Review: Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak Academy (Future, Despair, and Hope arcs)

Foreword

The Danganronpa series builds on itself.  That is, the second game will spoil the first game, the third game will spoil both the first and second game…and so on.  Danganronpa 3 (not the upcoming game New Danganronpa V3, confusion I’m sure will happen from time to time) works off many pieces of preceding material.  It requires knowledge from Danganronpa (PSP, Vita, Steam, and previously animated) and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (PSP, Vita, Steam) in order to make a decent amount of sense.  You would also find knowledge of Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls (Vita) and Danganronpa Zero (light novel) helpful though not entirely required.

2:23 PM- "Girls With Cup Noodles On Their Heads - girlswithcupnoodlesontheirheads.com

If you haven’t read the foreword above – do it now. This is the least spoiler heavy thing for the prequel games in the entire review. Last warning.

If you are, for whatever reason, reading this review without knowledge of the franchise, here’s the basic introduction: the Danganronpa franchise is a fairly new set of games.  The “core” games (Danganronpa and Danganronpa 2) are probably best described as a cross between Phoenix Wright and Persona.  In both games, you’re in control of a mostly bland, run of the mill Japanese protagonist.  He’s all excited to enter this school known as “Hope’s Peak Academy”, a high school where the best students from around the country flock.  They are the best in their field and are given ceremonious titles of “Super High School Level” (translated as “Ultimate”).  For an obvious example, the Super High School Level Photographer is excellent at taking photographs.  However, the protagonist loses consciousness upon entering the school and find themselves at the mercy of a small bear named Monokuma.

Monokuma has trapped the entirety of their class, about 16 in total, within a school (on an island in the second game) and will not release them without committing a “perfect murder”.  A perfect murder entails the murder of a classmate which, after investigation and debate, confuses the jury of the surviving class enough that they cannot identify the murderer.  Basically, it’s trial by a jury of whomever is alive and the winner goes free if the jury determines the murderer incorrectly.  Yes, that’s a lot of terminology.  No, I can’t think of a better way to word it.  No, you actually don’t need to know any of this for Danganronpa 3 but you will need to understand that this happened.

Incidentally, committing a perfect murder kills the rest of your class once you go free.  Also, Monokuma executes the murderer (in typically humorous and ironic fashion) if the class correctly identifies the murderer.  Monokuma also puts up temptations such as releasing your darkest secrets or starving the class unless a murder occurs.

To make a long story short, the class eventually catches the masterminds in each game…and the survivors leave their respective hellholes.

The outside world fared no better.  Turns out they lost their memories of their last few years.  The world absolutely collapsed in that time.  As in, all of society is pretty much gone and succumbed to the notion of despair; people fight each other and regress to a purely chaotic state.  It’s basically what you would imagine if YouTube comment sections were let loose on the world.  A group known as the Future Foundation steps up in the absence of any real government and acts to fight the despair that plagues the world to restore it to a better state than anarchy on earth.

The first game’s mastermind, Junko Enoshima, orchestrated this downfall by revealing the corruption of Hope’s Peak; the mass expenditures of the school on the “cultivation of hope” resulted in creating a perfect human named Izuru Kamakura.  Who she claimed then proceeded to murder a bunch of other students.  This outrage eventually sparked the downfall of the world.

Enoshima’s death at the end of the first game sparks the slow defeat of this despair movement.  The Future Foundation begins making strides forward as the despair movement loses steam without its leader.  They eventually capture 16 students from a single class at Hope’s Peak Enoshima specifically trained to orchestrate her will.  The Future Foundation plans to execute them but Makoto Naegi, the first game’s protagonist, interferes and puts them into a virtual reality program with the hope of rehabilitating the students.  Few survive the experience due to interference by a virtual version of Enoshima (we’re supposed to just roll with the idea of an AI version of her).  Another long story short, the class defeats her once again and she claims to give up at this point.

Background

Time to finally get to the actual description of this anime.

Don't blame me...there's just a lot of backstory.

Don’t blame me.  There’s a lot of backstory.

Danganronpa 3 is the conclusion to the Hope’s Peak narrative in the Danganronpa franchise.  That is to say that all the events up until now will conclude with this anime and New Danganronpa V3 marks a whole new continuity.  The anime got direct supervision from Kazutaka Kodaka, the series’ original creator.  So all this reads as “we’re dead serious about ending the narrative this time”.  Back into the fold is Seiji Kishi, director of the fairly contested original Danganronpa animation, again taking the directorial role.

The Danganronpa 3 series takes an unusual idea and, instead of a single series of 26 episodes, splits their narrative into two components: a “Future” arc and a “Despair” arc.  They fully intend you to watch them simultaneously as each series supports the other one.  The correct viewing order is: Future arc episode 1, Despair arc episode 1, Future arc episode 2, Despair arc episode 2.  Additionally, the production officially created a 3rd series to replace the 12th episode of Despair arc, naming it the “Hope” arc.  Obviously the Hope arc is the grand finale to the series.

So, summary of this is basically that the series takes a lot of the crew from the visual novel games and transitions them over for a product of a different element.  The creation is exactly what the Danganronpa game creators want.

Note: The sections from here on out will always start with the Future arc, followed by the Despair arc.  Any supplementary notes for the Hope arc are at the end of each section due to it being a finale more than a series.

Story

FUTURE ARC

The Future arc follows the events of Danganronpa 2.  The Future Foundation is understandably upset that Makoto Naegi interfered on what are effectively war criminals.  The series goes explicitly out of its way to define them as million person killers.  Anyways, they call him in to their headquarters…a location supposedly off any map.  Almost all branch heads (previous alumni of Hope’s Peak) come back to evaluate the situation.  Actually, it’s more of a kangaroo court as most of they want his head but still…

Well, you can’t collect this many valuable players for an organization at war without attracting attention.  The entire security of the structure becomes comprised (resulting in the loss of all the security staff) and sleeping gas knocks out the branch leaders, Naegi, and his friends (this time being Kyoko Kirigiri and Aoi Asahina).

They awake to find they are in another game: Monokuma Hunter.  Probably the worst game of Mafia you’ll ever hear about.  Much like in the Danganronpa games, there are many rules to it so I’ll just simply list them here:

  • Each “player” in this game has a bracelet on.  It will inject a sleeping agent when the time listed on the bracelet hits 0:00.  This time is the same for each person.
  • A player designated as the “attacker” wakes up early and will kill another person. The rest of the players awaken a while later.
  • The game ends when no person dies during this “sleeping” phase.
  • Every “player” has a specific instruction known as the NG Code.  Violating this rule will result in death.

Basically, most of the Future Foundation suspects Naegi as the creator of this game and want to kill him so the game ends.  A small splinter group of branch heads come to his defence however; all hell breaks loose as these sides start coming to blows.  Meanwhile, a couple other branch heads use this time to settle scores with each other.

Now, here’s the thing about the Future arc: what drives it very much depends on the episode.  You get about two episodes where you follow Naegi and this group, then one where you watch Tengan, then one with Kimura, then another with Naegi.  Then you go into a side adventure with the cast from Ultimate Despair Girls.  Only after that, over half the series, do you finally settle into a fairly consistent cast.  This is a major stumbling block if you aren’t capable of familiarizing yourself with characters real quickly.  All levels of design do assist with this process though; Danganronpa characters are exaggerations.  They are caricatures…stereotypes so extreme it’s difficult to confuse one character for another.  I sometimes found myself struggling to remember names but never did I struggle to recall their personality or their narrative to date.  It’s quite an impressive feat when there are 12 new characters to remember and only 24 total episodes in both Future, Despair, and Hope arcs.

But outside that, a unifying factor in the writing is its tension.  The series will continually not let you go.  It changes quickly and cause major changes within the narrative.  This is entirely by design: Kodaka stated he wanted a series by which each episode surprises.  And it does not fail to deliver on this front.  Watching this series will leave the viewer on the edge of their seat in anticipation of the next event.  There are many parallels to the design of the Danganronpa games as the game will find your expectations and turn them on their head.  This nature of unpredictability makes each episode exciting.

Of course, this factor in addition to a fairly bloated cast early on means that there end up being major streaks of slow and plodding pace.  Major events have built up and the short time of most events mean that they get separated by longer than normal reprieves.  So those looking for wall to wall excitement and pure pulse pounding action for each second might need to go somewhere else.  Action sometimes happens but it’ll happen in spurts.

One aspect you’ll need to wrap your head around is the fairly scattered nature of the Future arc; this side is extremely dark to start off.  Many characters will receive conflicted love or just outright hatred.  In fact, I’d go as far as to say the most likeable characters initially are pretty much the returning cast from the original Danganronpa game.  This in and of itself isn’t a major issue but makes a major writing hurdle.  You see, in order for you to care about the deaths of characters, the series has to make you go from “I don’t really like this person” to forming emotional attachment.  And in order to do that, the characters need screen time.  this is what causes much of the rocky pacing above: the series has to spend time with each individual character for just enough time to make you care.  Then they kill them.  It almost becomes a point when you can say that focus on a character inadvertently raises their likelihood of dying.  It makes a disjointed narrative early on and eats up a lot of time.  The writing tries to get around this by using the Despair arc as well (more on that below), but it’s still a little difficult to wrap your head around.

SHSL Weedman

And then you have to deal with Hagakure, who seemingly exists to let you know he exists.

Returning from the game can also create a slight shock as well.  The comedy in Future arc is much less than the original games.  Whereas the games have this:

It’s much harder to find fun and laughter in the Future arc of Danganronpa 3 by comparison.  In fact, this is probably one of the largest shifts in tone.  Danganronpa was a mix of serious and humorous.  Some of the most serious of events would tone down the humour but characters such as Hagakure (and to a degree, Fukawa) would lighting the situation.  Danganronpa 2 often brought relief with Souda and Owari.  Or Ibuki earlier on.  Especially Ibuki.  This time?  There’s much, much less of that.  Your comedic character literally gets locked out of the story and nobody inside really plays the comedy relief.  Sure, you’ll still get cases where Asahina completely misreads the situation or Kirigiri gives crazy lines with absolute deadpan expression but it just doesn’t happen with any level of consistency.  And this provides a fairly oppressive feeling if you really enjoyed this lighter side of high school kids murdering each other.

Though on the other side of things, we do get to see this.

Though on the other side of things, we do get to see this.

