Welcome to Anime Pocket Reviews!
It’s been a while..
Unfortunately for us, there’s been so many good anime airing right now that we haven’t got into any new completed anime series recently. However, with the Winter ’18 cycle coming to a close, plus being only a handful of shows away from the 100 reviews mark, we’ll hopefully have plenty of anime for you over the next month!
This episode we’re having a look at some of the ingredients that might make a classical anime series (that being a series set in ancient Japan) a success, particularly for western viewers – a debate sparked by our headline review. First, though, we give our full take on the latest instalment in the hugely successful American web-series:
RWBY (2017-18, S5, 14x18mins)
Action Adventure, Fantasy
Following on from S4, the world of Remnant is still in shock over the fall of Beacon Academy, caused by the Faunus militia group White Fang and Salem, an evil being in search of the power of the Maidens. The incident creates a scramble to protect the other relics, powerful items only useable by the Maidens, before Salem can obtain them. Ruby (bottom) and her makeshift team RNJR, led by Qrow, head to Haven Academy in Mistral, where the Spring Maiden’s relic rests. The Spring Maiden left her post over a decade ago, leaving the relic permanently locked away and her location unknown. However, Qrow claims to have found her whereabouts, hiding as a member of his estranged sister Raven’s rebel tribe. Meanwhile, Blake Belladonna (top), ex member of RWBY and, before that, the White Fang, is at home, deep in Faunus country and in the centre of the White Fang revolution – the once peaceful rebel group quickly being turned into something more dangerous.
Basically Plot: Following on from Volume 4 and the fall of Beacon Academy, Ruby and her makeshift team, led by Qrow, march into Mistral in search of the missing Spring Maiden, the key to the next relic targeted by the evil Salem.
Ah, RWBY. A complete enigma of a series. Back when I was first getting into animation the first three volumes blew me away. I was hooked, so much so that in our first ever ranking – our 30 Anime Review – RWBY came 10th, ahead of the Fate series and Nisekoi! Then, Volume 4 happened – probably the worst sequel experience I’ve had to date. Since that abomination this has been a series increasingly difficult to pin down. Lovable in some ways, lamentable in others, and Volume 5 follows a very similar pattern.
I have good news: Volume 5 is much more like it from RWBY. One of the biggest problems I said with Volume 4 was that the RWBY group was split up, and while they still are for large parts of this series, there is a much bigger sense here that each character has their own mission they are on. While Weiss is kind of moved aside in this series, it creates room not just for the development of relatively new characters in Qrow and Raven, but also some much-needed growth for the other title characters. I mentioned before how I felt that the RWBY characters desperately needed to be developed, and thankfully this season has delivered us some of that.
Blake’s side-story is okay – an unremarkable story about her place in the world as part of a discriminated society – but the main story, a classic hunt storyline, is very good to watch. There is a real sense of mystery but also of importance to what they are doing and what each character wants. However, as with almost every RWBY series to date, there are some problems in the story’s delivery.
This season, more than ever, I found myself questioning the dialogue. While originally an action series this season, more than any season before it, revolved around personal dialogues between characters and not just discussing fight plans between fights. This has to be where script-writers and voice actors earn their money, in the nuances, and I felt both could have done better. The script sounded clunky and robotic – there were some episodes where it felt like every other line was ripped off from a movie or teen novel – and the voice actors almost followed suit, causing potentially captivating conversations to break down into ‘he said, she said’. Aside from the nuts and bolts, while I followed the events for the most part, I also felt like the writers often assumed perfect prior knowledge of RWBY from its viewers, which is fine for the many die-hard fans, but I did find myself at times wondering whether I was meant to be shocked at a revelation or whether it wasn’t a revelation at al land I had just forgot – maybe another sign of the iffy scriptwriting.
While I don’t believe it should be the bottom-line for this series, RWBY’s machinima style has to be debated. As mentioned before this season was much less hack-and-slash, and unfortunately there are many meaningful points in V5 where facial expressions are poorly done or a scene is poorly directed to accommodate the technology. The seemingly new crying animation is a particularly bad example of a series that despite its growing story still feels slightly amateurish.
