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Julia's Reviews on Various Media

This review was written on July 31st, 2023.


Rating: 85/100

The thing about manga is that no two manga have the exact same art style. They can be super, hyper-detailed, or they can be intentionally simplistic, conveying whatever they want to convey in their own way. But very few manga get the full-color treatment, and a little gem I just discovered, Kagome Kagome by Aoi Ikebe, is one of those manga that really puts it to great use. Kagome Kagome (Not to be confused with the manga of the same name by Yui Yoshiki that was published in 1999) takes place somewhere in 18th century France, specifically at the Au Tolonado Nunnery, where a group of nuns raise orphaned girls and train them to become future nuns. Everyone there fulfills their duties and lives their days in relative peace, taking joy in God's every day gifts. But one of the sisters, Malena, begins to yearn for a life outside the convent and wonders if she's truly happy being where she is.

Kagome Kagome is a one volume manga spanning eleven chapters it really manages to make optimal use of both its short length and its full color status. The panels are all bordered like church windows, using art noveau-style frames that give each panel a sense of flow, almost like you're really looking into a church window. The backgrounds may seem simple on the surface, lacking much in the way of detail, but Ikebe makes up for it with her excellent use of color and light, conveying both the mood of a scene, establishing the feel of the setting (Such as light, bland colors for the convent, and striking yet melancholy oranges and reds of the red light district), and showing the feelings and emotions that the characters are feeling without having them outright state them in dialogue. From the watercolor backgrounds to the simple yet expressive and distinct character designs, it's pretty clear that Ikebe-sensei is a talented artist who really knows how to convey a lot with very little.

This extends to the overall story as well. Everything is portrayed in as subtle and down-to-earth a manner as possible, with nothing in the way of histrionics or melodrama. For those who follow my reviews, you may remember that I once reviewed an obscure manga called A Letter To The Sky, and while I did enjoy it, it had the problem of having its characters scream their feelings and emotions in big long speeches all the time, reveling in melodrama and playing out like a soap opera, engineered to wring tears out of you at any opportunity it could. Kagome Kagome deftly lets its characters behave naturally, and it makes use of silence and imagery in order to show what a character is feeling. Malena feels trapped in her life at the church, wanting to have a life with the gardener Kolya, but nuns are forbidden to wed or even have relationships with men. The manga doesn't need to show her spewing Shakespearian monologues about how she wants to be with him, Ikebe-sensei shows it with images of Malena looking at him through the cage-like windows, or how she cherishes the feeling of his hand touching hers when they encounter each other at the festival. Things like facial expressions and gestures are used to great effect, again conveying so much with very little.

Since Kagome Kagome is only one volume long, consisting of only eleven chapters, there isn't a lot of time for character development, though again, Ikebe-sensei values subtlety over elaboration, and since the series is mainly confined to one or two locations, we do get to know the characters, their routines, how they go about their days, and so on. Any backstories they have are not overly elaborate or drawn out, doing just enough to show how they came to be who they are. Malena and Emila get the most focus, and while they're not the most fleshed out or three-dimensional, they're definitely the most interesting and relatable, with their own desires, strengths, weaknesses, and manage to carry the story perfectly. I do kind of wish we could have learned more about the other characters, like Sister Vie or Lila and how they came to the church. They and the other characters are fine as a collective group, but I wish we could have gotten to know them more as individuals. But with the story and setting being what it is, do we really need to? They do say less is more, after all. That's really my only gripe with the manga, and even then that's really stretching it.

Granted, Kagome Kagome as a story isn't going to be for everyone. It's very firmly a historical slice-of-life manga that's content to be what it is and nothing more. Don't come in here expecting something like Attack on Titan or Rent-A-Girlfriend. If I were to make a comparison, I'd say Kagome Kagome's approach to storytelling is similar to that of Super Cub, an anime that's also very muted and down-to-earth, using very similar narrative techniques. Speaking of anime, I'd love to see someone adapt Kagome Kagome into an anime, probably a movie. I bet it'd look absolutely amazing if in the right hands. Overall, Kagome Kagome is a sweet, wholesome, soothing historical period manga that deserves way more love and recognition than it gets. Honestly, after reading this, I'm gonna try seeking out more of Aoi Ikebe's work.
This review was written on November 22nd, 2023.


Rating: 63/100

I had no idea this movie even existed until I found out Eleven Arts was putting it out. Blue Thermal is a movie based on a 5-volume long manga series by Kana Ozawa. The story goes as follows: Tamaki Tsuru is a young woman looking forward to college life after moving from Nagasaki. But in her attempts to join an extracurricular club, she accidentally damages the wing of a glider belonging to the Aonagi Aviation Club, so she winds up forced to join said club in order to work for them and pay for the damages. This is not the exciting college life she's been looking forward to, but after an initial rough start, she bonds with the club's captain, Jun Kuramochi, and gradually begins to grow a fondness for piloting gliders. Anyone else getting Ouran High School Host Club flashbacks? I know I am. Blue Thermal as a movie is...okay. I really wanted to like this more than I do, and it's not a bad movie by any means, but the movie suffers a lot from being overstuffed with way too many plotlines and not being able to flesh out all its characters.

What do I mean? First off, the only character who really gets any real development over the course of the movie is Tamaki, and her arc is pretty predictable, but she does grow and change, going from disillusioned college student to someone who's much more self-assured and confident in herself. I also appreciate that her voice actress actually made Tamaki sound like an adult and didn't give her a cutesy anime girl voice, and it helps that her VA is fairly new, but she really infused Tamaki with some refreshing charm and personality. Sadly, none of the other characters get this same treatment. All of them are bland and forgettable, and several of them, despite appearing in the movie prominently, aren't even referred to by name, with the biggest offender being the perky red haired girl in the pink jumpsuit. Even the more prominent characters like Kuramochi and Sorachi don't get enough characterization to make them go beyond their standard archetypes, which is pretty bad since they're pushed as Tamaki's two potential love interests, but I couldn't bring myself to root for either one of them to get with Tamaki because the movie doesn't care enough to develop them. Then again, the whole love triangle subplot the movie has is pretty much forgotten as soon as its introduced, so why even bother putting one in if you're not even going to do anything with it?

Speaking of storylines, Blue Thermal's biggest issue is that it cycles through various conflicts, trying to put stakes in an otherwise low-key movie, but not only are they not fleshed out enough to make the viewer care about them, they're often resolved really quickly, resulting in them lacking impact or any real satisfaction or meaningful payoff. The subplot that got hit with this the worst was the whole thing with Tamaki's older half-sister Chizuru, who mainly spends a lot of her time being needlessly antagonistic towards Tamaki because of stuff that's not only not her fault, but that Chizuru brought on herself because she was too self-absorbed and angsty to bother getting to know Tamaki and her stepmother better. This is all further undermined by the fact that we only learn Chizuru's backstory because she tells it to Kuramochi, someone she barely knows, and I feel like her conflict would have had more weight had she, y'know, stopped angsting and bothered to talk to Tamaki about it and clear things up with her because Tamaki isn't the person Chizuru thinks she is, making the resolution come out of nowhere and not feel earned in any way. The whole subplot just felt like needless angst and forced drama thrown in there just for the sake of it, and had it had more space to develop, it probably would have been much better, alongside everything else.

Actually, all of this makes me think that Blue Thermal would have been better off as a short TV series than a movie, because had it been a show, it would have had more time to flesh out its large cast of characters and all the different plotlines and allow them to thrive in more space. From what I've heard, the movie's director, Masaki Tachibana, did want to make this into a series, but apparently it didn't work out for some reason. Eleven Arts' blu-ray release has an interview with him that goes into more detail about this. I bet making it a TV series wouldn't have affected its animation much. The animation is fine and does its job pretty well, but it's nothing exceptional. The gliding scenes are pretty, and what little CGI there is doesn't stick out too much, but don't go into this movie expecting all the flight scenes to be on par with Ghibli. The music is pretty good, though.

Blue Thermal suffers from being overstuffed while not being given room to breathe and flesh out all of its characters and conflicts, but I would have been okay with all that...if not for the ending. Not gonna lie, I really hate the ending to this movie. It's nowhere near as bad as the Ni no Kuni movie's ending, but Blue Thermal really dropped the ball by having its ending be completely reliant on one character being a complete dick and causing unnecessary conflict when there didn't need to be any. As much as I don't like spoiling anything in my reviews, I need to elaborate on the ending just so I can truly convey my feelings on why I feel it was just awful.

What happens is, Kuramochi finds out his mother passed away while he was sent to Germany, and from what the movie implies, he tries to cross the border by way of a glider but crashes. When his clubmates find out about it, they're understandably upset because from what their advisor tells them, there's no indication that Kuramochi survived the crash, so they have no way of knowing whether he's alive or not. They resolve to continue with the competition under the reason that Kuramochi would be mad if they quit. Cliche, yes, but fine and dandy...but here's the thing: It's revealed later that Kuramochi not only survived the crash, but was just hanging around Germany the entire time, and he never even so much as tries to reach out to them and let them know that he's okay. Like...dude, you supposedly survived a glider crash and you don't even bother to let everyone know you're alive? Come on! This is a huge dick move on his part because his clubmates spend the whole last third of the movie worrying about him, even during the competition which affects their performance, when all he needed to do was just call someone and say "Hey, don't worry, I'm alive." The only reason he even winds up letting everyone know he's alive is because Tamaki makes his benefactor drag her to Germany so she can fly her glider, which he manages to spot, and ONLY THEN does he radio her and tell her to land. This whole thing felt really unnecessary because it hinged on Kuramochi being angsty and not bothering to do the smart thing, and, y'know, TELL YOUR FRIENDS YOU SURVIVED A GLIDER CRASH AND AREN'T DEAD! Hell, he could even just said "Hey, I'm alive, but I'm dealing with stuff right now so I need some space." That's all he had to do! By just fucking off in Germany somewhere and not letting everyone know he was alive, he basically caused his friends and clubmates needless stress that they really didn't need to deal with on top of their competition and actively made things worse for them. I'm so glad Tamaki chewed him out for it at the end, because if she didn't, I'd rate this movie a lot lower. So yeah, Blue Thermal's entire ending completely hinged on Kuramochi causing needless stress by way of being angsty, making the whole thing feel really forced, mealymouthed, and overall needlessly melodramatic.

So yeah, Blue Thermal is a nice kick-back-and-relax kind of movie you can turn your brain off to if you want a breezy movie, but unlike the gliders the characters pilot, it doesn't reach any new heights nor rise above mediocre.
Man, I've wanted to talk about this one for years! This review was written on November 28th, 2022.


Rating: 87/100

Yuzu The Pet Vet is a manga that initially flew under the radar. I can't remember if I discovered it on my own or through this article talking about it on ANN when it was first starting to come out, but I remember being intrigued by the premise and figured it'd be a nice new read to check out. Yeah, that wound up being a great decision, as in case you couldn't tell, I love this manga and I think it's quite honestly one of the best children's manga of the 2020s. The story is centered on a young girl named Yuzu Morino whose mother has to be hospitalized for the time being, and since Yuzu can't stay in the house unsupervised for obvious reasons, she's made to live with her veterinarian uncle Akihito Hidaka. Normally, this wouldn't be an issue, but there's one big thing complicating the living arrangement: Yuzu absolutely can't stand animals, mainly because a lot of them seem to attack her for some reason. As much as Yuzu hates dealing with animals, she has no choice but to help her uncle at his vet clinic, but this might wind up being good for her. Every day she learns and understands more and more about her clients, both human and animal, slowly overcoming her fear bit by bit.