So I guess the best way I can summarize the Future arc is that it is very much driven by its need to conclude the Danganronpa franchise.  Well, the part that pertains to Hope’s Peak that is.  This side of the narrative has some amazing aspects to it and it’ll leave you intrigued every step of the way should you opt to join the ride.  But just be aware that this ride also is a bit of a genre shift from the original Danganronpa games.  It’s less fun and more business.  And the focus is pretty blurred early on since they don’t get the option of using Free Time Events to characterize everyone through optional events.

One final note – The end of the Future arc (heading into the Hope arc) starts going off the rails logically.  The actual plan itself starts to make less and less sense the more you think about it even if you account for the in-series hints.  It’s much at the level of “how does this make sense” of recent superhero films (villains in Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War have similarly impossible to understand logic for accomplishing their goal).  Which is to say not really all that good.  Though Danganronpa never really was a stickler for continuity.

 

DESPAIR ARC

Now, the Despair arc takes a different course of events.  It focuses on one character from the Future arc, Chisa Yukizome, as she becomes the teacher for the 77th Class at Hope’s Peak.  This class eventually becomes the SHSL Despair listed above.  The one Naegi eventually shelters from the Future Foundation.  It leads you through the course of events which culminate to create the Danganronpa universe as we recognize it.  Which means it’s on a one way course to despair and terror.

Basically this is what I assume I'd get going in.

Basically this is what I assume I’d get going in.

Or at least it would seem that way.  It actually starts off much more lighthearted than this.  In fact, the first couple episodes almost feel like they’re out of a wacky slice-of-life series where the teacher turns a bunch of eccentric students into a ragtag group of friends.  I mean, the jokes come quick and often initially.  And it doesn’t really entirely shift out of this until episode 6 or so (though you do get the odd episode here or there with a much more cold and bleak tone).  This create a bit of a tone problem as it contrasts so greatly with the Future arc that it’s hard to imagine these two series really needing integrated viewing.

The series at this point shifts dramatically.  You’ll spot it too.  The series, as mentioned above, deals with the descent of the 77th class into becoming the murderers which Naegi protected in Future.  And Enoshima previously claimed she brought them into despair herself.  So it should not surprise you when Enoshima takes over the show.

>:D

She even declares it the B-side.

It’s at this point when the entire series becomes that level of grey and depressing that you really do expect out of an anime following the demise of civilization as we know it.  You then follow the machinations of Enoshima and her sister Mukuro Ikusaba as Enoshima plots to destroy the world.  It basically becomes the Junko Enoshima show where everyone not entirely close to her gets a line or two just to let you know that they exist.

One massive waste of potential in the Despair arc stems from the that the Despair arc never really plays out like its own anime.  It splits is focus on many tasks for the sake of supporting other media.  Multiple episode use their time to characterize the cast of the Future arc.  A viewing of the Despair arc on its own would result in characters appearing and disappearing without reason.  The biggest offender is episode 4 where Kimura, Andou, and Izayoi from the Future arc appear without reason and then disappear, never heard from again.  It gets even worse as much of the series gets writing purely for the sake of filling holes in other media.  Episode 3 purely focuses on the events of the Twilight Syndrome game in Danganronpa 2.  If you haven’t played the game, basically the minigame presents a series of events it portrays as factual.  The events are nearly entirely unrelated to the events in Despair arc but get thrown in to ensure that it completes the narrative posed in Danganronpa 2.  And while these two are the most glaring issues, they’re hardly the entire list.

The primary flaw this presents is the drain from the actual Despair arc, which becomes more and more of a split.  It takes time to explain events for Danganronpa, Danganronpa 2, and characterize for the Future arc.  Only after all that does it get to its own story of how Enoshima brings about society’s downfall.  Oh, and occasionally throw in the 77th class because they become closely tied to it all.  But this scattered approach never lets anything really pick up steam until the plot lines of Enoshima and the 77th class actually converge.  Even then, the entire series of events goes through real quick.  And that’s really ultimately the issue: the Despair arc already sits at a fairly low 11 episodes.  With that, there are at least 19 characters you’d want to recognize as critical to the primary storytelling of succumbing to despair.  You’re already at a low time count for each character.  Then add on top of that the burden of tying together other events and you’re in a place where story flies fast and many events get minimal time.

Contrasting with Future arc, there’s a lot more humour here.  Again, the first two episodes are pretty chalked full of fun and amusement.  It’s much more of the “daily life” of the Danganronpa games and treats you to a little levity from the oppressive Future arc.  But that too slowly vanishes as Enoshima takes over.  And soon enough, you’re laughing at blackmail.

I would kill for a Nantendo Game Girl.

To be absolutely fair, we were laughing at Nantendo before so maybe we’re just not healthy to begin with.

And, ultimately, there ends up being no real resolution due to this.  The aim of Despair arc is filling holes and, while it does that just fine, the cohesive narrative doesn’t feel all that strong.  Enoshima really never suffers a setback and seemingly executes her plan flawlessly.  Which is fine if you’re a protagonist for a shonen type series.  You can get away with that for a full season there if you don’t mind being a little generic.  But for a villain?  Not so much.

Yes, we get to find out about the Twilight Syndrome events, the personality of Izuru Kamakura, the first mutual killing game, and exactly how Enoshima orchestrated everything.  But they’re all foregone conclusions and almost entirely end up feeling like loosely associated OVAs more than a full season.

That said, the Despair arc isn’t without its redeeming factors.  The season creates some extremely beautiful and unsettling moments.  It has its comedy and likely will make you laugh.  It does everything it sets out for.  It’s just that the cohesion of these events themselves really don’t provide much on their own.  They all become parts of a machine greater than the season.  This is part of why I review the series as a whole as oppose to Future and Despair arcs separately…the Despair arc never set out as a standalone piece.  It’s a cog and deserves treatment as such.

 

HOPE ARC

The series unfortunately ends off on a less than stellar note.  The episode becomes pure, unadulterated fan service.  It feels like the series took notes on what fans wanted to have happen and just threw it all together.  It’s unfortunate as it really works reasonably right up until the series reveals its actual villain.  Then things start falling apart.  Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t enough to undo all the good the series provides.  It just feels like a fanfiction series by the end as nothing’s explained and it really feels like the writers let the inmates run the asylum at the end (a crazy notion, of course, but it still has that sort of feeling by the end).   And it’s too bad since the continuity deserves a better send off than this.

 

Characters

FUTURE ARC

So…um…there’s a lot of characters to start.  Let’s just put it that way.  My count ended around 20 characters.  Realistically though, you’ll end up only really needing to know about 10 or so as many die quickly or revolve around a single episode.

Really though, Kimura best girl.

…Wait.  Which storyline were you again?

Your focus is almost split evenly amongst the entire cast early on.  This creates some pretty heavy bloating and the cast drops like flies early on.  This initial grouping starts getting smaller and focusing only on a select group of key individuals.  The survivors of the first Danganronpa game (Makoto Naegi, Kyoko Kirigiri, and Aoi Asahina) get the most attention.  After that comes the contrasting antagonist Kyosuke Munakata.  The series comes down heavily on contrasting Munakata and Naegi.  The parallels result in a great deal of on-the-nose characterization of the two as characters comment how similar the two are.

One aspect that Danganronpa series specializes in is emotional torque…specifically, loss.  It builds up characters that you’ll find sympathy in…only for you to see them mercilessly cut down.  Inside the game world, this comes about via letting you pick your favourite character and spend time with them.  The Future arc seeks the same emotion out by days in the spotlight.  The series will spend time characterizing a new personality, sometimes spilling over into Despair arc to find the additional time, to gain humanizing traits.  It then puts them on death watch and makes them open game for becoming the next victim in hopes of picking enough love to become an actual loss to the audience.  Death and the loss drives much of the Danganronpa series and the Future arc continues the tradition.

To that end, the characters are not the most deep.  As mentioned before, they’re often caricatures.  They aren’t extremely deep or more than a couple of notes.  The shy girl is shy and the nice guy is still nice.  But their stories become sympathetic and their face in these circumstance admirable.  So you come to love the one side of them which does that.  It’s just enough time and space to cause the loss the series so much seeks out.  And I think that’s the best way to describe most characters in the series: most of them are simple.  Most don’t have the biggest stories but ones you’ll find attachment.  Then you’ll lose them and you’ll get hurt.  And this becomes the game’s primary usage for characters: to ship off for death.

Now, that isn’t to say some characters aren’t actually fairly interesting.  There are a couple of them which get tender love and care from the writers.  They grow, they have nuanced thought.  The series goes out of its way to show you that nuanced though.  But it’s just most of them get written for emotional processing and come off just interesting enough to pull this off.  To that end, few are truly dynamic throughout the narrative.

 

DESPAIR ARC

The majority of screen time goes to Chisa Yukizome and Junko Enoshima.  I’m quite serious on this.  In a narrative splitting time to explain the backstory to the Danganronpa 2 game, the 77th class has very little screen time after a while.

What's up with Nidai's face by the way?

I know, I’m sad about it too.

A major issue on this side of the series is its impossible task of splitting time between the 18 important characters.  And yes, I do mean 18.  Chiaki Nanami makes an appearance.  There are only about 4 hours of screen time for the entire Despair arc.  It is virtually impossible to provide satisfying characterization to all of them as well as progress anything resembling a plot.  It also doesn’t get any chance to thin the cast ala Future arc.  It gets stuck with a bloated cast and no time to give the spotlight to each of the important individuals…so the entire cast from Danangronpa 2 get the short end.  And then so does Yukizome halfway through the series as the plot picks up faster and faster.

Another strike against the Despair side is a lack of utilizing deep or interesting characters.  Again, the writers give one or two characters get a lot of care and love.  Problem is that none of them are really the main characters.  Enoshima is…well…Enoshima still.  She’s goofy, quirky, and doesn’t exactly sound like an insane sociopath until she talks about despair (in which case she becomes the more obsessive person we all recognize).  But you ultimately learn nothing really new or interesting about her, her personality, or her goals.  Now, a more charitable look at it (which I prefer more) would claim that Despair arc shows Enoshima as more of an analyst than an out-and-out genius.  But still…that’s half a series and pretty much all you get out of her.

What...what do I even say?

Actually, you also get this.  The goofiest eyes I can recall.  All intentional too.

