Tag Archives: anime

Pop Thoughts: Big Hollywood and the War on Independent Journalism (Part Two)

This entry will be significantly shorter than my last ramble but I intend to keep this topic alive because I feel it is important.  If we hope to maintain an open and honest media, even if it is a blog that is a barely-trodden corridor of the city-sized labyrinth of Internet rags, we have to get the word out whenever we feel there is some sort of system in place that exists to handicap or even eliminate our ability to share our own thoughts on a product released by a major media corporation.

A long-time studio tactic that has been called into scrutiny more and more of late is the review embargo.  A review embargo is a prohibition on the early release of reviews and detailed commentary before a certain specified date after early screenings or pre-release copies of a product are made available to critics.  These individuals are usually your standard mainstream newspaper critic but their ranks also encompass a rollcall of columnists from other “trusted” sources.  Often coming with a written agreement to the studio’s terms and even the occasional non-disclosure agreement, these embargoes are almost always a red flag for me.

While I often prefer to avoid citing any corporate-fed media source, I think critic Marshall Fine said it best on the Huffington Post; “It’s all about controlling information — and bad word of mouth.  This kind of embargo is almost never associated with a movie which is expected to be a critical hit. (source)”  I think this pretty much hits the proverbial nail on the head.  If a movie or game is expected to rock everyone’s world, why keep them out of the loop as long as possible?  Sometimes these review embargoes can be in place up to as late as the Wednesday before the release of a film, intentionally buried in the middle of the workweek.

I stated in my previous diatribe (for lack of a better word) that as products become more expensive, it becomes more necessary to hide or silence any negative press for as long as possible to get the cash of early adopters and opening weekend addicts who want to beat the barrage of inconsiderate spoilers that will inevitably flood the Web by Saturday evening.  However, I believe this tactic is starting to lose its effectiveness.  Consumers are growing more and more savvy to the biases and manipulations of major media sources and are less tolerant than ever of being conned into buying a product that is knowingly-bad, the flaws of which being intentionally hid from them in the hopes that they will spend first and ask questions later.

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Quick Review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

After a brief scare in 2014, fans of Studio Ghibli let out a sigh of relief as fears that their favorite animation house would be closing their doors were squelched by official statements declaring the news to be a mere rumor. However, in recent years the famous brand has certainly slowed in their efforts and their latest outing, ‘Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter’, a CG animated TV series released to Amazon Prime video, has sparked much interest but has left filmmakers and long time fans to question the direction the company has taken. Thus, a few of the talents from the ranks of Ghibli moved on to start a new chapter in Studio Ponoc.

Ponoc’s first feature, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, is a light adventure that definitely follows in the footsteps of the Master, Miyazaki-san. It has all of the things he’s known for, yet is missing a few of the things that made many of his movies instant classics. However, all things considered, this is a skillful, beautiful and fun fantasy that will certainly appeal to all ages.

The story follows the titular Mary, a young girl who has moved to her grandmother’s home in the English countryside and is awaiting her parents’ arrival. However, her attempts to connect with others in this new landscape are appearing futile. In desperation she begins to pour out her heart to a black cat, and upon following this cat into a thick wood, she finds a glowing flower. Deciding to pluck it and hold as a keepsake, she soon discovers there’s more to this flower than she ever could have imagined…

Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows many of the tropes from other films released by Ponoc’s predecessor, Studio Ghibli. The strange yet amazing fantasy world of Spirited Away, a magical ‘Castle’ in the sky, a stranger who befriends our heroine in their darkest hour… It’s all there. In fact, in many ways this is a patchwork of stories retold from a slightly more modernized perspective. Much of the whimsy has been replaced with vigor and the lead character Mary does seem to have a real personality outside of being a “spunky kid”. She reacts comically and believably to the strange occurrences around her and her first interactions with some of the odd, otherworldly characters bring some of the film’s best moments.

The Alice In Wonderland premise blended with a MacGuffin and some brief but satisfying action scenes come together to make a nice movie that only lacks in a few areas. Firstly, the film comes to a edge so often then pulls back. We get an idea of Mary’s potential with magic, but we rarely see her do anything. In fact, the apparent goal is to show how she can overcome these challenges without magic, but that is all negated in the end. In the meantime, the villains’ plans, which are never made entirely clear outside of a vague description, never really lay out any consequences. We are just meant to accept that their goals would cause some harm by having them take some “drastic measures” to achieve their ends.

That said, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is an enjoyable movie and should give fans of the classic Studio Ghibli style hope that Studio Ponoc may be the fresh new face in cinematic Japanese animation. They certainly have a knack for it. This is an absolutely beautiful movie, with some of the best animation and art I have seen from Japan in several years. The writing is quite good, with characters that are likable without being annoying and real human moments that are often lost in animated fantasies. I give this one a recommendation, especially for families with kids. This is a great start into this world of family-friendly animation from Japan and I think fans of Miyazaki’s work would likely enjoy this one as well, though it fails to live up to the high standards set by some of his notable classics.