I was originally going to hold off on reviewing this, as Yuzu The Pet Vet has a sequel and I was going to wait until after the sequel came out. Unfortunately, Kodansha USA seems to have no plans on releasing it as of right now, so I decided to review the first series on its own. There's also the fact that the manga is actually based on a video game that's exclusive to Japan. Thankfully, you don't need to know about the game in order to enjoy Yuzu The Pet Vet, as I came to find out. Plus, I just really want to gush about this amazing yet criminally underrated children's manga. Yes, Yuzu The Pet Vet has very shoujo-esque artwork, complete with ridiculously large, sparkly eyes, chibi-fied animals made to look even cuter than they would be in real life, and a lot of comically cartoony faces for the comedy parts. Yes, the majority of the manga consists of self-contained stories, with only a few two parters every now and again, complete with characters of the week who only appear once and never again. Don't go into this expecting a narrative on the level of Naoki Urasawa. But with all that said, Yuzu The Pet Vet's biggest strength is its emotional intelligence and refusal to sugarcoat the realities that come with raising a pet, and it never tries to talk down to its audience.

Whereas most media tend to depict animals as either beings driven entirely by instict or perpetually adorable affection-giving machines with no personality outside of being cute, Yuzu The Pet Vet understands the psychology of animals and depicts them with a wide array of personalities through the way they behave and show their feelings. Some animals play hide-and-seek, act really rambunctious, can be flat-out catty, or even fake being sick or injured just for the chance to get some extra pampering. They make messes and sometimes drive us crazy, but any sane pet owner will still love them for it. What pet owner hasn't had to deal with things like their pet making messes or faking being sick or showing other people attention rather than you? As a pet owner myself, I can surely relate. Furthermore, the manga also makes sure to have each animal story tie into whatever issue Yuzu is facing in her life, drawing a nice parallel between humans and animals. Of course, Yuzu The Pet Vet isn't all sunshine and cuddles either, as it makes sure to highlight the more serious parts of owning a pet, such as being able to financially support it, acknowledging their short life spans and the fact that an animal is a living thing, not a toy or an aesthetically pleasing accessory, and the importance of things like spaying/neutering your pet to prevent health problems and overpopulation. And yes, this also means that plenty pets of the day die (Usually from natural causes and old age), and if you're someone who hates seeing animals die, even fictional ones, you'd best skip this one. One set of chapters even highlights a pretty serious issue—animal hoarding—tackling it with all the gravity it deserves, acknowledging the problems it can cause without resorting to antagonizing anyone involved.

As someone who has always loved anime/manga for its willingness to tackle subjects that American children's media refuses to touch with a ten foot pole for any reason, I respect Yuzu The Pet Vet for going hard on highlighting how owning a pet is a big responsibility that's not to be taken lightly. Of course, the manga is careful to keep it out of preachy after school territory with a charming, likeable cast to follow, namely Yuzu, her uncle, and Sora the persnickety chihuahua, who interact with plenty of interesting people and pets, even if they're not the most fleshed out cast of characters ever. Yuzu herself is an interesting lead character who does grow and change throughout the story while still retaining the personality of a young kid who does believably act her age. Even the various pets of the day receive some fun characterization that manage to make them rise above just "cute animal." Granted, some readers may not like that the characters of the day disappear after their focus chapters, and I can understand why. I personally had no problem with it because the self-contained stories are all well-written enough that I did care about the characters involved, though your mileage may vary.

Granted, while Yuzu The Pet Vet's writing is pretty nuanced a lot of the time, some of the solutions posed for some of the stories' endings do come off as a bit too convenient and neat, which can definitely stretch one's suspension of disbelief, especially if you're aware of how hard it is for animal shelters to adopt out animals. I follow a few animal rescue groups on Facebook, and finding homes for animals is nowhere NEAR as easy as Yuzu The Pet Vet makes it out to be. Some might find the manga's shoujo artwork to be too cutesy and saccharine for their liking, which is also fine. But in my opinion, Yuzu The Pet Vet's strengths far outweigh its flaws. I dare say it may even be the best 2020's children's manga I've ever read thus far. I'm really glad I discovered this, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is not only interested in animals, but people who want children's manga that have a bit more meat and substance to them. Whether you can stomach the various animal deaths in some chapters is another thing entirely, so I wouldn't really recommend this to sensitive children who can't handle it, even though having pets is one of the ways children learn about death and grief. But I don't think that's a reason to skip over Yuzu The Pet Vet, as I feel some of the best children's media are those that go all in on tackling serious subject matter, overzealous parents' opinions be damned. Why do you think I love the World Masterpiece Theater so much?!

So yeah, Yuzu The Pet Vet is a great manga about the wonders and realities that come with raising pets and taking care of them without bordering on preachy or condescending. Now if only Kodansha USA would put out the sequel manga! Get on that already, Kodansha! I'd buy it day one!
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This review was just written today.


Rating: 75/100

I've been following Yuhki Kamatani's work since their manga Nabari no Ou first came to the US in 2009, but it's only in the 2020s that their work beyond that has come stateside. Shimanami Tasogare, Shounen Note, and now Hiraeth: The End of the Journey have all come to the US in some capacity. Out of all the works of theirs that I've read so far, Hiraeth is the shortest that I know of, though I'm sure they've done plenty of oneshots before this. But out of the ones I've read, I'm sad to say that Hiraeth is the weakest of her works. Not that it's a bad manga or anything, as it actually has a lot of good stuff in it. But I have some big issues with how it develops one character in particular and the shoddy way it closes off her arc in particular.

Mika Kashima is only 14 years old, but she feels there's no point in living anymore. Her best friend Mitsuha died, and Mika can't see herself living in a world without her best friend. Drowning in the depths of her despair, Mika decides she might as well die. She's about to kill herself by throwing herself in front of a truck when she's saved by a mysterious man...whose wounds from said crash magically heal. The man in question, Yamato Hibino, turns out to be immortal, and his equally mysterious companion, a beautiful yet mischevous young boy who gets the nickname Hani, is a God who is nearing the end of his life because no one believes in them anymore. The two of them are on their way to Yomi, the land where souls that have left this plane of existence are said to rest, and hopefully where Hibino and Hani can die. Mika decides this'll be the perfect way to die, as she might be able to see Mitsuha again, so she decides to join them on their journey to the underworld. After all, what lies beyond death?

If there's one bit of praise I can give to Kamatani, it's that their art is always engaging to the eyes. I have very few memories of Nabari no Ou's art, other than that while it was good, it didn't have the level of detail of this and Shimanami Tasogare, so they've really improved on that front. Kamatani really loves to make use of abstract art that's rich in synbolism and visual metaphor, usually to convey a person's feelings or thoughts, though in the case of Hiraeth, it's a bit more restrained, and often times limited to Hani's visions of people's "roads to death." Everything is still lush, detailed, and full of life, but Kamatani also makes great use of empty space. One page is literally just white space but with a pure black silhouette of Mika falling downward, which in context is supposed to convey the fact that her view on death is changing drastically. It helps that the creative panel structure and layouts are pretty easy to follow, and I never had a hard time figuring out what was going on, other than one thing but we'll get to that in a bit.

In case anyone is wondering, while the manga does have content warnings for suicide across all its volumes, nobody actually kills themselves in the series. Hiraeth isn't about suicide, but rather the concept of death and the different intepretations people have of it, especially from a Japanese perspective. Mika does start out as suicidal, yes, but the series is more than just about her problems. Hibino has to deal with being immortal and all the problems it causes, while Hani, being a God, is interested in humans and their take on death as he nears the end of his own life. The three of them travel and meet all sorts of people who have their own views on death, their own struggles, and how these encounters inform their growth and the decisions they make at the end. If you're someone who doesn't like reading about heavy subject matter like death and the different ways people cope with it, it's totally fine. Personally, I feel Hiraeth tackles the subject sensitively and with empathy, and it helps that a lot of Japan's views on death are heavily ingrained into their own folklore, which Hiraeth makes use of to great affect. The story treats everyone's views on death as valid, never going out of its way to antagonize or shame anyone for how they cope with it, even if their methods may not be healthy in the long run, arguing that empathy and understanding are fundamental in connecting with and helping others who are struggling. Plus, it's not like the series is all doom and gloom either, as there's an underlying sense of optimism throughout, and there's plenty of moments of levity, which thankfully don't feel obtrusive nor bog down the narrative either.

Since Hiraeth has a small cast of characters to follow, most of them get plenty of development that fits their personal narratives, and we see how they cope with their issues and deal with them and why they make the decisions they do. Hibino, Hani, and a few other incidental characters get their time to shine and are the reason you should read this manga. Unfortunately, I say most of them because one character doesn't get this treatment even though she really should have. As much as I hate to say this, Mika is the biggest albatross around this series' neck. Hiraeth is only three volumes long, but I never felt like we really got to know her as a person beyond being sad about Mitsuha's death and that she's on her school's track team. We see her change her views on death as the series progresses, but what's her life like outside of the main plot? Does she have a life outside of Mitsuha? What's her relationship with her parents like? Why exactly did Mitsuha's death hurt her so much? Hiraeth never goes deep into Mika as a person nor really explore her beyond the events of the story, so as a result, she just feels like an aimless cipher. And she's not the only one: For someone who the narrative shills as being super important to Mika, we know literally nothing about Mitsuha as a person or why she's so important to Mika. We don't learn how she died, why Mika loved her so much, or what her personality is like, and Hiraeth doesn't really give us any real reasons to care about Mitsuha or why Mika would want to kill herself for her sake. It just feels like Mitsuha is more of a plot device than a character in her own right, and for all the weight the manga gives to the subject of death, Mitsuha's whole ordeal just feels like a cliche thrown in just to give Mika a reason to hang with Hibino and Hani. Like, why even make this character out to be important if you're not going to do anything with her or even give us reasons to care about her beyond Mika angsting over her? It doesn't really help that because Hibino and Hani get the most focus and development, Mika doesn't get much to do, so she doesn't have anything in the way of depth or interiority.

Which leads me to Hiraeth's biggest problem with her: The ending to her whole arc. I hate going into spoilers, but I don't think being vague will help me convey my feelings on just how utterly lackluster the writing behind the resolution to Mika's whole arc is, so I'm putting it under a tag.