Yukizome gets a bit of characterization and time early on.  As I’m sure you’re tired of hearing now, this basically goes to the wayside as Enoshima’s plans become more and more central to the narrative.  But this thematic change does ultimately change much of the narrative focus and you can see the effects in many aspects.  Yukizome basically becomes a supporting cast member in the Despair Arc…which focused on her pretty much from the first episode on.

Ultimately, much of the cast as presented in Despair arc are walking pieces of scenery.  I joke earlier, but I got the feeling by the end of the arc that the 77th class’ entire role was “show up, say a line to ensure that people are aware you exist”.  Yukizome becomes much less important driving the narrative’s as time goes on and it practically feels like the Junko Enoshima show.  And, to some discomfort, Junko Enoshima doesn’t really become that much more interesting a character due to this.

That doesn’t take away from the good points: there are legitimately good scenes for making you care about the characters.  The writers appear capable of such tasks.  It’s just that they chose to not make it a primary focus over explaining the vast series of events they wanted covered before they leave the Hope’s Peak narrative behind.

 

Animation

First: Future arc and Despair arc have a slight difference in colour choices.  Future arc does away with the series’ traditional pink blood.  It seems they have done away with the ratings issue for that season.

Does that mean the humble strawberry is red once again?

Meanwhile, the Despair arc opts to remain in pink blood.

I take it all back - Ikusaba still best girl.

Danganronpa‘s first animation got treatment from Lerche.  It…didn’t go so well.  The series got extremely poor animation at points and off-model imagery turned up frequently enough to cause distraction.  So you can imagine the trepidation when we found out Lerche animated Danganronpa 3 as well.

Kimura still best girl.

The best way to describe Danganronpa 3‘s animation on either end is…”inconsistent”.  Actually, that’s not really the best way.  The animation quality is inconsistent.  The animation choices themselves work out pretty nicely.

The palettes are absolutely perfect for what the series need.  Darker tones, akin to what you’ll recognize from the first Danganronpa game, fill up the Future arc.  Outside hair colour, you don’t get much outside the neutral tones.  Looking at my collection of images, I’d hazard a guess that dark blues, dull reds, and brown cover most of the spectrum.  This creates a fairly oppressive, darker environment.  Which is pretty much an accurate summation of Future arc…a narrative some claim is so depressing and unlikable that they will use the words “I don’t care what happens to these people”.  It meshes well with this oppressive and bleak atmosphere.

Also, lol at Andou running.

This is not one of the bleaker moments.  Also, would it kill them to add more lights next time?

Conversely, the Despair arc utilizes palettes to dictate the “feel” of the episode.  You’ll notice duller palettes akin to Future arc coming out when the narratives gets darker and less fun.  However, early episodes will use bright shades similar to Danganronpa 2.  These episodes carry a level of levity and the shades add to it.

dedicated-gaming

Of course, these are just the choices.  Again, the animation is inconsistent.  You’ll have some extremely beautiful sequences where Lerche obviously put tonnes of care.  These signature sequences have a calibre to them that matches the intensity of the scene.  And then there are entire stretches and indeed entire episodes where animation quality apparently goes downhill.

Andou worst girl.

On one end, you get this.

And the other end, this.

And the other end, this.

One final issue you’ll find is “same face syndrome”.  Many characters share the same generic “anime face” look that many series struggle with.  You’ll probably most notice this lack of detail in the face between Yukizome and Asahina who pretty much look the same outside their hair and eye colour.  And clothing obviously.  But it still expresses a lack of detail.  Humorously, this actually worked out quite well for those watching the episodes as they aired as it fuels many different forms of theories.

Hope arc addition – I can’t help but say that things don’t mesh well in the Hope arc.  The specific mix of character and colour choices just don’t work for me.  I can’t say much without ruining things or going into details but suffice to say that things get a bit strange here.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

The first Danganronpa anime borrowed quite heavily from the game.  Danganronpa 3 is no exception and follows back to the same well.  Expect many call backs to the game’s soundtrack used at times you’d absolutely expect them to pop up.

This isn’t really a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.  The Danganronpa franchise has some excellent in-game music and typically utilize a more uptempo feel (though you’ll also get the slower, chime heavy pieces as well).  They do show up a little less frequently than I’d like but do set the tone well enough.  It feels more like a fan service more than anything else…a way to get the viewer to go “I remember that!”.  It’s enough to get you from scene to scene without realizing there’s a void in the dialogue.

Future arc and Despair arc use different openings and closings.  Future arc opens with Dead or lie by Maon Kurosaki (featuring TRUSTRICK).  The ending is Recall THE END by TRUSTRICK.  These two pieces work out quite well, fitting the tone of the arc quite well.  Dead or lie features a strong mix of fast pace and mix of instruments.  It doesn’t slow down once it speeds up its pace and does a good job fitting the hectic and chaotic pace that the Monokuma Hunter game would ultimately introduce.  Its animation doesn’t bring much to the table outside some pretty nice still shots of each character with a possible death in the background.  Recall THE END is a more generic piece of soft rock.  It has an interesting animation sequence but you’ll likely not feel it’s worth listening to more than once.  That is, until you get to the end of the series.  There are some fairly useful interesting foreshadowing parts in it but it’ll likely be more difficult than not to spot them until they pass.

Despair arc has Kami-iro Awase from Binaria as its opening and Zettai Kibo Birthday (Megumi Ogata) as an ending.  Kami-iro Awase is very much a different piece than Dead or Lie.  It’s a lot softer and less intense.  Which makes sense given the pacing of the Despair arc.  Probably the most unusual aspect of this opening is its choice in palette.  It ends up changing at specific points in the season to reflect the tone and narrative progression.  It’s quite interesting and worth watching each episode to spot the changes and how the opening impacts your mood for each episode.  Zettai Kibo Birthday ultimately starts off making sense and just goes further and further from understandable as time goes on.  It’s upbeat and shows the 77th class in happy times.  I get there’s a reference to the Danganronpa 2 narrative in it but it ultimately gets the feeling of being quite out-of-place by the end.

I’ve tried by the subbed and dubbed version of this series.  The subbed version retains a strong cast and probably the same recognizable voice actors and actresses you heard before.  Well, except Monokuma.  Actually, there’s very, very little Monokuma.  TARAKO took over from Nobuyo Oyama due to Oyama’s health issues.  Regardless, this is the same series which specifically asked for voice actresses for Sonia Nevermind and Peko Pekoyama.  The team has a pretty strong idea over what they want and they generally do quite well with it.  Conversely, the characterization and dubbing choices for certain characters (Enoshima and Tengan are the most glaring) may leave you confused if you chose the dubbing route.  Additionally, the choices in voice for the characters becomes awkward as they use phrases which don’t always feel the most natural for the situation.

Synergy

The Danganronpa Future arc focuses on pushing a narrative.  It’s a thriller which completes the events with Hope’s Peak.  So everything naturally gravitates to that.

Conversely, the Despair arc…really doesn’t have much synergy.  There are episodes here and there which will focus on specific aspects which they want to provide further illumination.  But then they don’t really tie in together too well until Enoshima walks in and starts pushing certain aspects towards her plan.  Then things start to converge a little.  But even then it remains a bit scattered and confused throughout.

Why to Watch

If you’ve played Danganronpa games and loved them, come right in.  I think it’s as simple as that.  The series aims to answer some questions left throughout Danganronpa 2 as well as tie them closer to the original game’s narrative.  It closes out the time with Naegi and company while providing a new thriller narrative.

Why Not to Watch

It’s really a case of just saying the opposite as the above…walking in with no knowledge of the Danganronpa franchise might not work out too well.  Alternatively, if you liked the games but like them because you could learn a lot about each character…that won’t happen here.  Really, that’s about it.  This series will likely find a niche around its fans and won’t have wide striking appeal outside it.

Personal Enjoyment

The Danganronpa games are probably my second favourite game series.  Only the Zero Escape franchise edges it out.  I’ve always been hoping for a good animation from the series for a while.  So I’ve walked in with a lot of hope.  The thriller genre is one of my soft spots…so the Future arc gets a lot of love from me.

Summary

Danganronpa 3 is pretty much an extension of the games.  It’s a love letter to fans: we’ve had a good run with our Hope’s Peak narrative.  But it’s time to close up and move on.  Kodaka and his team put every idea they had left for that continuity into one place.  It ends up scatterbrained and a little lost at times but ultimately pushes exactly what he wants to say.  Some issues with logic and focus do hamper it a bit.  But this is a watch if you know the continuity to date and want one more trip to the same world.

Overall Rating

Danganronpa 3 has a 7.05/10 for me.  Given I use 5 as average, this is a pretty solid ranking and actually comes close to how I’ve felt about other “solid” series.  Anybody who wants one last lap with the Hope’s Peak absolutely should watch it.

The strongest aspect of this series is its gripping narrative.  Danganronpa series fans will likely love having another deadly game.  Monokuma Hunter is an incredible idea for 11 episodes.  That said, the series falls apart towards the end (honestly dropping its score by a small amount) and the half of “supplementary watching material” in the Despair arc bog it a bit.  Additionally, the entry fee of “knowing the Danganronpa games” is quite high so keep that in mind as people without knowledge of the games will likely end up lost.

Review: Fafner in the Azure: Exodus (Seasons 1 and 2)

It's always this lighthearted. I pro--who am I kidding?

It’s always this lighthearted. I prom–who am I kidding? It’s downhill from here.

Background

Studio Xebec.  There’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.  Let’s face it…it basically became, for a long time, the name associated with mediocre series.  Heck…a long search of their credentials few noteworthy series in the last 10 years.  The last “popular” one might be Shaman King.  Past that?  Some occasional moderate successes.  Some underrated series.  But nothing really spectacular or groundbreaking.  Or really “great” for that matter.  Throw the 2004 series Fafner in the Azure as part of that.  Reasonable and decent plot but suffering a bit of a budget issue and some pacing problems (10 episodes are only worth watching upon second viewing), in addition to some complaints when Hisashi Hirai basically recycled the same character design templates (themselves already questionable to some fans)…and things went a bit off the rails.  But I liked it.  It’s kind of interesting and a bit of a Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion hybrid.

Colour me surprised as this series slowly plods along for the next decade.  It gets a prequel OVA, Fafner in the Azure: Right of Left, a movie sequel, Fafner in the Azure: Heaven and Earth,…and, around 2013, announces a sequel series.  More shockingly though comes news that Xebec, which hadn’t done a lengthy standalone series in years (at least something over 6 episodes), produced the entire series under the new name Xebec Zwei.  Also, and this is even more shocking, the attached name to the project doesn’t include three words after the colon: Fafner in the Azure: Exodus.