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Anime Review – A Place Further Than the Universe: Episode 1

Youth is said to be an adventure, and anime can occasionally capture ideas of youth quite well.  A Place Further Than the Universe is a slice-of-life anime series from Madhouse with writing and production from creators of shows like K-On!, Steins;Gate, Nichijou and Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi.

The first episode, entitled “One Mwillion Yen For Youth” (‘Million’ is misspelled in the actual title; I’m not sure why but if anyone knows, please comment below) follows a 2nd-year high school student named Mari Tamaki who longs for adventure but can never bring herself to take the leap, always backing out at the last minute with a new excuse every time.  Everything changes, however, after a serendipitous encounter with a strange girl at a train station.  This mystery student dashes past her and in her rush drops an envelope containing one million Yen!  Mari, who picks the envelope up and unable to resist peeks inside.  Mari is immediately met with a giant moral dilemma.  Resolving to do the right thing, she finds and returns the money to the strange girl, named Shirase, and through their new friendship it is discovered this detached young woman has been saving money for years to travel to Antarctica to search for her missing mother.  In the end, Mari resolves to join Shirase and they embark on a spontaneous and probably dangerous journey to one of the harshest environments on Earth.  The first episode ends as the two teenagers embark on a barge to begin their long journey across the ocean to a moving score.

From what I can tell so far from this 23-minute introduction is A Place Further Than the Universe is a light drama that has a lot of warmth.  I think, however, this series is going to lean more towards the teenage girl demographic than my taste can really endure.  That isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I doubt there will be much to relate or attach to for me here.  I did enjoy the gentleness of the first episode though, the animation quality is top-notch (as to be expected considering it is a Madhouse production), and the opening to the series is also pretty good.  I will definitely give the next few episodes a watch, hoping things pick up a bit more.  However, if you are already a fan of saccharin, girlish charm, you will probably like this one more than me.

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A Little-Late Game Review: Ever Oasis (3DS)

Ever Oasis has been out for a few months but I’m just getting a chance to bite my teeth into it.  A cursory glance of the game implies it is a cutesy anime-themed ARPG/dungeon crawler, and while this isn’t untrue, after logging some time into it I can assure you that there is a surprising level of depth in Ever Oasis.  It is its unique elements that elevate it above your typical dungeon-crawler.  In many ways, I could say it’s similar to Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (which, if you haven’t played, you really should).

The world of EO is a vast desert.  Greenery is scarce and the only respite comes from a Seedling meeting with a Water Spirit to form an Oasis.  After escaping your brother’s oasis during a battle with a dark, corrupting force, you wander until you meet a lonely, tired water spirit named Esna who is waiting patiently for a Seedling to join her to create a great oasis.  You arrive, a Seedling and a water spirit are united and together create the Oasis!  

The goal is to grow your Oasis by increasing its population.  Each day there is a chance a visitor will arrive and if you do quests for them, they will become permanent residents, expanding your empire.  Some residents will allow you to open Bloom Booths, which is a shop from which that resident can sell specialty items and earn money for the settlement.  Other residents provide essential services like party management and assigning tasks to idle villagers.  As you add more Bloom Booths, NPC’s called Noots will arrive.  They exist to spend money which returns to you in the game’s currency called Dew, which you use to buy items, upgrade equipment and expand your Oasis.  As your population grows, your Oasis levels up, opening more building room for new booths, thereby further accelerating its expansion.

So, how do you keep your booths in business?  You fight things, of course!  The action gameplay of Ever Oasis is not particularly-innovative, but it is effective.  Monsters and farming spots in the maps outside your Oasis give you items used to craft gear and help booth vendors restock so they can keep the revenue coming and the more the inventory stays full, the happier your villagers are.  You can bring up to two residents with you and you can switch between them on the fly in and out of combat.  The partner AI is surprisingly good!  The characters you aren’t controlling are generally pretty smart and do a good job of staying out of danger…  Most of the time.  Some residents even have special skills like mining and digging (just to name a few) and bringing these guys along can help grow your inventory by finding more items and even sometimes accessing previously-unreachable spots.  These residents will also offer quests to delve into caves and dungeons and these can often lead to some pretty great Legend of Zelda-style boss fights.

There is a crafting system as well but it is fairly rudimentary.  You just need to get the required number of the specified items, spend the dew and boom, you can upgrade your gear!  But the item upgrades are not varied and new recipes roll in very slowly for much of the game as crafting is not the primary focus; the primary goal here is to grow your Oasis by doing quests, progressing the story and helping your villagers out to keep things sunny!  