So Mika, Hibino, and Hani do make it to Yomi like they intended and fulfill their missions. Mika manages to see Mitsuha one last time...but rather than joining her in death like she had wanted for so long, Mika very suddenly changes her mind at the very last second. For absolutely no reason. Like...what?! The fuck?! The story never bothers to elaborate on why Mika decided to go back on her goal. Mika just...decides she's not suicidal anymore and decides to keep on living! Like...whose idea was this? Did Kamatani or her editor or...somebody higher up decide her arc should be better left ambiguous? Or to the reader's imagination or something? I don't mind ambiguity as long as the way its presented is plausible, but this just feels like Kamatani just didn't want to deal with Mika anymore and just slapped that ending on without bothering to elaborate on any of it or realize the implications her method of ending her arc bring up! It just furthers the idea that Mitsuha literally has nothing to her other than being a plot device, and the fact that we don't know anything about Mitsuha or why Mika loves her so much just makes this bad aftertaste this ending has even worse, because it only solidifies the fact that Mika herself isn't a character we ought to follow or care about, but an indecisive cipher who only does stuff because the plot wants her to, and not because of anything she does herself. Like...what the hell, Kamatani?! You're usually better than this! At least give us a fucking explanation as to why Mika just...abandoned her goal! Nabari no Ou and Shimanami Tasogare had solid endings that at the very least wrapped things up and didn't leave a whole lot of loose threads hanging! What the hell was going through your head with this one?!

Okay, now that that's out of my system, I better wrap this up. The other issue I had with Hiraeth is that even though the series has a clear goal in mind, its overall organizational structure around its narrative feels very scattershot. There are times when Hiraeth meanders, and other times when it goes from one plot revelation to another without much in the way of seamless transition, and while I do like some unpredictability every now and again, you can't have a story rely on just unpredictability alone. In the end I did enjoy Hiraeth: The End of the Journey, flaws and all, but its structural issues, the lackluster writing around Mika, and the weak ending make it hard for me to recommend it to people. If you like stories like this, you do you, and I liked Hiraeth for what it tried to do as well. One of these days I need to re-read Shimanami Tasogare and Nabari no Ou since I own all of them and haven't done reviews for them yet, and I'm reading and enjoying Shounen Note as of right now. But here's hoping the next thing Kamatani makes isn't anywhere near as flawed or inconsistent as Hiraeth.
This review was just finished today.


Rating: 66/100

These days, reincarnation stories are a dime a dozen. They've become especially prevalent in the light novel scene, and seriously, so many of them are just bad, generic power fantasy isekai that are there to pander to the lowest common denominator. Luckily, while Tearmoon Empire is yet another reincarnation story, its not an isekai, instead taking inspiration from the tale of Marie Antoinette and asking the question "What if a Marie Antoinette proxy had the chance to go back in time and remedy her mistakes?" And thus, with this, Tearmoon Empire is born...though if my rating didn't clue you in, a good idea is nothing if you don't execute it well, and in all honesty, Tearmoon Empire got off to a good start, but just became more and more generic by the end.

20-year-old Mia Luna Tearmoon is set to die by the guillotine. Her selfishness has resulted in her empire falling to ruin at the hands of the citizens' revolution. At this point, Mia is resigned to her fate, allowing death to take her...only the next thing she knows, she wakes up having gone back to being 12 years old. At first, Mia thinks the whole thing was just a bad dream, but seeing a bloody diary and all that her old self wrote in it confirms that it was indeed real. Not wanting to have her head chopped off yet again, armed with the knowledge that her old memories bestowed upon her, Mia decides to devote herself to rebuilding her empire and avoiding the mistakes she made in her old life...but not out of genuine kindness towards her citizens and peers. In Mia's mind, self-preservation and avoiding that damn guillotine is way more important! Thus, the once selfish, useless, cowardly princess works towards bettering the empire, and eventually herself, in the great struggle to save herself from death a second time.

Obviously, the best part of the anime is Mia. The entire anime starts because of her flaws, and the entire series is about her overcoming her personality flaws and remedying the mistakes she made in her old life, even if her ulterior motives are still fairly self-centered. Furthermore, she doesn't magically become a better person the second she wakes up as a 12-year-old either: She has to really unlearn a lot of her old habits and is capable of regressing back to her old vain, haughty self, but her time in prison has given her some much needed perspective. Isn't that so much more interesting than yet another generic potato-kun who is so perfect that everybody worships the ground he walks on just because he exists? Or an irredeemable jackass who stays that way? Mia as a character carries the entire show because her previous actions inform the story's entire conflict, and even if she has moments where she acts like a cutesy anime girl, the fact that she does have tangible character flaws she needs to deal with makes her far more compelling than most.

I wish that care had been extended to...well, the rest of the show. Oh, and I should inform you: If you're going into this show expecting it to be an all serious fantasy drama, you're just going to be disappointed because while it does have some serious moments, Tearmoon Empire is mainly a comedy. A lot of said comedy hinges on all the characters being too stupid to question Mia's actions or overthinking things too much, which, while it starts off funny at first, does get repetitive and tiring after three episodes. But even the comedy manages to be somewhat funny, because Tearmoon Empire utterly fails at delivering serious drama, mainly because not only is its animation too stiff, stagnant, and static to really convey the weight of its source material, relying way too much on still images and talking heads spouting political monologues, but none of the other characters are even remotely as compelling, interesting, or three-dimensional as Mia is. All of them are little more than bland, stock stereotypes that have been done way better in other media before this. Basically, Tearmoon Empire thinks its as good as Rose of Versailles when it really isn't. Oh, and did I mention that the show throws in God-awful CGI horses every chance it gets?! Seriously, those things are an abomination from Hell. Not to mention the CGI models used for ballroom dance sequences. Seriously, Tearmoon, you really ought to take a page from Frieren: Beyond Journey's End if you want to animate two people dancing. Or its animation in general. Also, Tearmoon, did we really need extended sequences of a naked 12-year-old using the bath?

So in the end, Tearmoon Empire is an anime adaptation whose staff was just too immature and inexperienced to make this work. Mia is a great protagonist here, but I doubt anyone looking for anything more substantial will want to watch Tearmoon Empire just for Mia alone. Seriously, Rose of Versailles exists.
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Rating: 80/100

It really cannot be understated how great it is that in the 2020s, we're getting so many different Pokemon anime in very different animation styles. For decades, the only animated Pokemon property we got was the main TV anime starring Ash Ketchum. As popular as the games and the overall franchise is, and for all the innovations it provided across its associated media, the TV anime was pretty static and formulaic a lot of the time. But starting in the mid-2010s and into the 2020s, the Pokemon animated canon got to expand beyond just the TV anime. We got stuff like Pokemon Origins, followed by Pokemon Generations, which are animated retellings of various notable events in the games, and later, we would get short web anime such as Twilight Wings, Hisuian Snow, the PokeToon shorts, and Paldean Winds. Pokemon would later dip its toes into the world of stop-motion, with the subject of today's review, Pokemon Concierge, which was announced in the February 2023 Pokemon Presents video. I thought "Ooh! This looks cute! I'd love to watch it!" And just this December, Pokemon Concierge finally dropped for all to see. I'm glad to say that Pokemon Concierge is a pretty good short anime on par with the others I mentioned in terms of overall quality, but I feel like it could have been something more.

So what's the story? A young woman named Haru has been having a tough time of it, and nothing's been going right for her. To get away from it all, Haru decides to take a job at the luxurious Pokemon Resort, a resort that caters exclusively to Pokemon guests and isn't the stiff, stuffy work environment that Haru is used to. Through trial and error, Haru manages to carve out a place at her new job, doing everything from befriending a shy Psyduck to helping a Magikarp that can't swim to save its life. Every day is fun and filled with new discoveries as Haru comes to enjoy her new life at the Pokemon Resort. Oh, side note: This is gonna be my last review of 2023, and I'm glad that this is the series I get to end the year on, because it's a pretty cute, wholesome little romp.

For anyone who's only familiar with stop-motion animation via Tim Burton and the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials from back in the day, fun fact: A lot of the earliest stop-motion animation was done in Japan, including said Rankin-Bass specials. It's much harder to produce because unlike 2D animation which is just drawings made to move with technology, stop-motion is extremely intricate and labor intensive due to the level of technical skills needed for it being much higher than what's needed for 2D, such as prop setup and photography, among other things. Stop-motion as an animation form has actually evolved quite a bit and seems to be coming back into the limelight, what with stuff such as Pui Pui Molcar, Mad God, Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio, everything that Laika puts out, and so on. The animation for this was done by Dwarf Studios, who also worked on the Rilakkuma and Kaoru anime. As someone who's not familiar with their work, I have to say that the work they put into Concierge's animation is amazing. All the characters are made from different materials, and depending on the Pokemon, they can be either sleek plastic or soft felt. The fact that the animators put actually captured tiny details like the texture of a Pokemon's fur really helps the immersion. There's a lot of thought and care put into things like body movement and facial expressions for both humans and Pokemon, with some details about that being mentioned in this cute making of video that Netflix put up on their YouTube channel. The set pieces for the backgrounds are also very well done. I don't have as much to say about the soundtrack, as its cute and I did enjoy the Mariya Takeuchi song. I do appreciate that they made a remix for the evolution music at one point.

I admit, I'm kinda mixed on the characters. They're not bad or anything, but I feel the series' short length of four ten-minute long episodes didn't allow the creators to let their characters to grow, nor do we really get to know any of them on a personal level. Because of the series' short length and focusing more on Haru learning about how the Pokemon Resort works, the side characters all feel very one-note and bland. Tyler is just a laid-back surfer dude, Alisa is just Haru's helpful senior, and Watanabe is just the nice boss. I'd very much like to learn more about this cast of characters and what they're like, but again, the series is so short that it's unable to do so. There's so many unanswered questions about all of them, such as: Is Watanabe the founder of the resort, or does she just work there? What are Tyler and Alisa like when they're off the clock? What made them decide they wanted to work at the resort? Do they all have lives outside the resort? How do they go about dealing with the guests? How do they handle stress? Seriously, there's so much potential with them and I do like them, but they really deserve to be fleshed out more. On the other hand, the Pokemon characters are all very expressive and full of personality, and the animators did their absolute damndest to bring them all to life.

Actually, speaking of questions, there's a lot that I really want to know about the show's setting. Who founded the Pokemon Resort? Do Pokemon get designated rooms in the hotel, or since they're on an island, can they just go wherever they want? How do they accommodate big Pokemon like Metagross and Dragonite? Since Watanabe doesn't want her employees to treat working at the resort the same way as an office job based on how she reacts to Haru making data charts in the first episode, how does Watanabe handle the business side of things with the resort? How do they even get funding? As much as I like this short series and the idea behind it, its short length both in episode number and duration leave no room for fleshing out the concept and the characters more. Hell, it wasn't even revealed that Pokemon Concierge would even get just four episodes until it dropped on Netflix! The previous series Dwarf Studios made, Rilakkuma and Kaoru, had 13 episodes, so I was under the impression that Pokemon Concierge would have the same amount of episodes. Like...who decided it should just be four episodes?! And they could have at least mentioned this from the start!