Story

Welcome to this version of Earth.  About 2110 AD (give or take.  Memory is pretty bad on the exact date), a series of aliens eventually named Festum make contact with Earth.  They begin what can only be described as a horrific assault.  The world as we know it falls to pieces as these aliens, apparently silicon-based, begin attacking.  Each live in packs led by a Mir and tend to form more inquisitive thoughts than the standard invading alien.  Their standard attack is announcing into your mind the question “Are you there?”.  It then attempts to read your mind and assimilate your mind and body simultaneously.  This wave of offence pretty much destroys much of the world…Japan and much of China sink into the ocean outright.  Escaping Japanese civilians are apparently all sterile. Did I mention that the Festum also come in a wide variety of lovely shapes and sizes?  And they fly?

Braaaaains

They’re pretty much zombies. Golden, Angel-esc, mind destroying zombies.

But one floating centre of Japanese culture survives.  Tatsumiya Island.  It is a cloaked, mobile island which spends its days living a much less bleak life.  Children go to school, people have routine worries, and there are even happy cafes still in operation.  Why?  Well, they harness the power of teenagers and mecha.  That is…they genetically engineer children with the ability to fly mecha known as Fafner.  The ones on this island, currently in production as of the original series, provide a combat efficiency unparalleled across the Earth.  That is to say, they win battles.

Now, this is where many series diverge.  Fafner falls into a pretty cynical category.  Things rarely go smoothly for the pilots.  Death exists all over.  Multiple pilots die in the original series and mecha routinely end battles trashed.  The original series goes as far as to make a single Festum a challenging enemy.

The original series introduces Tatsumiya to the world.  Namely that they not only hid from the Festum but from humanity.  The rest of the world formed under the Neo UN, an apparently more effective and militant version of the UN we know today.  They fight the Festum at an international level with their own line of Fafner.  Poorly.  Anyways, the existence of Tatsumiya comes as a great surprise to them.  They routinely attempt to pull the island into greater conflicts in the original season.  They also present a threat in the movie Heaven and Earth as they slowly fall into more extreme measures when fighting Festum.  In fact, Exodus begins with a nuclear strike against an exceptionally large Festum walking over the island of Hawaii.  Which fails to do anything.

Exodus picks up four years after the original series and continues to show this arms race between Festum and humans.  The Neo UN finally develops a line of Fafner which actually compete with the even evolving Festum…which now have trump cards in the size of exceedingly powerful individual Festum (known as “Azazel” type Festum.  Get used to a lot of terminology if you watch this series).  They still get crushed and lose their base in Hawaii.  It’s quite odd as, outside of the events of Heaven and Earth, Festum rarely act in such an organized manner. A small splinter group of the Neo UN, led by General Wiseman-Bose, eventually flee and end up making contact with Tatsumiya.  Long story short, the general plans to end this war by having a citizen from Tatsumiya who is capable of speaking to the Festum accompany him so they can find a way to co-exist with the Festum.  They agree and things go on from there.  The narrative follows two groups: one which follows the General on his trip to India to seek out this possible end to the war and one which stays on Tatsumiya and defends it from Festum attacks which are spiking in both size and ferocity.

It should be clear, even before I begin going into analysis of the series itself, that there’s a massive learning curve.  There are 26 episodes and 1 movie’s worth of plot worth knowing before getting started.  It’s worse than a series such as Dragonball Z since many events in Fafner‘s prequels directly affect this series’ events.  It’s simply more than knowing the characters’ names and falls into directly understanding events from the series in question.  And making it worse is the seeming love of technobabble.  There are terminology for locations on Tatsumiya and components of Fafner that I’m still not familiar with after 22 hours of this series.  Little of it holds much impact to the series but just get used to it if you watch.

For all this though…it’s quite the payoff.  It’s very evident, even if the structure of the two released seasons didn’t make it clear (Winter 2015, Fall 2015), that both Exodus seasons linked together for an overarching season.  The narrative mostly builds for the first 13 episodes but picks up an incredible amount of steam around episode 16-17 (if you count both seasons as a single 26 season series) and never looks back.  It plays out with suspense and slowly reveals each and every secret which surround the season all while retaining top-notch mecha battle sequences.  I’m not sure what it is about Tow Ubukata.  He’s traditionally struggled when handed an established franchise and is currently the internet plaything for blaming the failings in Ghost in the Shell: Arise and Psycho-pass 2.  But Fafner?  No complaints here.

I’ll start with the aforementioned narrative.  It’s difficult to really piece together the overarching plot from an omniscient perspective until the final episodes.  Any returning Fafner fan will likely spot the Festum as almost radically different from the original series.  They’re no less terrifying but act completely different.  A viewer may see this type of plot point as trivial but such details play into the complete narrative by series’ end.  A viewer who catches such details may begin asking why the series shifts the Festum’s behaviour so significantly.  The series resolves such points but only as it closes out.  It’s incredible to have such details hidden so well, leaving the audience guessing about the exact plot, yet also retain a plot which plows forward.  I’d argue it’s almost perfect how well it plays with the audience and lures them to the exact spot they want the viewer for the knockout episodes.

The narrative itself?  It’s fairly grim.  You’ll find comedy but it’s stretched thin.  The main thrust throughout is that we all have limited time and we should impact the world while we have time…which means a lot of death and a lot of despair.  Power comes at a price.  And nobody’s nice to each other.  Kind of what you’re expecting when my best description is “real robot Evangelion without the mind screw”.

Though I'm pretty sure this guy is pretty much an angel.

Though I’m pretty sure this guy is an Angel.

And none of this is to say that there aren’t heartbreaking moments.  Far from it.  One of the series’ most poignant and memorable moments come with several shades of “ow, my heart”.  Character death almost instantly invoke this instead of the character going out in a blaze of glory.  Which is quite strange as many characters die while heroically exerting themselves in a fight…but the series instead casts each death as tragic.  And I really feel this is one of Fafner’s standouts…especially when it gets mixed with the ongoing feeling of “anybody can and will die”.  Some characters die quick.  Some die suddenly.  Some die in a prolonged fight and have some touching moments.  It almost entirely throws out the notion of predicable character death (outside of some obvious death flags actions).

This genre of anime lends itself greatly to action scenes and Fafner doesn’t struggle with these.  They are elegantly choreographed in most instances and well executed.  It’s a major upgrade from the combat sequences provided in the mid-2000 series, which were a few steps behind fight scenes of the era, and the CGI heavy 2010 movie.  Actually, I’m sure this one heavily relies on CGI as well but it does a far, far better job masking in as time goes on.  I reviewed the earlier episodes and realized how incredible the final episodes become as CGI I found effective in the early episodes become far, far more obvious.

The biggest shock to most mecha fans will likely be Fafner‘s lack of fear in having its mecha routinely destroyed in battles.  Repairs are apparently really cheap and you’ll constantly see characters beat up hard.  Arms lopped off, pilots out of fights entirely, events which really look like death (and traditionally are in mecha series).  Heck, the first battle using any of the characters from Tatsumiya have a character’s mecha lose an arm and, as pain extends to the pilot, they disconnect him from piloting further.  I cannot think of a single character not impaled by something, killed, or in extreme pain at least once throughout the entire series’ run (including its old series and movies.  This combined with the above notes about character death create some pretty tense scenes as life and death come pretty much at the will of the seemingly unforgiving plot.

Again, the biggest weaknesses of the writing lie in its assumptions.  You really must know the previous content, of mediocre nature in my opinion, to really develop an understanding and feeling for this series.  That is an absolutely massive time investment (~12 hours) and many viewers might find this too large a gamble, even for the huge payoff.  Furthermore, the narrative is relentless and unforgiving at points.  Simply just not understanding a sequence may completely throw you.  There are sequences, even entire episodes, which reveal major plot points and not being on top of your game comprehension wise can leave you steps behind and playing catch up once again.  A bit of a standard drama series issue…but it goes double when you have technobabble to deal with.

One issue I have looking back is the obvious sequel hook.  The series leaves off much the same way as the original series did and ends with questions about the remaining plot line.  The mysteries end up solved, yes, but what happens from here remains up in the air.  I mean, it’ll be clear at the end of the series that this isn’t the finale.  No.  There remain “things to do” as the term goes.  But the adventure continues on a later date…one I’m not sure Fafner will ever get due to some pretty low viewer numbers.

I would also watch out for on-the-nose characterization.  That is, character stating exactly what they’re thinking to develop character as oppose to showing the audience such traits.  This stems primarily from the series’ unwillingness to use internal thought processes but sometimes creates some awkward dialogue.

Characters

Honestly, incredible character use probably ranks as the top reason to watch Fafner.  The series routinely works to develop characters, make you like at least part of the ensemble cast, and then pick away until they end up killing someone you liked.  They’ll die.  Or give them a nice heaping of mental trauma.  Or maybe just almost kill them.  Or have family issues.  Or just not want to die as piloting in this series slowly kills the pilots.

Christ, they broke Maya so hard.

Really, this will be your standard response to later episodes.

The primary protagonists are Kazuki Makabe and Soushi Minoshiro.  At least they are in theory.  You only spend half the time with the two as they lead the same episodes, episodes which only constitute about half the series.  What you’ll really find is that Fafner becomes much more of an ensemble performance; every character gets a little time in the spotlight and finding out a little about them.  The basis of the series in this regard becomes fairly simple, often boiling down to either character moments, narrative moments, or action.  There are a few points in time where the series combines two of the three but it often move itself in only one of three directions.

It’s difficult to really go further into the series without emphasizing how much character development plays into the series.  Much of the series emphasizes the growth and development of each and every character.  Virtually none of the pilot characters remain static (though it’s worth noting that many side characters remain extremely flat).  They’re not necessarily the deepest characters nor do they have the same level of unexpected surprises that you’d find in a Persona type of production…but they change.  That is to say that events ultimately change the characters and Fafner emphasizes these developments and often places them at the forefront.  As an example, a few of the more naive characters from the “Exodus” party end up fairly traumatized.  They end up suffering greatly and the series provides screen time to these characters grappling with this new reality.  Part of the franchise involves developing an emotional attachment to the character and ultimately feel emotionally with them as they go through their trials and tribulations.  It’s very evident in the series’ newest cast additions as you’ll spend extra screen time with them.