Overall, though, I am just glad to see RWBY fit and firing again. Perhaps more importantly, this series shows RWBY’s ability to be enjoyable with a sophisticated story going forward. I still believe that the glory days of RWBY are probably behind them, back in a time where the series could get away with being light and action-orientated which suited the machinima style. However, fans of the series will be satisfied by what is a strong and developing storyline that accentuates the popular characters.
ANIME RANKING: #29 – A very slight drop for the RWBY series in light of the incredible talent around it. It still sits pretty in the top-30, ahead of series such as Kakegurui and Wagnaria!
If you liked this you’ll love: Land of the Lustrous (#19) – Traditionally, we would recommend Akame Ga Kill for RWBY fans, as we have in previous series reviews. However, the emergence of LoL has offered us a little variation. Sharing the similar CGI-style of animation, this series of sword-wielding girls is a quintessential fantasy that is gorgeous to watch. While fans of the RWBY storyline may want to check out Akame, western viewers will enjoy the transition into Japanese animation through the beautiful, yet similar, Land of the Lustrous.
Samurai Champloo (2004-2005, S1&2, 26x24mins)
Action, Adventure, Comedy
“I think I’ve found what I was looking for all this time.”
Set in an alternate Edo-era Japan, the story follows Fuu (right), a young waitress in a small tea shop who, due to her clumsiness, angers a local group of samurai she is serving. She is saved by a lone samurai called Mugen (centre), who in saving her ends up getting into another fight with the quiet ronin Jin (left). Despite considering themselves too strong for one another, the two samurai end up having such a competitive fight that they inadvertently destroy the tea shop and kill the local magistrate’s son. The two of them are arrested and sentenced to death, until Fuu breaks them out of captivity. In return for saving their lives, Fuu hires the two of them as bodyguards, instructing them to help her track down ‘the samurai who smells of sunflowers’ from her past. Despite the two samurai’s early protestations they are left with little reason to say no, and despite promising to kill one another when the journey is over, the three of them set out on a journey through feudal Japan, one that reveals the pasts left behind by the three lonely souls.
Basically Plot: Two wandering samurai, polar opposites to one another, are forced to team up with a young waitress after she saves them from death, setting them on an adventure in search of ‘the samurai who smells of sunflowers’ from her past.
Shinichiro Watanabe’s follow-up to the incredible Cowboy Bebop has long been seen as one of the most unique anime series around. This series is famous for its blend of styles, but can its story live up to the other great works by this prolific director?
Samurai is self-explanatory, but as in the title it is only half of this show. Champloo, ironically, is more of an explanation for this series. A pronunciation of the Okinawan word ‘chanpurū’, champloo roughly translates as ‘something mixed’ and is used by Okinawan people to explain their happy acceptance of foreign foods and cultures into their lives. This idea is what sets this show apart from almost any other anime, including Watanabe’s other works.
While set in the ancient Edo-era of Japan, in a world of carts on donkeys, lonely farmers and shogun enforcers, the series has a very noticeable, American-inspired hip-hop soundtrack. Watanabe is famous for the use of music in his series, but Champloo’s blend of classic Japanese sounds and 00’s hip-hop is certainly his best example of this. It is a blend that, at times, seeps into the series itself, turning what could have been a simple samurai story into a really energetic, lively, and more importantly connectable series.
This blend of Japanese morals and rough-edged American hip-hop is defined by the two samurai, Mugen and Jin. Mugen is a fantastic action-adventure character, a hot-headed, energetic samurai whose moves are reminiscent of breakdancing. Jin is the opposite, a quiet, composed ronin who is much more like the stereotypical Japanese samurai of the Edo period. While somewhat necessary for the balance of the group, considering how Fuu is much closer as a person to Mugen’s style of character, Jin is a somewhat disinteresting person until the latter stages. Still, as a group these three are fantastic characters to lead this story.