I hate to go on about Concierge's short length, and don't take this to mean I didn't like the show, because I did. I genuinely enjoyed Pokemon Concierge for what it is, a charming, wholesome, laid-back Pokemon series making use of stop-motion animation to bring the Pokemon world to life in a new way. It's a great new entry into the Pokemon animated canon, and I honestly wish there was more. Who knows, maybe they'll make another season in the future? I hope so, but if not, it's still a cute show for what it is. Whether you're a Pokemon fan or not, Pokemon Concierge is a nice kick-back-and-relax kind of show that's short, sweet, and to the point, and man do I wish there were more of it!
Hope I'm not intruding, hello there! It's a shame that it's only four episodes (for now??), but I def think I'll need to check it out now, especially after hearing that it was good! I remember loving Rillakuma and Kaoru years and years ago, so it's good to hear that Concierge takes after it a little! Thanks for your hard work reviewing (^.^)/~~~
This review was just finished today. Hooooo boy.


Rating: 48/100

Man, my first review of 2024, and its for...this. I only heard about this manga through TVTropes, and seeing as its complete, I thought I'd give it a look. Ehhh...I admit, I'm not a fan of this one. I've mentioned before that bullying is a very tough subject to depict in fiction, because you have to really know what you're doing. Some stories manage to do it right while others really fall flat. For example, three years ago I reviewed a light novel called At Night I Become A Monster, and I hated it because not only are all the characters bland, one-note, and one-dimensional, the whole story felt relentlessly mean-spirited, whereas another story that tackles the issue, Lonely Castle In The Mirror, manages to succeed in its depictions because 1. It actually bothers to flesh out the characters and make them feel relatable and three-dimensional, 2. It treats the victims' trauma as valid and empathizes the importance of having a support network rather than simply blaming the victim, and 3. It actually explores different facets of bullying from different angles rather than just one aspect of it. The subject of today's review, the manga Is It My Fault That I Got Bullied? tries to show how bullying, if left unchecked, can leave people with both physical and mental scars that can haunt them for the rest of their lives while showing empathy to the victims, which normally I'd be on board with...if it wasn't for the fact that it's execution leaves a lot to be desired.

So what's the story? Shinji Suzuki has it made. He has a loving family and making high figures at his banking job, to which he is the envy of his peers. But during a middle school reunion, someone he remembers all too well is in attendance: Yuuichi Aizawa (No, not that one), a man that Shinji used to bully mercilessly back when they were in middle school, traumatizing him to the point of making him drop out of school. Aizawa is pissed to find that not only is Shinji completely unrepentant years later, he even has the gall to say "There's a reason why people get bullied," implying that Aizawa was somehow at fault. But unbeknownst to Shinji, his daughter Shiori is being targeted by bullies at school. To complicate matters further, Aizawa is Shiori's homeroom teacher. Can Aizawa be trusted? Who is friend or foe? And will the bullies, both Shinji and the girls bullying Shiori, finally face the consequences of their actions, or will justice be out of the survivors' reach yet again?

Yeah, in case you couldn't figure it out, it's a revenge story. I know, shocker, right? Considering the glut of them that we've been getting over the past few years, I'm sure we're all getting tired of them. Hell, bully revenge stories are pretty common in US media too. I've seen a few movies about people getting back at bullies, and several of them were...pretty bad. Word of warning, don't watch that 2010 indie movie The Final. It sucks, and I'm still baffled that Lindsay Seidel is in it. Unfortunately, Is It My Fault That I Got Bullied? is yet another addition to the bad bully revenge story pile, and that stinks, because there are some good parts about this manga, especially its messages about how bullying is never the victim's fault and that Japanese schools need to do more to actually combat the problem rather than just cover it up to save their schools' reputations. But execution is everything, and sometimes, even with good intentions, if you don't know what you're doing, you'll wind up really screwing the pooch here.

One of the things holding the manga back is its art. I'm not gonna lie, the art for this manga really leaves a lot to be desired. The panel layouts are fine, and I had no problem following the events of the story, but the character designs are woefully generic and amateurish, and there are even times when the body proportions are really off. Sometimes it seems like the characters' eyes are stretched really long, covering a good portion of their faces, especially when they're trying to look smug or scared, and it makes them all look like silly cartoonish caricatures rather than truly conveying horror or evil like they intended. Granted, it doesn't look nearly as bad as the manga version of Higanbana no Saku Yoru ni, but it's teetering on the edge. I've also noticed that the mangaka really likes to use thick outlines for the characters, but even those tend to be rather inconsistent. Sometimes the outlines look fine while other times they're REALLY thick, making the characters look like paper cut-outs. It just looks odd.

But the characters are really what hold this manga back. In all honesty, the characters have nothing to them other than their circumstances, or in the case of the antagonists, just being evil. The protagonists are completely defined by their tragic experiences with bullying, and I couldn't bring myself to care about them because the manga is just tragedy after tragedy every chapter, with very little reprieve. The manga seems more concerned with putting Shiori through the wringer than making her into a three-dimensional character, and the girls who pick on her have all the depth of wet toilet paper, even with their backstories explaining why they resorted to doing what they did. There are even some whose characterization is really inconsistent, with the biggest offender being Eri Yazaki. Sometimes she acts like a rational teacher, and other times she's a crazy psycho stalker straight out of a bad Lifetime movie who wants to get in Shinji's pants, it feels like two different people are inhabiting Eri's body rather than two sides of the same person. As much as I want to like Aizawa, there's so many questions about his background that go unanswered that it really stretches credibility in regards to how he managed to become a teacher. If he dropped out of school, how did he manage to get the credentials needed to become a teacher? Also, did he even go to therapy for all the bullying he endured? What did he do with himself between dropping out and going to Shiori's school? Does he have any hobbies? What relationship does he have with his parents? Did they support him or were they abusive? Seriously manga, flesh out your characters beyond the tragedies they go through! There's no point in caring about any of your characters if you can't even treat them like people! They all feel more like ciphers for the author to espouse their messages through than people.

Speaking of the manga's messages, that's actually one of the few redeeming qualities it has. Japan as a country has always had problems dealing with bullying, or rather its refusal to do so. The fact that people tried to file lawsuits against the creator of A Silent Voice in order to force them to not make it into a series tells you all you need to know how much they don't want anyone to know about it. For all of Is It My Fault That I Got Bullied?'s problems, the messages it wants to put out aren't one of them. It's clear that the author shows empathy for the victims of bullying, wanting to express that it is NEVER the victim's fault that they're being bullied and that people who partake in bullying absolutely should face the consequences, whether they're active participants or people trying to cover it up to save face. It's not afraid to show that there's never an excuse for bullying and that nobody should ever willingly participate in it or subject someone to it, so it's better than At Night I Become a Monster in that regard. However, as much as I agree with the manga's intentions, these messages are undermined by the fact that the entire manga is little more than a wish fulfillment revenge fantasy, complete with its characters having no depth or nuance to them, and what little nuance they might have had never gets utilized. Actually, the whole manga feels like a "message first, story second" kind of affair, similar to the 2019 remake of Black Christmas. The manga might have fared better if it bothered to flesh out its characters more, toned down the revenge aspect, improved the art, and made the villains less cartoony.

Overall, Is It My Fault That I Got Bullied? does have something going for it, but good messages can't make up for its lackluster plot, inconsistent art, and cartoonishly one-note characters. I can recommend several other stories that tackle the issue of bullying far better than this. This just isn't worth it.
This review was just finished today.


Rating: 80/100

As of 2024, I have now seen a total of four anime based on Visual Arts/Key's properties: Air, Kanon (The 2006 version, not the Toei version), Clannad, and Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet. I have no plans to watch Little Busters or Rewrite, nor play their visual novels at the moment. Planetarian is based on Key's kinetic novel of the same name. Unlike a regular visual novel, a kinetic novel offers little to no choices or branching paths that affect the plot in any way, and its narrative is completely linear, being more like a digital picture book with music and voice acting than a game, though that's not to say kinetic novels are bad. Planetarian got adapted into an anime in 2016 by David Production and for the most part, it was pretty well received. I actually did watch the first episode years ago, but because I was deep in anime burnout, I didn't watch the rest of it until this year. I do wish I could have watched this a lot earlier, as this is a pretty sweet, heartwrenching anime that's a pretty faithful adaptation of the game.

In a dystopian future, mankind has fallen. In their hubris and greed, they brought calamitous destruction down upon their own civilization. Now only embers and wreckage remain, and what few humans survive eke out a meager existence in the ashes of this empire. The Junker is one such survivor, scavenging among dead cities for usable junk. But when he stumbles across a planetarium in an abandoned apartment store, he meets Yumemi Hoshino, a robotic assistant who is somehow still functioning. Yumemi knows nothing of the destruction outside; sworn to her duties, she still advertises for a starry performance that will never come. At first, the Junker is put off by her constant talking and nearly leaves her alone...but he has a change of heart to the point of offering to repair Yumemi's projector. Their unlikely meeting will reveal that no matter how dark our skies become, there is always starlight beyond.

Remember when Kyoto Animation used to adapt Key's games into anime? I clearly remember when it was first announced that JC Staff was going to adapt Little Busters and fans went absolutely apeshit over it. Not really sure what prompted KyoAni to stop, but luckily, unlike with Little Busters, Planetarian's animation was handled by David Production, and from what I can tell, the reception to this decision hasn't been anywhere near as bad. I'm only halfway through the game myself, but the anime does a pretty good job of bringing this slice of Planetarian's ruined world to life. The faded backgrounds give the crumbling world a stark dreariness about it, and provide an effective contrast to Yumemi's overly ornate cute moe girl design and cheerful recitations of screening times and special events. The actual planetarium segments and the background imagery that pops up when Yumemi goes into her actual presentation are nothing short of beautiful and manage to do their job well. The animation itself doesn't really rise above functional; not so limited that it becomes a slide show on the level of The Way Of The Househusband, but isn't strong enough to elevate the characters and the source material. The same goes for the soundtrack which, while nice to listen to, isn't very memorable.

That being said, Planetarian's strengths come from both the main characters and the narrative. The cast for this is small, focusing only on Yumemi and the Junker, and we get plenty of time to get to know them and what drives them to do what they do, making their relationship convincing and their inevitable fates all the more tragic. The fact that this show is only 5 episodes long, with said episodes ranging between 10-16 minutes long, demands it tell its story as efficiently as possible, and I'm glad to say Planetarian pulled it off with aplomb. Another reason Planetarian's overall story works so well is that it shows quite a bit of restraint when telling it and its themes. It doesn't feel the need to constantly hammer you with the sadness of its setup, such as with overlong monologues or melodramatic scenes showing the characters crying all the time; Yumemi's optimism contrasted against the dilapidated state of the world around her does that already. Everything the show does plays on contrasts and contradictions: At one point, when Yumemi is doing her presentation, her exaltation of humanity's wish to go into space has a brief image of Icarus falling out of the sky, an acknowledgement that what makes humanity great is also what makes us terrible. Not every story needs a grand, epic, sweeping narrative in order to be good. Sometimes even simple stories can be genuinely great if you know what you're doing. On that note, I'm not gonna watch the movie, because most of it is just a recap of the show, and what little new footage it does have, while providing a good epilogue for the show, doesn't justify spending more time with the movie than you should.