Part of the reason having background in this series becomes critical is because of this character driven element.  It’s certainly possible to view the series from this angle without knowing the previous elements.  The series, at the most basic of levels, even provides enough background for you to do this and spends a lot of time in the first couple episodes explaining the situation to viewers.  The overall effect is much weaker, however, as you don’t have the exact same context.  I would almost chalk it up to a similar effect as the live action series The Walking Dead in the sense that you could probably start watching either partway through their intended order…it just makes certain scenes a bit weaker and some nonsensical.

These characters ultimately sell me on the franchise and provide a major drive for my sentiments to the series.  It’s a fairly unique series in the sense that every reasonably major pilot grows.  I again emphasize that this certainly fails to hold up when looking at the supporting cast, which is a bit of a disappointment since it makes the world seem just a little flatter and less dynamic.  Nonetheless, the characters slowly mature and develop new outlooks on the world.  The growth and transition period for some of the cast from unwitting teenagers to full-grown adults occurs over the span of 20 hours of viewing time and feels quite natural due to this extreme length of time.  Developments within the franchise of Exodus itself are not complete turnaround developments and thus feel more natural than some other series.  As an example of the hastened version of character change, I think of the often utilized tsundere archetype character.  There are some franchises out there which have this character really turn around from the aggressive personality to the more caring and loving character within two or three episodes…leaving as little as an hour for us to understand this character and then appreciate the meaningfulness of these personality change.  It just sometimes doesn’t work because of this haste.  But I find Fafner deals with this fairly well.  Characters change either from extreme circumstances (and have very jarring shifts in personality to accommodate this) or develop slowly and in manners that the audience appreciates.  It’s very applicable that the characters “earn” their growth.

This same emotional appeal drives quite a bit of payoff as well.  At least, the parts where you don’t find action based payoff for this series.  It’s very much, and I hate to use the term since it might not make sense to all readers, a “feels” series.  That is, the series puts negative emotions onto its viewers through the character.  That you feel for the character’s on-screen pains.  Many episodes use this to cap off the events of the episode…there’s a buildup of action, emotion, intensity.  Then pain and the episode ends, leaving questions about how the series progresses from there.  It may be something of a simple formula but Fafner plays this card quite well.  It used the same points in the original series and replays them with improved precision.  It’s very difficult to not end up heartbroken at the end of each episode in the second season (where death becomes increasingly rampant).  Even episodes without death start dealing with lots of drama and stress on the characters.  Again…it’s not a nice world.  There are typically problems or plans just plain go wrong.

And sometimes people just get assimilated and you have to watch.

And sometimes people just get assimilated and you have to watch.

One oddity in this franchise I must mention: few characters actually drive the plot.  Most end up as soldiers or present themselves as representations of the “feels” driven appeal.  Yet few of them actually move the plot along and instead just accompany certain positions such that there are entire squads of combatants that you care about.  It sometimes feels strange and you might end up wondering why certain cast members exist for this reason.  I know I did (though I really can’t say much without spoiling who lives and who dies)…but this is at least my interpretation.  That, and some characters must continue to exist as they survived previous iterations of the franchise and their death would serve little purpose as well.

Another interesting aside about the characters: very little romance exists.  You might want to find something else if that’s a major issue.  Major characters rarely deal with each other in a manner beyond close friendship.  I’m not sure if it’s a writer problem or just a desire to not introduce undue romance when it’s not really needed…but characters almost never have romantic ties.  Comparing other well know mecha franchises…and this concept is almost foreign.  It’s part of why the series ends up so dark…there’s so little positive emotion to fill this void.

As seems pretty obvious, I struggle to find real negatives in the character aspect.  Some side characters end up flat for sure and that hurts the world building.  The series underutilized some characters and underdeveloped others…making their plot lines feel almost hallow.  But it’s almost overwhelming covered up by the development from other characters.  That is to say that the sum of the parts outweighs its negatives.  Just stick with it until the end as much of the payoff comes in the second season.

Animation

Maybe I’m just old.  Maybe I don’t watch enough modern anime.  Maybe I’m just a little crazy.  Whatever it is though…I really love Exodus’ animation.  Battle, drama, whatever.  It is just beautiful.

Let’s start with combat sequences since they impress me the most.  Exodus is one of the rare series which seem to effectively integrate CGI into standard animation.  It’s alright in the first season.  Some of the more foreign Festum and some points in the Fafner animation are obvious CGI.  Planes are extremely obvious.  But the second season begins hammering this out and the sequences become elegant interplay of effective CGI in animated backgrounds.  A comment I’ve heard about CGI often comes in the statement “CGI is only bad if you notice that it’s CGI”.  Anime production typically uses it as a cost saving mechanism and it typically comes off as bad CGI.  Fafner sometimes falls as this but has quite a few moments where it’s clear that, for the sake of the artist, they had to use CGI…but it doesn’t visually register as such.  I mean, the above Festum are almost always CGI.

And then there's this.  Which is pretty blatant CGI by Exodus' standards.

And then there’s this. Which is pretty blatant CGI by Exodus’ standards.

There also an extremely large number of sequences I can rattle off where there is extremely elegant background scenery.  Pausing and marvelling at the background almost qualifies as a hobby.  Again, I feel like I might have missed something as I haven’t watched many recent anime but the sheer amount of detail is…well, it’s breathtaking in its own regard.

And then there's this almost alien visual.

There’s this almost alien visual.  Did I mention Festum explode into purple…things…upon death?  I meant to.

There are, of course, episodes with decreased budgets.  That much is always clear and Fafner is no exception.  There are some fairly obvious episodes where the animators needed a break and just used further distance shots…or repeated the use of the same low-cost plane animation.  Or just hid a lot behind stills.  I find it typically happens in episodes where the series just needs to advance its plot to the next major point.

I must admit, a major failing this series continues throughout the franchise is its difficulty distinguishing characters (made even worse by the fact that characters often change appearance between different series).  Character A looks a lot like character B which looks a lot like character C.  A visual heavy viewer might have difficulty understanding motivations and development when they can’t even remember which character did what action.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

Fafner routinely uses an orchestral composition…which makes sense, as memory serving, they used the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in the original series.  I found myself constantly jotting down notes when they utilized this grouping for slower or more emotionally charged segments.  The soundtrack didn’t add much in combat sequences and simply stand to “do their job” (though they did bring back Opening of Nightmare’s Gate for a couple sequences…an excellent piece from the original series).  Really, expect it to get you from set to set unless you’ve in a very dialogue heavy segment.

The two seasons contain two openings and two closings…though not split as you’d expect…changing over around the 17th episode mark.  angela performs all four pieces and it’d be no stretch to say that atsuko’s voice adds a lot of the franchise with this mark of consistency; Shangri-la and Separation, the opening and closing pieces for the original series, are probably the most recognizable aspects of it.

The first opening, Exist, introduces you to the nature of its first few episodes.  A mix of angelic chanting and some pretty haunting lyrics, the animations continually flip you through characters and provide viewers with a bit of background on each character.  It’s very much an opening which eases viewers in.  The first closing, which I probably would translate as Anya koro, is a pretty simple ending piece.  Very little animation, a “cool down” type of piece, and overall something very easy to skip.

Things really get interesting as the series switches over to its second set of opening and closing pieces.  The second opening, Dead or Alive, is one of my favourite openings (and would probably adjust my rankings from the previous list I completed on this matter).  Another mixing of angelic chanting and lyrics, this opening takes multiple improvements over the last.  There is far greater coordination between animation and lyric.  The music is a major improvement in my mind with rapidly changing tempo, extremely unusual lyrics (which also combine aspects from previous songs of this franchise), and an incredible tie-in with the previous series of this franchise; the opening presents a litany of characters, including those long dead as if to claim that nobody forgets any sacrifice or loss of life.  It’s quite stirring.  Finally, the animation calls strongly back to the original series by animating many of the stills used in the original series’ opening of the characters happily enjoying their younger years.  Well, except for poor Canon.

Though I'd argue she makes up for it in pure cuteness.

Though I’d argue she makes up for it in pure cuteness.

Another unique aspect of these last few episodes comes in its ending song, Horizon.  It is not much of an upgrade in the visuals department…but the musical piece is far more uptempo and heart racing than you’d expect.  The musical piece sets the stage for the almost non-stop train ride from the 17th episode to the series’ conclusion.

I find it difficult to recommend anything but subbed here.  Mainly because the option of viewing this series in english isn’t here.  The series is free subbed on Crunchyroll and you don’t even need to worry about losing time waiting for a translation if you view it subbed.  I would recommend subbed either way as the dubbed version are alright.  At best.  Voice acting talent is all over the place.

Synergy

Everything runs in and out of the characters.  Why do you care about the battle?  Your favourite character is fighting it out in a series where you know they could easily die.  What’s going on with the plot again?  How could it affect all the characters?  How is [x] changing due to all this?  It’s actually a unique run with this level of viewer interest in characters and character development.

Why to Watch

This series…I can’t say enough good things about its emotional torque.  It’s absolutely incredible for setting you up, getting you to feel a specific way, and then playing with your emotions until you start feeling for the characters on-screen.  It is an incredible mix of emotion and action…both being incredible.  It’s a terrific lesson in what well utilized CGI looks like and how to create battle sequences.  And finally, the characters grow at a seemingly natural rate…or at least more natural than other modern anime which often need to fast track characters given the short episode runs.

Why Not to Watch

Do you dislike decade old mediocre anime (or dislike having to roll with whatever they’re saying about the older characters)?  Do you dislike having your favourite character killed?  Do you dislike the creeping notion that someone is doing to die and you won’t be happy if it’s a specific character?  Do you really dislike having no clue what technobabble does and just “having to roll with it”?  Really, those are the main reasons to avoid this series.

Personal Enjoyment

Fafner is a series I’ve felt pretty unappreciated.  The original series was alright but presented a unique change on the real robot genre.  The movie was fair for the time but its use of CGI makes it struggle a little.  Either way, I was pumped to hear Exodus and honestly am glad I can see more of this franchise.