While clearly another successful Watanabe anime visually, there is evidence in terms of this series’ story to say that this isn’t his best work. Like many other successful 20-episode-plus anime, Samurai Champloo features a selection of miniature stories alongside the bigger plot. These mini-stories are generally hit-and-miss. There are plenty of really interesting, one-off episodes that showcase the series’ blend of ancient and modern, but there are also plenty of 2/3 episode long mini-stories that struggle to keep your interest, especially when you know from the manner of story that the main three characters are never going to be in real jeopardy. The wider story – Fuu’s search for the sunflower samurai – is actually pretty good and leads to a nice finish (although the story does take the easy way out in the final episode), however for large swathes of this series it is almost forgotten about, turning Champloo into something of a situational show.
Overall, I am a fan of this series as an excellent example of Watanabe’s directorial abilities, however I do not believe it is one of his best works overall. The characters are great, and Champloo is a really nice series to watch, however the series has a tendency to struggle during the middle stages, with not all of its mini stories connecting.
I mention a lot in my reviews about 12-episode series deserving the second season, or at least more episodes to develop itself into a great series. I distinctly remember mentioning it in regards to another Watananbe work, Terror in Resonance. Samurai Champloo is a rarity in that I believe this would have been a much better series if it was condensed into a 12/13 episode run that focused more on the main story, fitting its mix of styles into a constantly developing plot instead of creating smaller, not always successful stories in its ‘samurai universe’. This is still a good series, but overall it is not at the same level as Cowboy Bebop.
ANIME RANKING: #43 – A respectable but unremarkable placement for this series, placing it just ahead of Terror in Resonance and just behind series such as Noragami and Berserk.
If you liked this you’ll love: Black Lagoon (#46) – Of course, the obvious recommendation for Champloo fans is Cowboy Bebop, Watanabe’s signature anime series. However, given that most people go from Bebop into Champloo, here’s a different recommendation. Black Lagoon is a modern crime anime with a similar setup to Champloo, in that the lead charter is a normal person taken under the wing of dangerous killers after he is cut off from his previous life, joining the mercenaries who had once held him hostage. Black Lagoon may lack the genre-blending fun of Champloo, but doubles up on the action, and has a lead mercenary in Revy that has to be one of the best action-adventure characters in anime!
Now, let me teach you the art of the samurai.
By that, I of course mean the art of a successful anime series set in classic-era Japan.
There’s unique problems with this when it comes to overseas viewers, because we obviously do not have as much of an affinity with the morals and psychology of people such as samurai as someone from the domestic market might have. However, after my few minutes of research there are some themes that I have begun to notice, and the biggest reasons for success with this kind of series seem to be fun and flair.
Gintama is one of the biggest still-running anime series there is, with an apocalyptic number of episodes to its name. Gintama is set in feudal Japan and stars a samurai, but its flair comes in the fact that ancient Japan, in this story, has been invaded by alien forces. The samurai clashes with an eclectic mix of characters, bringing incredible vibrancy to the plot and almost making it a modern-style series*. Champloo is similar, in that it is a classical samurai story set to a 00’s hip-hop soundtrack and featuring techniques and characters inspired by modern (at least for the early 00’s) tastes.
On the other side of the coin, I personally didn’t get along with Katsugeki/Touken Ranbu. Like the others, this series is set in a classical Japan where the samurai are still important. However, while the others use techniques to bring a modern feel to the story, Katsugeki is very much a story focused on classical customs, with some flair from the characters but not from anywhere else. This is despite the series being about time-travelling warriors protecting history from a mysterious enemy looking to rewrite it! Katsugeki never feels like it’s trying to be anything more than a samurai hack-and-slash story, and it has suffered on here as a result – we just couldn’t get into the action or the characters, and the history element of the series didn’t resonate with us at all.
So, in conclusion, for feudal era Japanese samurai based anime series to be successful, it’s got to have something to pull it into a frame that a modern audience can see through – and this is even more important when it comes to a foreign audience.
*I should point out that I write about Gintama purely from what I’ve heard and seen from others, as I’ve not watched a single episode of it before.
What’s your views on feudal Japan anime series? Any favourites that we may have missed? Let us know in the comments!