So yes, Planetarian as an anime isn't the strongest story out there, and its production is middling at best, but its fundamentally strong storytelling and characters are able to overcome its limitations. Granted, I know others won't agree. Some may find it great, others might find it to be cynical and emotionally cloying or manipulative. Honestly, I think Prima Doll fits those descriptions far better than Planetarian ever could, mainly because Planetarian isn't completely banking itself on cute moe girls, and its writing and characterization is far smarter and nuanced. Yeah, I'm still not over just how bad Prima Doll is. Though for all I know, if I were to rewatch stuff like Kanon and Air nowadays, I might feel differently about them compared to when I was younger. I will say that I'm glad I saw Planetarian because it does manage to be good on its own merits, VN adaptation or no. I ought to finish the VN while I'm at it.
This review was just finished today.


Rating: 63/100

Oh, Mari Okada, I wish I knew how I felt about you as a creator. After her theatrical debut with Maquia: When The Promised Flower Blooms, she's back in the director's seat with a brand new movie, Maboroshi, or if you wanna use its Japanese title, Alice and Therese's Illusion Factory. No, I don't know why the Japanese title is so strange. I read something about how the names Alice and Therese, when said in Japanese together, also pronounce the name Aristotle in their language, which makes you wonder why they didn't just call it Aristotle's Illusion Factory, especially since there are no characters named Alice and Therese in the film, but I digress. Anyway, Mari Okada is pretty prominent in the anime circle, and people tend to be divided on what she works on or creates. Some like her stuff, others hate it, and some are mixed. There are anime she's worked on that I really love, such as AnoHana, Maquia, and Anthem of the Heart, but also titles that I'm really not a fan of, such as A Whisker Away, A Lull In The Sea, and Hanasaku Iroha. If you get the chance, I highly recommend you read her autobiography, as it's really enlightening and fascinating. Now that Maboroshi is out (I'm going to refer to it by the official English title that Netflix gave it for the sake of brevity)...unfortunately, I don't feel this movie is as good as Maquia. Someone on a blog I follow described it best, that Maboroshi is the most Mari Okada movie ever made, with all of her indulgences and writing tropes concentrated into one movie. Not gonna lie, they're absolutely right, and unfortunately, this isn't one of her better movies, which is a shame because there is a lot to like about it!

14-year-old Masamune Kikuiri is your average middle school kid who likes hanging with his friends and practicing drawing in his rural Japanese town. One day, an explosion at the local steelworks factory literally shatters the sky as if by magic, cutting the town off from the rest of Japan. Time is literally frozen. Nobody ages or grows old, the seasons never change, there's no new forms of entertainment, the world has truly become static. Everyone trudges on, hoping the world will right itself, but nothing changes. One day, Masamune has an unpleasant encounter with his mysterious classmate Mutsumi Sagami, who sneaks him into the abandoned factory to show him something...or rather, someone: A feral girl she's been taking care of in secret, whom Masamune names Itsumi. Upon getting to know her and the circumstances surrounding her imprisonment, Masamune discovers that Itsumi's existence might just be the key to figuring out why the town is in the state that its in. But some people fear what could happen if things change, doing all they can to keep the kids from helping Itsumi.

Gentle reader, I ask you, did you ever read that Ursula K. Le Guin book The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas and wonder why nobody in the book bothers to just rescue the abused child from their imprisonment? Mari Okada decided to actually do just that, taking that one question and building the whole house around it, which forms the backbone of Maboroshi. The story is actually the most interesting part about this movie, really going deep into examining just what being stuck in a truly static world and never physically changing does to a person and a whole community. Imagine being an elderly person who struggles with daily tasks who can't even die, or a pregnant woman whose child will never be born. It also explores what happens when people look to those who seem like they have the answers, even if the person in question is a crazy old coot whose explanations have no real basis in logic. Gee, that totally doesn't remind me of a cult leader or anything. The implications behind the world these people live in are really terrifying and depressing if you think about them, which is obviously intentional on the movie's part. Using all this to craft a story about the fear of change and the difference between making the best out of a bad situation and simply resigning yourself to it is done really well here.

The stellar animation and deliberately 90s music also really helps bring this dilapidated, static town to life, making it into a character of its own. Yes, Maboroshi is firmly set in the nineties on purpose, and kudos to the movie for really putting a lot of care into recreating that time period down to the last detail. Oh, and I bet you're wondering why the singer they brought on to sing the ending song has such an...interesting voice. Remember how in Maquia, Mari Okada really wanted to have Bravely Default veteran Akihiko Yoshida to do the character designs for the movie because she really liked his work? For Maboroshi, according to this article, Okada personally asked popular singer Miyuki Nakajima to create an original song just for the movie because she really loved her songs, and the reason her voice sounds so distinct and unlike most of what you hear in anime movies is because Nakajima is 71 years old. I admit I'm not familiar with Nakajima's work besides Shin-On, but the fact that she's still singing well into her seventies is pretty amazing.

God, you have no idea how much I wish I could have liked this movie more than I do. The basic set-up is interesting, and I actually cared about Itsumi's plight. Unfortunately, the characters and how Okada uses them are the movie's biggest weakness. I thought the male lead, Masamune, was fine as a character. Not the most three-dimensional, sure, but he has his reasons for doing what he does and his insecurities and frustrations are relatable. However, other than him and Itsumi, none of the other characters are in any way interesting or compelling whatsoever, and there are several that feel really out of place in this movie. I really could have done without that pervy fat kid and his antics. This also leads into one of Okada's biggest weaknesses as a writer: For some reason she has this bad tendency to shove pointless love triangles/polygons in the stuff she works on, even when having them would feel really out of place and on characters that she really doesn't bother to develop or flesh out. There's a girl in the movie whose only reason for existing is to tell Masamune she has a crush on him, and for a really dumb reason at that, and to be fridged just to get the main conflict going, and I really couldn't give a shit about her because the movie never bothered to flesh her out beyond the fact that she has a crush on Masamune. Plus, I really didn't like Mutsumi as a character, and the fact that the movie introduces her by having her show her panties to Masamune just to give them a reason to interact is just...gross. You literally could have done anything else just to get them to talk to one another. Hell, Mutsumi spends a lot of her time being mean to Masamune and dragging him into her problems, with Masamune rightfully calling her out on her behavior a lot of the time...and then later in the movie they're suddenly in love and falling all over themselves for each other. And I'm sorry, but I could not buy their romance at all. Not only did they hardly ever spend time with one another for there to be any romantic or even friendly chemistry between them whatsoever, Mutsumi spends so much of the movie being a bitch that I really couldn't see why Masamune would even fall in love with her in the first place. Every attempt at romance in this movie seems thrown in there just for the sake of shoving in some contrived drama when they could easily be cut out to make for time to actually develop the characters. You could literally cut most of the side characters out of the movie and it'd probably be better off.

And for as much as I like the overall story for this movie, a lot of the conflict stems from people acting like arrogant pricks who can't use their heads for one second or even refusing to do really basic things that could have been resolved things right then and there. There's so many plot threads left hanging and basic questions the movie just flat-out doesn't answer because it's more concerned about having every character fall in love than actually doing something. Such as the following: Why does nobody bother to tell Itsumi that she's actually Masamune and Mutsumi's daughter from the future? Or that she somehow Doctor Who'd herself into the past? For that matter, why did the movie feel the need to make Itsumi be romantically jealous of the middle school versions of her parents? That's just super creepy, moreso considering how infantilized she is. Outside of the whole pointless romantic drama, what happens to the people who get cracks and disappear? Do they just...magically get transported into the future, or do they flat-out die? What the hell even are those smoke wolves? I want answers, movie!!

Man, it sucks that I couldn't enjoy this movie more, because it does have some genuinely great stuff in it, and I think its great that Mari Okada is being allowed to do more of what she wants as a creator. I certainly hope she gets to do more things after this. But I and other people find that her works tend to be better when she has someone to reign her in sometimes or if she just cuts the needless romantic drama bullshit. So yeah, I prefer Maquia over Maboroshi, as the latter is a little too preoccupied with pointless drama to care much about character development or really making full use of its potential. But that's not to say Maboroshi doesn't have anything to offer, like I mentioned above. If you like the movie, more power to you. Maboroshi isn't the best or worst thing she made, and I hope the next movie she makes is successful. Oh, and I recommend you watch the English dub, both because it is genuinely very good, and because they cast an actual child actress to play Itsumi, which makes her sound far more authentic and bearable to listen to compared to putting up with the literal auditory nightmare that is Misaki Kuno's squeak toy voice.
This review was just finished today, and...man, I wish I hadn't wasted my time on this.


Rating: 53/100

How? I don't understand. I get that Toei really likes to milk their franchises for all they're worth, with the All-Stars crossover movies for Pretty Cure being no exception. I generally don't bother with the All-Stars movies because I haven't seen every single Pretty Cure season ever made and I don't have the time to watch them all. But because Toei likes making money, they churned out yet another crossover movie, Pretty Cure All Stars F. I didn't think this was going to make a blip outside of Japan and fansubs because Pretty Cure hardly ever found an audience outside of Japan for a bunch of reasons that are way beyond the scope of this review. Yet, somehow...Not only did All Stars F become the highest grossing Pretty Cure movie in the franchise to date, complete with the highest opening weekend box office sales, but it was apparently enough to get exported and dubbed in other countries like Italy, Hong Kong, Laos, Thailand, Taiwan, and Cambodia. That baffles me, because having seen the movie myself...I don't understand how this was the movie that would help Pretty Cure get exported to other countries that never had it before. Why? Why this one? Why is THIS the movie that made the most bank, because there's nothing about it that makes it any different from other Pretty Cure All Stars movies. Plus, even without the fact that it's a Pretty Cure crossover movie, there's just so much wrong with it and how it handles everything that it frustrates me to no end.

I'm gonna get the biggest issue out of the way first: the plot. Not only does it feel like a flimsy excuse just to get a bunch of Cures from different series together, there's absolutely no structure or attempt at cohesion whatsoever. We're literally just thrown into the action right off the bat, and if you haven't seen any of the Pretty Cure seasons that this movie focuses on, you'll be absolutely baffled as to who the hell these characters are, how they even got to meet, and why we should bother caring about them. Even the reason for why everyone is in this situation in the first place only raises more questions than answers, and the resolution to it all is just a lot of magic, a lot of yelling, and a lot of Deus Ex Machinas that come right out of nowhere because we gotta get the kiddies to buy our products. What little stakes it has wind up being completely undermined by the fact that all it takes is the power of rainbows and speeches about friendship to magically fix everything, from broken buildings to even the end of the world apparently. At this point, the movie isn't even trying to hide the fact that its only purpose is to sell toys. I know other series, even other Pretty Cure series, have done this too, but All Stars F handles everything with all the subtlety and grace of an elephant on figure skates in a china shop.