Summary

I’m not exactly sure what I want to say about Fafner: Exodus.  It’s good.  I mean, really good.  Memorable, well executed, and visually beautiful.  Something for anybody who enjoys these somewhat darker tales of mecha.  Well, except decent levels of romance.  I can’t stop saying good things about the series and really feel that the disparate score on many aggregate sites (that is to say that it’s often rated higher than series with comparable reviewer bases) reflects its quality.  But it’s also a series that has a lot of background work.  An old series and a movie are very much required to get a full experience.

I really want to suggest it to everybody but its a series which I’m sure not everyone could get into.

Overall Rating

Fafner in the Azure: Exodus has a 7.86/10 for me.  Given I use 5 as average, this is one of the higher scores I’ve been able to give.  The comparable review score I’ve given on this blog is Boogiepop Phantom (7.89).  I would recommend this to anybody who has the prerequisites I’ve listed in previous sections.

Characters, as should be extremely obvious at this point, carry the score immensely.  The review sheet had consistently high ratings here.  Many other categories had high scores though some categories dropped the average quite a bit.  Narrative, as much as I love it, ended up with the lowest score.  It’s not really an indictment of any major flaws with the series itself but a note that the series leaves a hook for a sequel and this doesn’t provide a natural conclusion to the series…an issue seen before in this franchise.

Review: Boogiepop Phantom

Please, if you see this individual, just don’t run. You’ll only make yourself tired.

Background

The Boogiepop franchise is an interesting oddity: it is a fairly large and expansive set of light novels in Japan but never really crossed the ocean or anywhere else.  The novels have sold over 2 million copies in Japan in 2000.  That’s quite a large number given the time.  In a much larger market (and I mean much larger), everything Haruhi has sold a “mere” 8 million.  I know that sounds like a lot, but when you consider the cultural impact Haruhi has, you get a sense of how important Boogiepop is to the light novel landscape.  In fact, it’s sometimes argued that the light novel trend originated from Boogiepop.

What followed was a foray of this franchise into the anime landscape.  MADHOUSE, pretty much a household producer name (Chobits, Death Note, Monster, Paranoia Agent, Trigun…they’ve got a long list of greatest hits), took it upon themselves to bring the franchise’s unique narrative style (more on this later) to the television screen.  And Boogiepop Phantom is the result.  The studio went to Takashi Watanabe for direction.  He showed success in the Slayers franchise and would later tag his name to many other projects (He became part of the Shakugan no Shana franchise as the director and Death Note as a storyboard writer).  For sound they asked the prolific Yota Tsuruoka to step in.  He also has a massive resume today.  Top billing probably goes to the Clannad franchise but you come real close to saying he’s done pretty much every anime you know.

Story

Okay.  Let’s start off with this: you won’t fully understand much of the main story in Boogiepop Phantom without reading two light novels first: Boogiepop and Others and Boogiepop at Dawn.  The anime connects the two events and concludes the events of the former.  Instead of a traditional description of the back story, I’ll explain what happened before to a level where one can understand the events.

Nagi Kirima, a schoolgirl, grew at an abnormally fast rate and was dying as a result.  The hospital admitted her and tried to take care of her and her condition.  Shinpei Kuroda, an agent for the Towa Organization, befriended her.  He went behind the organization’s back and administered a drug to Kirima to prevent her from growing at abnormal pace.  The organization executed him soon after.

Dr. Kisugi, a resident general doctor, found remains of the Towa Organization’s drug.  She tested it on rats and found it created incredible powers in the subjects.  So she did the natural thing and tried it on herself.  Naturally, things go sideways and she becomes a composite human.  Composite humans are kind of nuts most of the time and she becomes a mass murderer, killing strong-willed girls because she was addicted to their fear.  Kirima, investigating the murders, found her and with the aid of Boogiepop, the whispered “angel of death”, killed the insane doctor.

A monster named Manticore, escaped one month ago.  It is a failed clone of a highly evolved alien, Echoes.  Echoes, sent by its race to elvaulate humans, monitored earth and could only repeat what was said to it as a way of limiting its power.  The Towa Organization captured it and tried to clone it…unsuccessfully.  That created Manticore.  Anyways, Manticore killed a normal schoolgirl named Minako Yurihara and assumed her identity.  During this time, another school student named Masami Saotome discovered this switch and, instead of killing Saotome, struck a deal with him: the two would addict students to an addictive drug named Type S which would enslave the user to the distributor of the drug.  Then Manticore would eat the individuals for substanance once the experiment concluded. Echoes the Towa Organization to find the Manticore and met Kirima, who at this point is very much aloof and on the outside of traditional society.  Saotome and Manticore, realizing they are being investigated and chased, set a trap for them.  Echoes is critically injured in the fight and, in a final attempt to get rid of the fiend, turns itself into a pillar of light.  The pillar destroys Manticore with the assistance of Boogiepop and Saotome, having fallen in love with Manticore, kills himself by jumping into the pillar.

The events of Boogiepop Phantom deal with the events arising from the pillar of light.  One month after the fight, the entire city is covered in a strong electromagnetic field and a large aurora.

This is really as far as I can describe the narrative without giving anything away.  But I can describe the narrative style.  The light novels take a vignette approach to the narrative and show you a very short story focusing on one character.  Then it’ll shift its focus in the next section.  And then another character.  And so on and so on.  Boogiepop Phantom continues this tradition; every episode follows a specific character and follows their adventure through the supernatural events that overtake this unnamed city.  Each character has their own troubles and some react more positively than others to the situation.  The grand sum of all these side stories is a greater narrative that is not directly created and a climax that is not directly built until it reveals itself to us all.

And I love every second of it.  This form of storytelling may feel a little meandering and disoriented at times but they effectively tell a narrative in a unique manner.  But why do this?  It makes the narrative even more interesting through the mystery.  This occurs in multiple regards.  First and foremost is the anime’s main narrative.  We are treated to a shot of the pillar of light mentioned above.  It knocks out all the electronics in the entire city for a second before everything restarts as if nothing happened.  That seeds the question “how is this important?”.  And this question slowly rises and creates further questions as the narrative progresses.  This pull is a major driving force of the narrative.

Second in mystery is the interrelation of each narrative.  Virtually every story connects to another.  For example, there is a creepy guy in episode 1 who seems mostly perverted.  The next episode focuses on him and what is happening to him.  There is very little waste in this regard with only a couple of episodes focused on events that will not drive questions or imply certain answers.  This seemingly tangential narrative begins pushing the viewer in certain directions and will feed the first mystery I listed above.

Also, eating bugs. That’s relevant.

Finally, each character presents their own mystery.  Each character you see is, at the core, a fairly blank slate.  A few will be recurring from the light novels but largely this is an original cast.  And after a few episodes you’ll know they all largely have deep-seeded mental issues in addition to their odd behaviour.  Part of the mystery and attraction then becomes why this character acts this way in addition to what happens to them.   In that regard, the psychology becomes a major aspect of the anime and the characters’ intentions become a major driving force.

The anime borders bleak and depressing at times.  One of the major aspects of this anime is the negative influence of the supernatural; the fallout of the pillar of light is almost entirely negative.  Many episodes end of a depressing note and one managed to break my heart completely before the first half the episode ended.

Interestingly, this bleak tone also wraps into a slight horror aspect in the anime.  Boogiepop Phantom is hard to define with genres and most oft for the horror label.  It isn’t entirely hard to see why as many character aspects are unsettling at best.  See the picture above of a guy eating a yellow spider with intense determination.  Uncertainty plays its way into many aspects and creates the same unsettling tone.  The body count seems unusually high too with some fairly messy deaths.  I’d personally describe the anime as more psychological than horror but these aspects certainly commonly attribute themselves to the horror genre.

What is probably the most impressive aspect of Boogiepop Phantom, for all the comments I’ve made above, is the ability to drive home focused messages.  The characters often face similar root issues and their inability to influence such a problem becomes a key fatal flaw.  I won’t go into much detail here but the topic of change, escapism, and loss are major discussion points of the anime.

I think one’s love for this anime can be probably described in a major aspect of the narrative: asynchronous.  Many time cards are shown to assist in the understanding of when and where each event happened.  Many find this type of non-linear narrative annoying and frustrating.  Those who do will absolutely lose their mind watching Boogiepop Phantom as the same event’s outcome reflect through the eyes of many different individuals.  Those that aren’t likely will find the anime entertaining and enjoyable.

Characters

As mentioned previously, the narrative takes a vignette form.  Virtually every episode will introduce a new character (and some with multiple introductions per episode), give them a full history, and then end their arc.  This makes it pretty much impossible for me to discuss the characters as I traditionally do.

What I will say however is that the character roster is deep, round, and varied.  One of the greatest aspects of the anime is the strong ensemble cast; motivation, characterization, and result vary greatly.  This depth and broadness plays in an incredible manner as many viewers will find their own issues reflected onto them.  I find this even more meaningful in today’s world where the topic of escapism via medium is becoming larger and larger.   In many regards, the darkest aspects of such topics will come out.  One could read it as a partial deconstruction as it reflects how these traits and supernatural events don’t mix…at all.

To some level, I suspect most viewers will find a character to attach themselves to.

Animation

One will notice the “washed out” palette right away.   The entire world is painted in brown, grey, and black to a large degree.  Many shots are night shots.  It’s not like this is just an unconscious choice either as the final episode takes this out completely and gives an episode in traditional anime colours.  The second effect will be the faded and faux projector effects to the border of the screen.  While both are intentional for reasons you’ll likely figure out later in the anime, they are very interesting effects to the animation and will make it stand out in your collection because of the dull colouring.

A major aspect that really intrigues me about Boogiepop Phantom is the fairly realistic character design in animation.  Anime has a large tradition of having characters with outrageous hairstyles and hair colour.  Boogiepop Phantom averts that nearly completely.  For the most part hair colour, hairstyle, and eye colour will reflect what one would expect in any given high school.  Few anime avert these traditional tropes this completely and will stand out for this reason as well.

Now, the above comes as both a positive and a negative though.  On the positive, it is unique.  Extremely so because anime loves utilizing unusual hair colours and styles to their largest effect.  However, I will also note that it becomes sometimes difficult to separate and distinguish characters.  On first view, I didn’t make every connection possible because I often visually identify characters…in particular, the last episode when the colour scheme becomes more vibrant.

