Hase Yuki’s relationship with Fujimiya Kaori, who is the quiet withdrawn girl in his class. He initially approaches her so to get to know her but she coldly rejects his offer for friendship. He is persistent in trying to get her to open up to him so it is soon revealed that Kaori loses her memories of people whom she considers friends every Monday when she wakes up -the exceptions being her family & people she is merely acquainted with. Despite this handicap, Hase persists in trying to become friends with Fujimiya, starting each week with the question “Will you be my friend?”

Isshuukan Friends - 02 - Large 05

When I 1st heard Hase vow that, I was worried it the story would turn fairly stalkery & possessive but it only turned mildly stalkery. Narratively, it is understandable that Hase gets jealous when the formerly cold & quiet Fujimiya starts to open up to others in their class -mainly through the intervention of ditzy pixie Saki, who wants the responsible Fujimiya to baby & look after her because she (Saki) has issues with her own memory (in that she is forgetful).

After watching the 1st couple of episodes, part of me wanted to hate this series -mainly because it kept refusing to go dark like I thought it would- but also because it is so awkwardly cutesy.

All the characters -but especially Fujimiya & Hase- looks as though they are sponsored by a rouge producing company (the makeup, not the D&D class, you bloody dyslexics). Always with red blush patches under their eyes.

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The general art syle & design is light & cutesy too. Skipping a lot of the more moé & sexualisation tropes. More focussing on a sweet kind of soft cute in the characters. In fact, unlike other series this season, there isn’t anything remotely close to a tit or panty shot. Some of the usual awkwardness after falling leaves characters in compromising positions but this is quickly glossed over with humour rather than used to demonstrate masculine dominance, reward the male gaze or a let a protagonist get a quick grope in.

Yet, despite the cutesy looks & lack of narrative darkness, the story is actually pretty good & emotionally mature. In that it’s people reacting to a difficult situation as well as failing to voice their concerns or wishes out of fear of misunderstanding or hurting those around them. So, it follows the standard forms of Japanese dramas, with the inability to communicate less it destroy consensus society as a whole.

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Nevertheless, Isshuukan Friends does handle a lot of the drama in a respectful & grownup fashion, even though it shows some weird relationship tropes. Such as Fujimiya making lunch for Hase everyday & only allowing him to talk to her outside of the class (such as on the roof at lunch) because she doesn’t want bad rumours to spread about him. That bullshit is stopped with Saki’s spoiltness meaning she just speaks to Fujimiya whenever she wants to & isn’t perturbed by her memory loss -Saki thinks its similar to her absent mindedness. Fujimiya & Hase also develop ways for Fujimiya to deal with her memory loss, such as getting her to keep a dairy so she can keep track of events & drama comes along in one episode when she accidentally loses her dairy as well as the poster on her reminding her to read it every Monday yet she lost it on a Friday, so found it odd she didn’t realise it was gone over the weekend when her memories were still intact.

Each episode follows a basic formula of a week in the life of our protagonists as they struggle to deal with Fujimiya’s ongoing condition, Hase’s feelings of helplessness & selfishness at the situation as well as interactions with other characters & Fujimiya slowly opening up to those around her & not being afraid to make friends. Some edges appear, when classmates believe that Fujimiya is dating Hase’s best friend, the cranky & taciturn Shogo, & say nasty things behind her back (yet within earshot); Hase has to also overcome his feelings of jealousy towards Shojo for becoming friends with Fujimiya & the chance of losing her.

True drama comes late in the series with the appearance of Fujimiya’s former childhood friend, Hajime, who moved to Hokkaido with his family at the same time as Fujimiya began to lose her memories. When her remembrance of him causes her memories to completely reset, so she forgets everything that she had build up until that point & Hase to almost abandon the friendship out of frustration. When that moment comes along, there is no longer an expectation of a kick or anything else apart from a quiet resolution. Tensions remain between the two protagonists for the last few episodes after Fujimiya starts to build herself back up to how she was before Hajime arrived but that’s mainly from everyone learning the cause of Fujimiya’s amnesia (stems from a form of bullying from her supposed friends at a young age) & Hase’s fear that he might cause it to happen again. But mostly the tension in the last few episodes comes from the fact that the protagonists -& anime characters in general- can never express their love without being pathetically awkward or borderline retarded.

In the end, this is a light teen drama that deals with a difficult issue in a mature & responsible way. It has some humour & cuteness but doesn’t kick you when you are down. Your response to it depends on how much you personally engage with the genre &/or subject. For my part, I found it enjoyable & a pleasant balm to the hypersexualisation of other series that I shall be writing about over the week (or just copy pasting random complaints about hypersexualisation in other series) but each to their own. I do hope that you, the reader, take the time to watch the series & take from it what you will.

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