Not only that, because of just how slapdash and shoddily put together the plot is, there's almost no point in talking about the characters because the only reason you'd even care about them and their plight is if you've seen the shows they starred in previously. If you're not already familiar with them or haven't seen the shows they belong to, they all come across as bland ciphers who only do stuff because the plot demands it. Then again, it's pretty hard to give about 20 or so characters any form of development in a movie whatsoever. Even the movie's attempts at developing the characters ring completely hollow because it completely throws logic out the window when doing so. In an early scene, Yukari and Lala get into an argument because the former doesn't want to stick to the group and wants to search for answers on her own, but Lala rightfully points out that not only would it be dangerous for her to do so considering their situation, there's safety in numbers, though what the movie doesn't mention is that they're in a snowy area and Yukari could easily get frostbite or hypothermia and die in the cold. Yukari calls Lala a bothersome child and runs off like a brat, and has to be rescued later and they reconcile. But for some reason, Lala is treated as being in the wrong and she's made to apologize for "not considering Yukari's feelings," which is complete bullshit because Lala's concerns were absolutely valid, and you'd think Yukari would know better than to go out into a blizzard all alone with no protection whatsoever. Uh, hello? Has she not heard of frostbite or hypothermia? I don't know what Yukari is like in Kira Kira Pretty Cure A La Mode since I haven't seen it yet, but her bratty behavior here did NOT endear me to her in any way, because how dare Lala not want her to fucking freeze to death. I couldn't even bring myself to like the new characters in this movie, and not just because Cure Supreme's design is awful and makes her look like a bad tie-dye Cure Echo with animal ears. God, her dead eyes freak me the hell out.

As much as I don't like All Stars F, it does have SOME good things going for it. It's a very bright, flashy, colorful movie. Flashes, beams, and sparkles abound, all animated with an insane amount of fluidity, with the hand-to-hand combat given just as much care and looking quite visceral. It certainly looks more cinematic than the Tropical Rouge movie, that's for sure. But good lord, why did the movie feel the need to animate the girls in really bad CGI in the final battle? Seriously, it looked awful, and they should have just stuck with doing it all 2D. The soundtrack is fine too, even though most of it is reused from Hirogaru Sky. But good animation and a decent soundtrack cannot fix this movie's flaws, and it's honestly no different from other All Stars movies that came before it...which honestly begs the question: Why the hell is THIS the movie that's getting exported to other countries and even getting dubs in their languages?! Most of which never even got any seasons past Heartcatch or Doki Doki, or even Yes Pretty Cure 5 for that matter! A movie like this REQUIRES you to be familiar with the characters and their parent series, so I can't fathom why Toei is pushing for this to receive international screenings, complete with dubs, when anybody in those countries who watches them won't know fuck-all about them because said series never got exported there previously! The only country I could plausibly see this working with is Italy, where Pretty Cure actually does have a solid stronghold in, but even they couldn't bring over every Pretty Cure series past Heartcatch because of Saban's shenanigans with Smile and Doki Doki.

So yeah, in the end, Pretty Cure All Stars F is just another marketing vehicle for Toei to push toys. Honestly, the whole movie feels like the animated equivalent of shaking keys in front of a child's face to keep their attention. Even by marketing vehicle standards, All Stars F just feels insulting, not just to kids' intelligence but to adults' because of how little regard it has for anything resembling cohesion and substance whatsoever. Look, I like Toei when they actually try, and I'm not trying to rag on the Pretty Cure series as a whole, because I do enjoy certain seasons. They're not perfect by any means, but when Toei actually puts in effort, they are able to make some truly great things. But this is not one of them. If you're looking for some bright colors to entertain you for 70 minutes or just want to watch your favorite Cures interact, feel free to give this a watch, but that's really all All Stars F has going for it, otherwise give it a miss.
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I've always been kind of apprehensive about the idea of going too far down the rabbit hole of the All Stars movies — even with their often amazing theatrical-level animation and fight scenes — due to being afraid of pretty much everything that you've described here, haha. No one can tell anything close to a coherent story with that many characters in such a short amount of time, but to be fair, it doesn't seem like they're even really trying to... if you know what I mean. You can be shameless with the kind of movies you're making when they make up one of the top-grossing movie franchises in Japan, apparently. In any case, Pretty Cure is best when the commercial side of things is more balanced with the story side of things, I think, and at least most of the TV series don't seem to suffer as many of the problems that the movies do in that regard.
This review was started on May 16th, 2023, but not finished until today.


Rating: 79/100

Hey, kids! Remember three years ago, when I reviewed an obscure furry game called Fuga: Melodies of Steel? Guess what? It got a sequel, and not only that, there's going to be a third game in the future, too! Fuga: Melodies of Steel is the third game in CyberConnect2's Little Tail Bronx series, but Fuga itself is the first game in said series to have direct sequels in any capacity. It's kind of awesome that Fuga even got sequels at all in light of the fact that, according to this Famitsu article, the first game only managed to recoup 30% of its development costs within the first three months of its release, only managing to sell 150,000 copies within a year and a half. To be fair, CC2 did all they could to try and advertise the game themselves, but their efforts unfortunately didn't bear fruit, and according to one of the developers, they even sent out review copies to game reviewing sites such as IGN and GameSpot and not only did they just never get back to them, they never even bothered to play the game at all, much less review it. That's...really sad, if you think about it. I played the first game myself, and while I did feel parts of it could have been better, I still think the game is pretty good on its own and a nice little gem that definitely deserves more recognition. Fuga: Melodies of Steel 2 is definitely an admirable sequel, but it does have significant problems holding it back.

Taking place a year after the first game's best ending, Malt and his friends have returned to their normal lives in the wake of Gasco splitting apart and Vanargand's defeat. They're hailed as heroes in light of their efforts to defeat the Berman Empire. One day, they're all called to the capital of Pharaoh having been invited to by the Gasco Army to help them with studying the recovered Taranis. Once the door is successfully unlocked, however, half the children suddenly become trapped within the tank, and the Taranis itself reactivates, brainwashing its captives and kickstarting a destructive rampage. With no other options aside from using the similarly-recovered Tarascus (which now has an AI based off of the previous game's main villain, General Hax), Malt and the other remaining children— joined by Vanilla Muscat, the President's youngest daughter— board the former Berman tank to stop the out-of-control Taranis and save everyone. However still, more tragedy may be looming over the horizon beyond this mere kidnapping, more of the dark secrets surrounding the Taranis and its history are set to be unearthed, and with enough time and turmoil, Malt and the other children may shift towards a new desire for revenge against the one who started this new conflict.

So I'm just going to address the elephant in the room and talk about Fuga 2's biggest flaw: Its very nature as a direct sequel to the first game makes it absolutely impossible for people to play this game unless they've played the first one, or at the very least have some knowledge of it. Fuga 2 builds upon pretty much everything the first game established, from the game mechanics to the characters' development and growth from the previous game. Past events from the first game are constantly referenced and talked about, even within the Link Events. There is a feature in the title screen that CLAIMS to recap the first game's story, but apparently it turns out it's little more than a montage of key moments from the game, and it doesn't have any text or dialogue explaining specific elements of the story or even the names of certain elements or characters. This proves problematic because of certain story elements in Fuga 2 being direct follow ups to Fuga 1, and if you don't know about what happens in Fuga 1, they'll come off as extremely confusing in Fuga 2. Even the characters' depictions here are heavily reliant on your knowledge of what they're like in the first game and whether you've played it or not. If you came into this game not having played Fuga 1, it'd be very easy to just dismiss the characters as being generic anime archetypes based on their personalities here when that's not the case.

That being said, I did mention in my review of the first game that I felt it didn't really do enough with the characters due to its structure. Fuga 2 retains the narrator and having it tell a majority of the story, so I'm guessing they plan on keeping it for the third game as well. But having played the first game, there is one character who really got more focus and development, whose whole arc is basically a game mechanic in and of itself: Malt. Out of all the characters in the first game, Malt felt rather vanilla (Ha! Get it?) in terms of his characterization, but the second game not only puts him through the wringer, but the choices you have him make actively affect the narrative. Fuga 2 introduces a new mechanic called the Judgment System, where if you have Malt's responses to various events either favor empathy or archiving his goals no matter what, you not only have access to different abilities during battle, but also affect the ending you get. While the game itself really builds on the characters after the events of the first game, Malt really benefited the most from this. Speaking of the characters, Vanilla is a fairly good new addition to the cast, and it helps that CC2 took the hint in regards to the complaints about how the requirements for saving Britz in the first game weren't explained very well, as Fuga 2 flat-out explains the requirements for keeping Vanilla alive right off. So yeah, not only does the game make character development into a game mechanic, it gives Fuga 2 a lot more replay value.

Speaking of game mechanics, a lot of new features were put into Fuga 2, making things a lot more manageable. One of these is the implementation of airships, which give you the option of going back to an early point in whatever map you're on if you want to grind for more items, materials, or experience, or forward if you want to challenge yourself, which is a very welcome addition in my book. And if you're worried a lot of the new features might make the game feel too easy, don't worry, they don't. Since the kids control a new tank, said tank comes with a new weapon called the Managarm, which unlike the Soul Cannon, doesn't require you to completely sacrifice a child to use it. Instead, the Managarm just incapacitates them, knocking them out until the next intermission and barring you from gaining any experience from any battle you use it in. But the Soul Cannon is still in the game; rather than having it be optional, Fuga 2 makes it so that if your HP goes below a certain threshold, it randomly forces a child into it to prepare the weapon, and if you fail to end the battle before the countdown ends, the Soul Cannon will automatically fire, making it into an active threat to leverage rather than just a passive mechanic. And no, not even upgrading the tank or healing will free the trapped child from the Soul Cannon once it activates. For anyone who doesn't like the new countdown feature, I didn't find out until later that there is a way to disable this part of the game by praying to the Soul Cannon three times.

For all that I've spoken about most of the characters and the benefits they've received from the new mechanics in Fuga 2, I do have to question some choices in regards to some of them. I won't spoil anything, but one character who is mentioned to be out for revenge against someone who killed his family is suddenly revealed to be showing compassion for said enemy, which is really out of character for him considering his arc in the first game. Secondly, for some reason the game really wants to redeem some of the villains in the first game, even though those very same villains are based on the friggin' Nazis and therefore don't even deserve redemption arcs considering the atrocities they committed. Lastly, one villain in particular is not only revealed extremely late into the game, with absolutely nothing in the way of foreshadowing or hints to his presence whatsoever beyond a throwaway line or two, therefore not having any impact on the story whatsoever, his reasons for being a villain also rely heavily on your knowledge of the first game, and by the time he appears, he comes across as way too cartoonishly evil to take even remotely seriously. So yeah, Fuga 2's character writing isn't exactly consistent. At least Boron isn't reduced to a walking fat stereotype anymore, so kudos to CC2 for that.

As flawed as Fuga: Melodies of Steel 2 is though, I still found it to be pretty enjoyable, even if its overall plot is a rote revenge story and still relies too much on a narrator explaining stuff to you. You'll probably like this if you're already a fan of the Fuga games, or the Little Tail Bronx series in general. Fuga 2 is more mechanically refined than its predecessor, but some writing flaws and its status as a direct sequel hold it back from true greatness. But the fact that CC2 not only cares about this series, but constantly give it patches and updates in spite of the fact that the series didn't do very well for them financially shows how much they care about their series as game devs, and you don't see that with a lot of game companies. And yes, I'm looking forward to playing Fuga 3 whenever that comes out.
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Man, this review has been a long time coming. Took me ten years to actually write out. Originally started on September 1st, 2014, but not finished until today.