The animation can be brutal at times.  What little combat exists is done swiftly.  Action is fast paced but short-lived.  And this isn’t even going to the horror aspect of the anime which can be very, very graphic.  One particularly gory scene has body parts of a recently killed individual.  And the body parts shift during transportBlood rarely appears in the anime but when it does it’s used to its most unsettling effect.  And common jump scares with utterly creepy characters are utilized at least once.

Uh…yeah.

 

One complaint I’ll lob at the animation is its love of characters facing away from the camera.  Action will typically occur but in a 2000 anime, it can get distracting when characters don’t face the camera.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

I mentioned before that the sound director, Yota Tsuruoka, has an extremely prolific career and has led major anime sound.  He makes absolutely no mistake here.  The soundtrack to Boogiepop Phantom is incredible.  I think for about 9 of the 12 episodes I have a note regarding the use of sound editing or effective background music.  It is electric or techno at its core but it is top-notch.  They punctuate scenes extremely well and will set the tone in regard to mystery, action, horror, climax, and anything in between.  I’m amazed at how many of the soundtracks made their way into my favourites.  If you’re on the border, please watch Boogiepop Phantom purely for this.  I don’t know any other anime which utilizes so many different effects and subtle shifts (such as those in conversation loudness) to such an effect.  Even the void of white noise is utilized (though given that Tsuruoka worked on Lain, this isn’t a huge shock).

The opening, Evening Showers, feels a bit out-of-place.  In fact, I think the entire opening is a bit odd as a selection since all it does is introduce the primary characters.  Though given the anime, I can kind of see why.  It still feels dated by at least 15 years from production though…so today it feels fairly old.   The closing, Mirai Seiki Maruhi Club, plays a much more integrated role and feels much more appropriate as a theme for the anime overall on most occasions.

The anime’s subs and dubs are both fairly effective.  Dubs primarily consist of a “greatest hits” of the ’90s in the primary and important characters.  Crispin Freeman, Rachel Lillis, and Lisa Ortiz all make appearances.  I have a slight preference to the sub with exception of one character (Saki Yoshizawa) but I think both are possible options.  My suggestion is probably pick whichever you like more.  A major issue in either language is the number of voice actors though…there certainly wasn’t enough of a budget to offer top billing voices for every character and some in both languages are a bit lacking.

Synergy

I think mystery and psychology holds the anime together.  It pulls together character design, art choices, and music.  The pull of what’s happening in story and to each character causes you to come in.  Each of the above elements enforces that and pushes you along that direction.  The depth of the character’s perspective and horror elements keep the episode sharp and punctuated.  And you leave with a question about how each character really became what they are.

Why to Watch

Boogiepop Phantom is an anime I could recommend for many reasons.  If you love mystery, watch it.  If you want something with a little thinking involved and won’t lose its narrative novelty on first pass, watch it.  If you love psychologically interesting characters…you know what I’ll say.  What it comes down to is the fact that Boogiepop Phantom is great at what it intended.  The characters with backgrounds have unique and interesting reasons for their existence…though sometimes flimsy.  The sound editing is amazing.  Suspense and tension all work.

Let’s just leave it at this: if you liked any of the positives in the full review, watch Boogiepop Phantom.  Or, inversely, look below and if you don’t see a reason to NOT watch, watch it.  I mean, all subbed episodes are available legally on YouTube and two dubbed episodes exist.

Why Not to Watch

The problem with the “Why to Watch” section, of course, is that this also implies a quite unfortunate inverse situation…this anime isn’t good if you aren’t interested in its primary elements.  This anime, at best, has limited action.  If you want that, you’re out of luck here.  If you want something uplifting and positive on a continual basis, it isn’t going to happen.  If you want to follow a single character, this is the furthest thing from.  Heck, if you like vibrant colours, this isn’t going to happen.  If you don’t want a little background work to do first (or just read the above comment in the story section), you should move on unless you want to lose out on part of the narrative.  None of these points work out well for the anime though, again, it seems there is little focus here to begin with.

Personal Enjoyment

I think I was born to watch this anime.  It contains virtually everything I want and doesn’t have things I don’t want.  I love psychologically heavy anime.  Introducing characters every episode made a lot of fun as it let me explore more characters than most anime let me.  I’m not sure there’s a better way to describe it…the anime and I get along very well in focus.

Summary

Boogiepop Phantom is anime set out to continue its unique narrative style in animated form.  And in that regard, it does that very well.  It uses a vignette style narrative to follow a story and connect two of its light novels.  Heavy on psychology, suspense, mystery, and character mentality sharing, it emphasizes the key points of the light novels.  Viewers interested in these points will have a great experience I believe.  Conversely, having no interest in these traits will make the anime tedious at best.

Overall Rating

Boogiepop Phantom ended with 7.89/10 for me.  Given I use 5 as average, this ranks as a great anime and it currently ranks one of my favourite overall.  The single number may not reflect it but Boogiepop Phantom is one of the most interesting and unique anime I know of and highlights a major flaw in using a single value to reflect quality.

The show highly excelled in most regards but had its highest score in characters.  There is a strong and diverse cast of characters to understand and learn.  Many change within the span of a single episode to reasonable levels.  The only stat below a 7 out of 10 is music and vocals.  This again reflects a major limitation as this number entitles the incredible background music but also the voice actors who do a good but not exceptional job.

Review: Narutaru

shadow-star-narutaru-e1267141915665

Background

I’m not sure I can say a lot about Narutaru before an actual review.  It’s a little known anime better known as a manga series.  Kids Station, a station which seems to do special projects more than anything else, produced the anime.  And when I mean special projects, I really do mean special.  There’s not much in their anime roster which I’d ever define as a really “normal” anime.  Their most famous work is xxxHOLIC which in itself is quite unusual.

The writers for Narutaru will point you heavily in the direction of this anime; Mohiro Kitoh of Bokurano fame created the manga while Chiaki Konaka (best known for working on Serial Experiments Lain) wrote much of the anime. I should point out to you that Bokurano is famous, or maybe infamous, for having children not act like children.  Let’s keep that in mind.

A little known composer, Susumu Ueda, created the music.  This may seem like a bit of an odd point to put in but I’ll refer back to this later.

Story

It’s hard to discuss Narutaru‘s story without giving away details.  But let’s give it a try.  I’ll take a second to first say that Narutaru is not, and absolutely not, for children.  It’s bleak, cruel, and filled with things that will make childhood nightmares seem happy.

Our story follows a young girl named Shiina Tamai.  She’s energetic, headstrong, and a little bit of a tomboy.  She lives with her father (family relations are strained due to reasons you’ll only find out in the manga), a small company air force pilot.  She’s not the hardest working student in school.  She meets an unusual starfish creature, shown above, on a trip to her grandparents while swimming in the nearby ocean.  It doesn’t speak and makes childish motions.  It manages to save her from drowning despite this.  She names it Hoshimaru since it doesn’t speak and Shiina is still a young girl at heart.  Narutaru tells the tales of Shiina and Hoshimaru.

Shiina and Hoshimaru meet other individuals similar to them.  The humans often refer to the creatures as “shadow dragons”.  Shadow dragons are almost invincible beings.  They take missiles to the face, many gun shots, and will still keep fighting back.  The only limitation is the strength of the person they are connected to; the human feels all the suffering the shadow dragon takes.

Now, this is where the story takes its first mean twist.  This set up sounds like a great anime for kids.  It kind of sounds like Digimon or other similar “monster” franchises.  Except it’s absolutely not.  It’s really dark.  Remember before when I said that Kitoh is famous for Bokurano?  A lot of the story plays out like Bokurano if it forgot to take its medication.  Well, at least the manga.  For starters, the shadow dragons are not innocent.  It’s mentioned early that dragons “eat souls”.  And that’s generally true without getting into spoilerific details.  So we have the first strike that the monsters aren’t really heroic.

Then comes the characters.  They are mean.  And I don’t mean generic bully mean.  The anime and manga both contain scenes of human activity which I wish I could forget.  The first “villain” casually speaks of genocide on the order of 5 billion people.  He’s a young teen like most of the cast by the way.  Even the protagonists are kind of like that.  Most characters take actions that are downright terrifying.  It’s difficult to speak of without ruining the series since much of the shock value is how far each character goes but suffice to say that each of them WILL likely surprise you.  Just as a quick measuring stick, literal conspiracies work against making certain characters in the manga happy.  It’s just that type of story.

Then there’s a level of realism.  Shiina is reckless.  She’ll bite off more than she can chew.  That’s fine in a typical monster franchise.  The hero is almost always hot-blooded in that aspect.  But Narutaru isn’t your typical monster franchise.  Shiina ends up on the receiving end of an ass kicking more often than she deals them out.  She also comes into contact with the rules of momentum, inertia, and more throughout her adventures.  It’s mean and gritty in this aspect.

I will point out that Narutaru‘s story in the manga is complete.  There is an ending.  But the anime certainly doesn’t show one.  It generally faithfully replicates the first 8 or so volumes of the manga then ends.  This gives you a nice visual adaptation but also creates massive problems.  First is the sense of finality: the anime ends of a dark note and just stops.  There is no real ending and there is a strong feeling of “now what?” that stems from it.  So many mysteries are left unsolved…and it’s not like the manga itself actually answers too many on its own.  Second is the pacing that stems from this: stories, events, and entire characters appear and disappear with no seeming purpose in the anime.  Most events and characters are tied in a bow to some degree in the manga.  But since the anime ends before the most significant events occur, nothing stems from them.  We see a character, see some events, then it just drops them off the face of the earth.  And this destroys a lot of pacing and emotion in the anime.  Pacing is a major problem and the anime, at best, is scattered and disoriented until major events occur.  And you’ll remember the major events.

Another concern in the anime is the division of time.  The manga seems to decide early that it will be dark and bleak.  A little focus is put on Shiina’s life but more of it focuses on Narutaru‘s deconstruction.  You get less sense of that in the anime.  Maybe it’s the timing.  Maybe it’s the animation quality shift.  Maybe it’s just that I watched and read the anime/manga at 1-2 AM.  But I certainly felt more of a slice-of-life emotion coming from Narutaru in the anime.  And this really doesn’t help the story since it is wholeheartedly destructive and rips apart the common tropes you’ll come to expect.

That being said, the anime isn’t entirely bad.  This premise and the deconstruction of it is quite a nice treat.  I’m not sure I’d describe it as a horror anime as many do.  But it is certainly unnerving.  The anime kicks off its first major story with some horribly cruel actions…such as the aforementioned casual genocide of humanity.  And the level of creepiness just goes up from there typically.  If you’re into this type of thing like I am the actions become far more interesting than the anime really should allow for.

And I’ll even praise the anime since it does some things that the manga doesn’t.  One character, Akira Sakura, has considered suicide on more than one occasion.  The manga just brings this up quickly but the anime actively shows us a sequence of Akira considering slitting her wrists.  And this is episode 2 by the way.

No, she won't succeed.

Yeah, Narutaru is kind of screwed up like that.

This really works in the anime’s favour.  I’ve got many, many notes circled around episode 2 because of this one short sequence.  It’s extremely well done and gives the anime some memorability.  Translating genres requires adjustments to succeed and some decisions like this work in its favour.  Ultimately, Narutaru is an example of both how to and how not to translate from manga to anime.  On the plus side, we get this.  On the negative, we get a little too faithful of and adaptation since it fails to filter events which clutter the story and make it too distracted to work real well.

Characters

The main character, undoubtedly, is Shiina Tamai.  As a deconstructive work, we watch the horrible consequences of being in a work about monsters and how a Digimon or Pokemon universe would actually kind of suck.  And Shiina is a great viewpoint for all this because she is very much the quintessential hero for these works.  Often aimed at the shonen demographic, she really does portray the traits of your typical shonen hero: actively gets herself involved, is high energy, acts heroic, and jumps before she even considers the consequences.  This work well because it acquaints us to the typical conventions of the genre and set us up for a typical anime making the deconstruction much harsher and more pronounced in its action.  So this works great.

Supporting Shiina primarily is Akira Sakura.  She’s a horribly broken individual…if the above picture of her wasn’t an indication of that already.  A nervous wreck, horribly shy, and a kind girl who hasn’t been given any real fair shakes in life, Akira is a signal of the anime’s true tone.  Contrasting her with Shiina is a perfect way to see the anime’s deconstructive elements.

Unfortunately this is where the problems for the anime start.  We get a whole host of character besides these two.  And I mean a host.  Virtually all the characters from the manga are shown at the proper time.  But because the anime is only a partial translation of the manga work the characters too feel unfinished.  Many characters’ arcs end in the latter portion of the manga.  So many are introduced, given a little interesting information and screen time, then vanish into oblivion with no concept of resolution and often limited character development at best.  In the manga these characters are often quite strong.  The decision to halt the characters mid-arc is quite a drawback and creates massive problems since we’re just faced with half-painted characters living in a world where we’re supposed to see the consequences of their actions.  This element even becomes a problem for Shiina since her most significant developments occur later in the manga after she enters middle school.

The characters who actually do end up with full arcs are generally very well done though.  Each disturbing element played out to its fullest works the way it is supposed to and the characters draw you in by their seemingly uncanny actions.  The saga between Aki Honda and Hiroko Kaizuka works very well.  You really feel the tension and emotion in this segment.  I’m almost positive you’ll feel for Hiroko.  And maybe Aki.  Either way though, their segment will likely burn itself into your brain should you choose to watch this anime.  I know I’ll probably have that segment lodged in my head ‘lest I take a blow to the head.

Yeah. What this poster says…I wish.

One problem I faced, and it might not occur for everyone, is the lack of distinct names.  I continually had to remind myself who [x] was by name.  I could visually identify each character and tell you all their actions but if they just stated “Norio” for example, it would take me a bit of effort to recall who Norio was.

Animation

I’m going to rip the band-aid off quickly: the animation quality is dreadful.  I can’t find any two ways around it.

Actually, maybe I’ll go into a little bit of an explanation first: this anime appears to have suffered from low-budget.  This point is very clearly evident in the high use of pans through still frames.  Many sequences dodge their animation by drawing a single frame and just looking around it to give the illusion of action.  While each frame typically looked good this skimping out still hurts the animation quality.  There are few real heavy action sequences.  Those that exist are best described as “acceptable”.  Even here it is plainly evident money was tight since often fights consisted of an action followed by the consequence without showing how it occurred.

I will note however that the level of detail on planes is unusual.  In the manga, characters spouted extremely detailed points about aircraft…especially military aircraft.  This transfers over to the anime a little.  I’ll admit I don’t know enough to tell you whether it is accurate or not but I’ll go with the old knowledge: say something confidently enough and you’ll likely keep people attentive.  So they sound good to me either way.

Unfortunately this comes as a bit of a distraction in the anime.  The quality is done so poorly that it does detract from the rest of the qualities of Narutaru.  I found it sometimes difficult to focus on the events when the characters were facing away from me while speaking.  Granted, I could deal with it in Evangelion and I managed to get through it here.  Just be aware that if you’re the type who loves top-notch animation you’ll want to look elsewhere.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

Sound.  I would argue this is a major strength of the Narutaru anime.  In my top 10 anime openings post I openly admit I have a huge liking of the piano.  This carries over into background music…I really, really like the use of melancholic strings and dreary piano; they set the tone perfectly in the sequences where they are deployed.  There are a few pieces where the piano notes rip through everything.  Then the string instruments start and it pulls on you hard.  I earlier mentioned Susumu Ueda in my introduction.  I absolutely love the work done here…I wonder if Ueda go the credit he really deserved from Narutaru.

The opening and closing are best described as absolute traps.  I don’t mind either as they’re kind of lighter songs…the opening is very much a “bubblegum” opening between the song and the animation.  The closing is also much lighter than you’d expect of an anime of this variety.  If you’ve ever watched Puella Magi Madoka Magica, you know the drill.  It’s really kind of cruel since you know the anime is going to be dark as it’s commonly cited for the seinen demographic…yet it gives you this lovely and cutesy opening to make you feel better.

And why did you even offer the possibility that this would be the tone of the anime?

I watched this anime in both subs and dubs.  The dubbing studio didn’t do a great job…I’ll just put it this way.  They actually did hire some decent VAs for side characters (such as Lisa Ortiz and Veronica Taylor) but the main cast wasn’t great.  That being said, the Japanese voice acting team wasn’t great.  You’ll certainly recognize most of the voice actors, especially Akira Ishida, but I can’t say they really did anything special.  I will argue though that you should watch this subbed either way…probably the only way you’ll see it anyways since Central Park Media folded a while ago and nobody seems interested in redistributing Narutaru.

Synergy

The main aspect of this anime that you must consider is the juxtaposition of disturbing elements to the cute characters.  The manga characters are delicately built to create an atmosphere where you’ll constantly be shocked and horrified about how dark the world will get…about how evil the evil characters are and whether or not there are really any “good” characters.  It’s a thrilling anime in this regard.  Unfortunately this synergy also becomes the undoing since the anime doesn’t actually have any conclusion or satisfactory wrap up of much more than the arc it’s on.  Longer character arcs are left unanswered unless you turn to manga.

Why to Watch

Narutaru is a franchise I’d highly recommend if you like dark deconstructions.  It is twisted and cruel about how monsters play out.  Everything you loved about owning a pet monster is twisted around.  Owning one isn’t as fun as it seems…everybody is drawn towards each other and most of these guys are mentally broken nine ways to Sunday or so insane that you’re sure the only solution is a bullet to the face.  It pulls on our concepts of humanity and gives us the typical question: what happens to people when given absolute power?  They go corrupt absolutely.  The question is just extended into unfamiliar territory with young children.

I’d also recommend it if you like something along a cosmic horror story.  It really doesn’t fit the nature so much but in the end the manga still plays on the basic fear of human triviality.  But that’s enough of that since going any further will start bringing in spoilers and I really don’t think this is a franchise you can get into if you know what’s going to happen next.  If this is for you, you might find Narutaru is a really rough diamond.

Why Not to Watch

If you want anything even remotely close to positive or cheerful, just go.  You won’t want to see Narutaru and its inevitable conclusion.  Just have a sandwich and drop the idea.  Seriously Narutaru is probably on the same order of darkness as Warhammer 40,000‘s universe.  It manages to make Bokurano look cheerful.  And that’s a feat of incredible proportions.  So again, if you’re looking for good and cheerful, don’t go here.

Additionally, the quality of animation can be a major problem if you’re not into that sort of thing.

Finally, I can’t really recommend the anime when the manga for Narutaru exists and is complete.  The final volumes of the manga provide a much expanded narrative which explores the characters further, explains the relevance of most characters, and ends the narrative…kind of.  It’s a bit difficult to explain.  End of Evangelion difficult to explain.  If you’re really interested though, I’d suggest you just read the manga.

There’s also the fact that Central Park Media suffers from existence failure.  It’s unlikely you’ll find a legal copy too easily.  Crunchyroll and other sites seem to have problems finding this anime.  There are videos on YouTube but those really flirt with the concept of legality.  I don’t mind the idea of pirating abandonware but this is a bit of a grey territory.  If you’re uncomfortable with the notion of pirating an anime which looks like it’ll never get distributed in your area again, go ahead.

Personal Enjoyment

I probably am the ideal target for this anime…I love deconstructions.  They’re typically quite interesting to watch because of how they twist tropes and conventions.  As much as this should be a ringing endorsement, I found myself really struggling with the lack of conclusion, direction, or real focus in the anime.  It left me wanting.  Though this did make me read the manga quite intensely…so there’s that.

Summary

Let’s just keep this straight…one last time: this anime is dark, mean, and cruel.  It’s a horribly cruel deconstruction of owning a monster in anime.  The characters, despite being young teens, are not nice people and you’ll find that out multiple times.  The interaction and shock of these traits will generate a dark fascination with the anime should you be into that sort of thing.  If you’re not, it’s unlikely you could bear watching the horrors shown.  And if you’re interested, please keep in mind that there is a manga which I personally believe is better since the anime suffers from many flaws in pacing and animation

Overall Rating

Narutaru’s columnended with 4.88/10 on my spreadsheet.  Given I use 5 as average, this ranks as a reasonable anime. I certainly can’t suggest this for everyone given how niche the anime is.  I’m not sure how to put it any clearer than this: if you think you’d like a dark and unusual anime and don’t mind the other flaws, give it a shot.  If not, just ignore it and move on.

The show highly excelled in its narrative elements…or should I say potential.  The narrative worked well except for any actual catharsis or explanation.  The characters were well done in the parts that were shown…stand alone, they are nothing more than seemingly arbitrary and meaningless distractions.  It lagged in virtually every other element except background music…I found it effective and lovely.