Rating: 98/100

I first heard about this game from watching the reviews of one Eli Stone, back when he was making his Cartoon Hero review series, and he highlighted this game, along with the rest of the Mother games, for a sub-series of his called The Art of Gaming. If someone asked me what Mother was before 2014, I'd tell you I have absolutely no idea. Once I started moseying around looking up information on Mother, I learned that Mother 3 was considered a masterpiece of a video game that's unanimously praised, raved, and positively reviewed. I was convinced it'd just be annoying mainstream fare that people were seriously overhyping. Boy, am I glad I was wrong. I found some bootleg cartridges of both this and Mothers 1 and 2 (Though Earthbound was left in Japanese) at the Steel City Comic Con one year, and I knew I had to have them.

Best decision I ever made.

I can say with 5000% certainty that the game's hype and popularity is totally and completely justified. I had no idea I would fall in love with a game like this, and I'm happy to say, I've fallen completely in love! This is seriously one of the best, most underrated video games I've ever had the pleasure of playing. It's a shame it wasn't released officially in the US due to outside factors and possible copyright stuff, because it seriously deserves a re-release here. If you haven't played this game, there is something completely wrong with you and you need to rectify this. Like, right now. But to be fair, this game isn't without its flaws, and just because I like something doesn't mean I'll ignore its flaws or how stupid some things can be.

The story takes place on the Nowhere Islands, and the main character, Lucas, is a young boy living a happy life with his family in the peaceful village of Tazmily. One day, however, a strange group of people wearing pig masks begin stirring up trouble, namely in the form of setting forests on fire and turning the wildlife into robot chimera hybrids. One such robot chimera takes his mother's life, his family is completely torn apart, and the village is changed forever under the influence of the pigmasks. Years later, he decides to fight the pigmasks and make sure they don't destroy the world and what little family he has left, with the help of his comrades and some new psychic powers he receives. But over the course of his harrowing journey, as he learns awful truths about both the pigmasks and what really happened to his family.

From a graphical standpoint, Mother 3 is great. The in-game sprites are extremely detailed, colorful, and expressive, really embracing its cartooniness. The backgrounds are also extremely well-rendered and are just as colorful and memorable, really bringing the game and its setting to life. They're honestly some of the best 32-bit graphics to ever come out of the GameBoy Advance era. The music is similarly fantastic, and interestingly enough, is actually used as a game mechanic. Every enemy has its own distinct battle theme, and if you manage to attack it in time with the music, you can land combo attacks that can allow you to deal out a lot of damage. The character of Duster gets to make great use of this as he has a tool that can put enemies to sleep, allowing you to hear their heartbeats and the back beat of the music, making it easier to land combo attacks. I kinda wish more games would allow you to do this, as its a really fun way to both use the soundtrack to its fullest and a great way to strategize during battle.

Mother 3 retains Earthbound's battle system, being turn-based and having your HP displayed as scrolling numbers rather than your typical health bar. Speaking of the characters, Mother 3 doesn't limit you to playing as just one character over the course of the entire game. Mother 3's story is divided into chapters, and in the first one you play as Flint, Lucas' father, in the second one you play as Duster, chapter 3 has you play as Salsa the monkey, and only from chapter 4 onward do you play the game as Lucas. The great thing about this is that you get to see how the story plays out through different points of view and how the pigmasks' actions affect the narrative and the world around them. It helps make the setting feel more alive in that it doesn't feel like the entire premise of the story revolves entirely around just the protagonist. Every character in the game, whether it be the main ensemble or the quirky, colorful NPCs you meet, is unquestionably affected by the pigmasks' reign and the tragedy that follows. Yeah, I'm not gonna mince words here, Mother 3 is considered one of the most heartbreaking, tragic stories ever told in a video game, with many calling it one of the saddest video games ever. But if you're worried Mother 3 is going to be all doom and gloom, don't worry, it still has plenty of Earthbound's trademark humor and levity sprinkled throughout, whether it be the crazy, witty dialogue you hear from different NPCs, or the constant callbacks and references to previous Mother games, preventing Mother 3 from feeling like a big bog of misery porn. I'd also argue that Mother 3's story is one of the best written, managing to perfectly balance both its sad and comedic tones perfectly without ever feeling like the two tones clash with one another, even if parts of it raise a lot of questions such as how Dr. Andonuts exists.

The reviewer I mentioned above, Eli Stone, when he talked about Mother 3 as a game, said that the game takes the time to really flesh out the characters and show you what they're like before throwing them into the plot because by the time the harder sci-fi/fantasy stuff happens you're actually invested in them and actually care about what happens to them. After playing the game myself, I'm inclined to agree. Every character has their own unique set of strengths, weaknesses, personalities, quirks, and nuances, and all with the right amount of depth to them, and all of them grow over the course of the game. Other than a couple of NPCs, I loved all of them, and there's a reason why Lucas has appeared in various Super Smash Bros games. The only characters who I suspect might raise some eyebrows are the Magypsies, who are genderless beings who use PSI and help the heroes on their journey. They're not badly written characters or anything, but their designs make them look like very unflattering stereotypes of LGBT people, especially drag queens, which absolutely would not fly in the 2020s. That said, their actual depiction is actually pretty progressive in that they're unequivocally on the side of good and remain so throughout the entire game, with one exception but that's a spoiler.

As much as I absolutely adore Mother 3 to death, it's not a perfect game, though in my eyes it's EXTREMELY close to being so. Remember how in Earthbound, if you became overleveled, you could automatically defeat weaker enemies without actually going into battle? Mother 3 does this too, but you no longer gain experience points from it, which can be annoying for people who like grinding. For some reason, the way Mother 3 has your party learn new PSI abilities is weird. When this happens, your characters get a fever for a little bit, and you have to wait until it goes away for them to learn the new ability. Normally this isn't a problem, but it can be annoying when you're in a dungeon because when a character has a fever, it prevents you from running, so you won't be able to escape any enemies you want to avoid if they see you. Furthermore, in order to get the best ending in this game, you have to back-attack enemies, and by that I mean you have to have them show their back sprites in battle. This isn't a problem later in the game since you have Duster, and he has an item which can make enemies turn around, but he's not playable in chapter 1, so you have to back-attack enemies the old fashioned way when you're playing as Flint. Not only that, there are several optional bosses you can fight, but the game won't tell you that they're there, and getting them to turn around is also required to get the best ending. Bosses don't have back sprites so you don't have to worry about those. Speaking of not telling you what to do, the only way to get Duster's ultimate weapon is to go back to Osohe Castle to fight an optional boss, but the game never tells you this. Yeah, Mother 3 really likes making you do a lot of back tracking at times.

So other than a few minor nitpicks, Mother 3 is my favorite video game of all time, even beating out Pokemon, a franchise I've grown up with. Unfortunately, Mother 3 is also notorious for being a game that Nintendo refuses to bring to the US or internationally in any capacity. Admittedly, the game itself is buried underneath a landmine of licensing red-tape, such as blatant parodies of the band ACDC and extremely recognizable riffs from popular music and shows, not to mention the game releasing at the end of the GameBoy Advance's lifespan and not selling very well in Japan, which only hurt its chances at an international release more. Not that that stopped the people at Starmen.net from making their own fanmade English translation from the ground up, which is how people outside of Japan even know about Mother 3's existence to begin with. Even Shigesato Itoi, the franchise's creator, likes the English fan translation and gave it his approval, knowing that it's unlikely Mother 3 will ever be legally available. The fact that a group of diehard fans got together to translate an entire game, with good quality control mind you, because they love it that much shows that the impact Mother 3 has left is a strong one. I know I'm certainly glad I discovered this game, and it's also one of only two video games that actually managed to make me cry, the second one being Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of the Sky. That in itself cements it as not only one of my favorite video games, but my favorite video game of all time. Mother 3 is one of many games that prove that video games can be considered a valid art form, to hell with all the idiots who think video games are brain-rotting violence simulators. Seriously, if you're able, give Mother 3 a shot. I did, and I've never regretted it for a single second.
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This review was written on December 3rd, 2023.


Rating: 75/100

Visual novels have really come into the limelight in the US since the 2010s, haven't they? Years before, you wouldn't have been able to officially buy or play any of them, but nowadays, VNs are plentiful on pretty much every gaming platform. One of the forerunners for the visual novel medium is the company Key or Visual Arts, whose works such as Air, Kanon, Clannad, and so on have netted them fame in Japan, but are only known in the US because anime have been made of their works, which is the only way for Western fans to learn about them in the first place. Luckily, while their earliest titles didn't come to the US, their later visual novels such as Clannad, Little Busters, and Planetarian have been brought over, allowing fans of their anime adaptations to finally play the games that inspired said anime. In 2016, to celebrate their 15th anniversary, Key put out a kinetic novel called Harmonia, which had the honor of being the first of their games to be released in English, before the Japanese version would come out a few months later. For anyone wondering what a kinetic novel is, it's basically a visual novel but without any choices whatsoever, so it's basically a digital picture book but with voice acting and a completely linear narrative. This is admittedly my first time playing a Key game in its entirety (I do own Clannad but didn't get very far in it), and I do like it, but some parts of it do stretch credibility to a pretty insane degree to me.

One day, a boy wakes up in a derelict facility with no memories of who he is or where he comes from. All he knows is that the facility he's in was used to produce Phiroids, human-like robots that were developed before human civilization experienced a rapid decline. The boy assumes he's an unfinished Phiroid because of this, along with noticing he has a mechanical right hand. He leaves the facility and spends days wandering before he's discovered by a young girl, Shiona, who takes him to her village and gives him room and board, along with a name: Rei. Touched by her kindness, Rei decides to dedicate himself to paying her back in any way he can, whether it be fixing her broken music box or helping the townspeople with their problems, hoping he can learn about emotions, as he's under the assumption that he doesn't feel any. But Rei's desire to bring happiness to others, to the perpetually angry proprietor of the general store, Madd, to keeping the lonely girl Tipi company in the library, sets off a domino effect that will put the town in jeopardy and make him discover that things are not at all as they seem, even himself.

I gotta say, Key's visuals have really come a long way since their early days. I've only seen screenshots of their older games like Kanon and Air, but the visuals in Harmonia are a lot more polished and refined than their older stuff. Granted, this is the only game of theirs that I've played to completion, so I guess making that comparison isn't fair. I know people tend to be divided on Itaru Hinoue's cutesy moe character designs, but I think they work just fine here, even if I do feel Shiona looks a little bit too much like Misuzu from Air. The backgrounds are well made and fit the mood of the story when its necessary, especially since the story itself takes place in a town in the middle of a desert. Everything about Harmonia's setting feels derelict and dirty, which makes sense since the story takes place during the post-apocalypse, with the backgrounds reflecting that. All of the associated CGs you naturally unlock throughout the game are similarly well drawn, and it's a shame this is the last thing Hinoue would work on with Key before resigning (Whether from just Key or working in general, I have no clue).

If there's one thing that fans of Visual Arts/Key's VNs can universally agree on, its that they all have great music that's used to great effect, even if a lot of it borders on being a little too melodramatic and sentimental a lot of the time. I think the music in Harmonia is really nice, and all of it fits the tone of the game, though I do wonder if the BGMs were done with actual instruments or made on a synth. I can't seem to tell. Then again, I'm not very music savvy myself, so what do I know? The two actual songs are also well sung, though I prefer Haruka Shimotsuki's "Towa no Hoshi e" over Ayaka Kitazawa's "Todoketai Melody". I'm admittedly biased here because in my mind Haruka Shimotsuki can do no wrong. If there's one complaint I have about the music, it's that I really wish there could have been a version of "Towa no Hoshi e" sung by Shiona's seiyuu, since Shiona herself is described as singing it quite a bit throughout the game, but we never hear it. I would have liked to hear a cover of it done by Shiona's seiyuu, and I know that Kaori Mizuhashi can sing. That's more personal preference than anything.

Unfortunately, as much as I'd like to praise everything about Harmonia, the characters are admittedly the game's weakest link. They're not bad or anything, but they are pretty one-dimensional, rote archetypes that have been done multiple times before, and Harmonia doesn't really do anything new with them. Rei literally doesn't have anything to him beyond thinking he's a robot and wanting to learn about emotions, Shiona is the seemingly kind girl who assists him, Tipi is the sad uwu moe child whose only purpose is to be sad, and so on. The worst offender here is the character of Madd, whose only purpose is to scream and be angry all the time. Barring the fact that naming a character after his only defining trait is beyond lazy, his whole side plot feels so unnecessary, and I couldn't bring myself to care about him because his backstory tries to make you feel for him while completely ignoring the fact that his actions in said backstory make him come off as far less sympathetic than the game intended. Japan, stop trying to convince people that physical abuse is a show of kindness and care, and generational trauma a way for the abusee to realize that their parents abusing them shows them how hard it was to raise them. Just because a parent went through their own issues and never got proper help nor learned healthy ways of coping does not excuse nor justify abuse of any kind. Honestly, I found Tipi to be the most sympathetic out of all the characters, even if her story is completely engineered for emotional manipulation and is trying way too hard to tug at your heartstrings. It's also one of the few times where Misaki Kuno's voice doesn't make me want to stab my eardrums with ice picks, so thank you casting director for actually having her exercise restraint and not amp her voice up to the point where it borders on ear-splittingly squeaky and unsustainable!

Not only that, as much as I like the story and the lore behind it, there are quite a lot of things about the nature of Phiroids, their models, and how the world came to be what it is that really break my suspension of disbelief. Many of which go into spoilers, which will be under the cut below. There are even times when the game contradicts its own rules, which make me wonder just what the hell they're trying to do. As much as I want to avoid spoilers, I can't unpack my feelings about the game's lore without talking about them in depth.

So according to the game's backstory, after Phiroids became popular once programmed with the ability to love, humans and Phiroids began to marry, but since they couldn't produce children, the birth rate declined, and the humans born after the fact just...forgot how to love and empathize with others. Because of this, the humans who forgot how to love began discriminating against Phiroids. The humans who still remembered the concept of love protested their cruel treatment, and war between the two groups broke out. There are so many questions this raises. For one, how the hell would humans just...forget how to love? If the Phiroids were programmed with the concept of love and empathy, wouldn't they still be around to remind whatever humans are left what they are? It wouldn't be as though the concepts of love and empathy would be lost to time, as the Phiroids already practice them. It'd make sense if the Phiroid population was small or isolated, but they were apparently mass produced, and if humans just forgot the concepts of love and empathy, they'd all be born either psychopaths or sociopaths, and an entire society of psycho/sociopaths is just impossible to make. Also, Shiona claims that Tipi is an older Phiroid model who doesn't understand the concept of death, but a later scene contradicts this and shows that Tipi does, in fact, understand death. Uh, hello? Consistency should not be this hard!

Complaints aside, I am glad I decided to make Harmonia my first Key game. It's short, sweet, and doesn't take up a lot of your time. I wouldn't call it one of their greats, but even with its problems, I did enjoy it, and think its an admirable game to celebrate Key's 15th anniversary. I'm halfway through Planetarian and I just started playing one of their newer kinetic novels that just came out, Lunaria: Virtualized Moonchild, so expect a review of the latter in the coming weeks. If you're looking to dip your toes into Key's repertoire and are put off by how long Clannad, Little Busters, and Rewrite are, feel free to give Harmonia a try at some point. Also, Key, please put Stella of the End on the Switch in the future.
This review was just written today.


Rating: 66/100

Final Fantasy is one of the most famous and popular video games in the entire gaming industry, so much so that it spawned several spin-offs that eventually wound up becoming their own series. Such was the case with the Mana series. It first started off as a video game, Final Fantasy Adventure, an obvious side story for Final Fantasy that basically told its own story, not linked to any games in the series. But someone looked at the game and asked, "Hey, why don't we make this into its own series?" And thus, Secret of Mana was born. Made in 1993 (The year I was born) for the Super Nintendo, it really pushed the boundaries of what the SNES could do in terms of gameplay, visuals, graphics, interfaces, and the usage of multiplayer. I never gave this game a second thought during my childhood as I didn't own a SNES. From what I've heard, it was originally going to be put onto a CD add-on feature for the SNES, which could store far more content than a cartridge could, making it much more ambitiously expansive than any video game could hope to achieve at the time. Unfortunately, the partnership between Nintendo and Sony collapsed, so any plans to make the CD game were completely nixed. As a result, nearly 40% of the game's content was removed so the game could fit into the SNES's tiny cartridge space. Having played the game...yeah, it shows. A lot.

The game's story follows a young boy named Randi who stumbles across a sword in a rock and pulls it out, using it to cut a path back to his home village. Unfortunately, doing so undid the seal on a great evil, allowing monsters to wreak havoc upon the world. The villagers aren't too happy about this and exile Randi from the village as punishment (Even though nobody bothered to tell him what would happen if he pulled the sword out, so really they only have themselves to blame for not explaining all this to him). With nowhere to go, Randi has no choice but to fulfill his destiny as the Mana Knight. Joining him on his quest are Primm, a young woman who runs away from home on a mission to save her boyfriend, and Popoi, a mischievous sprite who tried to con them out of their money. Their quest will take them on a journey across the world and put them face-to-face with an evil empire intent on bringing the world to ruin.

From a technical standpoint, Secret of Mana's graphics are great. The backgrounds are lush and colorful, and the sprites are equally charming and vibrant. The game itself has neat little details that nobody would really care about, such as the dancing merchants and the fact that rather than just pressing a button to get an item or running over it, you shake the treasure chest and throw it before getting an item. There is one thing about the graphics that I really don't like: The transluscent text box. What do I mean? You know how in most games you can change the opacity of the text boxes, whether you want them to be solid or opaque, or have them disappear completely? Most dialogue boxes for SNES games were a solid color, but in Secret of Mana, the dialogue boxes are all transcluscent, and since the text is white, not only does it make the text hard to read when against a light background, if a background is completely white, the text is nigh impossible to read. This is but one of the reasons I had a hard time following the story for the game, or even getting through the game at all at first.

The controls are admittedly take a while to get used to, especially if you've played games that actually have tutorials. Rather than your typical menu in a rectangle, Secret of Mana has a ring-based menu system that relies more on pictures than text. No game had done something like that before, so in that aspect it was pretty innovative. However, what makes it rather unwieldy is that none of your character's equipment, magic, or weapons are packed into one menu, where you can just assign stuff to your party. Instead, you press certain buttons to access each character's ring menu individually, and the way the game tells you you're accessing another character's menu is whether their weapon or equipment is pointing at the top and with their icon at the bottom. Not helping matters is that Secret of Mana has no tutorial that explains what does what, so the onus is on you to figure things out. Oh, and have I mentioned how much I hate this game's inventory system? You're only allowed to have four of each item, no more. I'm so glad the remake fixed this by expanding the inventory limit, as only being allowed to carry four of the same item just makes battles much harder than they ought to be.

Seeing as Secret of Mana is an action RPG rather than a turn-based one, using weapons plays out differently than in other RPGs. You're able to have your characters use different weapons, so they're not limited to using just one. When you level up your character's weapon level, they can learn stronger attacks, but using said strong attacks is decided by a gauge, and you have to fill the gauge to the number that corresponds to their weapon level in order to both deal a lot of damage and make use of their effects. This can be really tedious and require a lot of grinding. Magic is generally better when targeting enemy weaknesses, but the game comes with its own issues about it. Because of the game's limited inventory system, early in the game PP preservation is extremely hard due to PP-restoring items are super expensive. This is more because of how the game is built, but when magic is being cast, it slows everything down and it takes a bit for the game's processing speed to catch up.

If you're going into this game expecting a multi-dimensional story with three-dimensional characters here, you're out of luck. A good majority of Secret of Mana's story just consists of going around the world, collecting Mana Seeds, unlocking magic from spirits, and running around, and the characters aren't anything to write home about either. They're not bad, but they are rather bland, one-note archetypes who don't have much in the way of characterization and development. Interestingly enough, most RPG protagonists are silent, and Randi isn't a silent protagonist. Sure, his personality is just shounen idiot hero chosen one, but that's way more personality than most RPG protags tended to get in that era. Not that that really changes how one-note he is. The remake would flesh out the characters a lot more and add in unlockable scenarios that help to develop them, even if whether its success in doing so is debatable. The story is not only pretty barebones, but the game is strangely really vague about telling you what to do or where to go, especially early on. This is actually a byproduct of the game's troubled localization process. Ted Woolsey, who translated Secret of Mana, was given only a month to write an English translation for the game, and to make things worse, the space restrictions in the SNES cartridge were so bad that 40% of the game's text had to be removed in the English version. The space restrictions also had this weird side effect where every time a character talks, they're not allowed to say more than two sentences per dialogue box, which is why the story and characterization is so thin across the board. Man, this game really can't catch a break, now can it?

Of course, that's not to say everything about Secret of Mana is bad. A lot of its flaws are a result of it being too ambitious and being a victim of circumstance. Had it been allowed to be a CD game like it had intended to be, it probably would have been amazing. But as it is, it would introduce a lot of things that would now be commonplace in video game culture today, so gamers owe Secret of Mana that much. Plus, the soundtrack is awesome, that's all I'm gonna say on that front. A lot of its cut content would go on to form the basis for both Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6, and by itself, Secret of Mana was pretty successful in its heyday, defining everything that would give the Mana series its identity. Personally, I do prefer the remake for the fact that it smooths out a lot of the controls and for fleshing out the main trio a lot more, even if the remake does come with its own issues. I need to get around to reviewing that at some point, especially since I did complete it. You could also argue that the remake helped put the Mana series back in the spotlight, because not only did Square go back to remake Trials of Mana and bring it to the West—alongside finally porting the SNES version to the West in English for the first time ever via Collection of Mana—but as of 2024, we're getting the first new original Mana game for the first time in over a decade, Visions of Mana. And yes, I'll be buying that when it comes out, especially now that I actually own a PS4 and can actually play it! So yeah, the original Secret of Mana game may not be the best game ever, especially when viewed through a modern lens, but I still found it to be fun even with its flaws, and most video games as a whole owe a lot to it, so its impact on games is not something to sneeze at.
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