I barely scratched the surface of Ever Oasis in this review.  I was honestly surprised by the depth and variety here and I would say that fans of action RPG’s should give this game a shot.  It isn’t going to revolutionize the genre, but it is a fun diversion for a genre that has gotten pretty dark in tone over the last few years.  If you have kids with a 3DS and would like to get them into RPG’s as well, this is a good choice for them.  It’s nice, PG-rated fun with none of the elements being too difficult for younger gamers to get into.  The bar for action RPG’s was set pretty high this year by Horizon: Zero Dawn, but for a lighter, simpler game with some old-school flavor, I say Ever Oasis is a solid alternative for players wanting a softer touch.

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My 40 Favorite Asian Kung-Fu Generation Songs- The Top Ten!

  1. “Clicking My Heels to Love” (踵で愛を打ち鳴らせ Kakato de Ai o Uchinarase) from Landmark

Another pseudo-inspirational tune from AKFG, “Kakato de Ai o Uchinarase”, describes fleeting emotions then declares they be cast aside to go back out to the world again, regardless of how one may feel in the moment.  I would interpret it as being about moving on and the hope of happiness in the future; with a little effort.  The song opens with a soft, warm melody expanding to yet another trademark Ajikan chorus.  It’s catchy, upbeat and charged with a carefree elation despite how it may appear lyrically.

  1. “To Your Town” (君の街まで, Kimi no Machi Made) from Sol-Fa

I can only interpret “Kimi no Machi Made” as being about there being a distance separating two people and the passing of the seasons each with yet another promise to reunite.  It’s a little hard to tell.  From Ajikans second studio album, the Lydian tone of the song drives it’s mood.  It has a strange tendency to never feel like the chords are going to go where you think they will, but I feel this has more to do with the short lyrical melodic refrains rather than the mode itself.

  1. “Magic Disc” (マジックディスク Majikku Disuku) from Magic Disk

Something is lost in translation in “Magic Disc”.  No matter where I look, the metaphors are mixed.  It definitely discusses the death of CD’s and physical media in-general.  I’m not entirely sure why, but it is a prevalent message in the song.  Outside of that, it goes into a different direction entirely.  Musically, however, this is a masterful rock song.  Mixing backbeat rhythm with simple guitar riffs and a powerful series of shouted, emotional lyrics, it really is one of the best songs to really introduce new fans to AKFG.

  1. “Little Lennon” from Wonder Future

Centering on how art can transcend race and nationality and how it even survives the test of time, “Little Lennon” invokes pop figures like the late-former-Beatle with refrains of “Now imagine, imagine, imagine”, and of famous graffiti artist and cultural revolutionary Banksy (…a side note, if you haven’t seen “Exit Through the Gift Shop”, do yourself a favor and seek it out).  The melody and punk style take things back to AKFG’s early days, as does much of Wonder Future.  The off-notes in the main riff give the song a unique feel and the outstanding chorus is one of their best.

  1. “Rock n’ Roll, Morning Light Falls On You” (転がる岩、君に朝が降る Korogaru Iwa, Kimi ni Asa ga Furu) from World World World

I’m lost on the lyrics to “Kimi ni Asa ga Furu”, but it definitely seems to be about lost love, or at least some sort of separation.  This is a particularly-unique song for Asian Kung-Fu Generation.  It opens with a really light riff and while it does pick up, it never really gets too heavy.  It’s one of the better melodic songs, with a fantastic chorus and some great guitar moments.  I particularly love the guitar outro in this one.

  1. “Blue Sky and a Black Cat” (青空と黒い猫 Aozora to Kuroi Neko) from Magic Disk

References to war and poverty make this one difficult to translate.  The song’s intro strumming guided by the warm bass line and marching beat give it a welcoming tone.  It leads into one of the best choruses the band has and one of my absolute favorites as we round off the top five.

  1. “A Town In Blue” (或る街の群青 Aru Machi no Gunjō) from World World World

“Aru Machi no Gunjō” paints a picture of a person in despair by using colors to describe feelings and moments.  The structure is simple, but has a perfect mix of rock and pop.  It’s bright, and despite its lyrics coming off as a little… emo.., it is an awesome song.  It is also a very accessible tune for them, allowing for new listeners to hear a simple taste of the Ajikan’s melodic side.

  1. “Soranin” from Magic Disk

“Soranin” is about giving up.  Essentially.  A relationship that can never work, or something that happened that cannot be overcome, leaves the narrator with nothing left to say but “So, I guess this is ‘goodbye’.”  Here you will find the distinct, Ajikan-upbeat-sound with the more melodic tones of their later work from Magic Disk.  It is one of the best songs of the 2010’s and what makes it so is its warmth.  In a period of cold, lifeless music, “Soranin” is just a classic, inviting rock song.

  1. “Neoteny” (ネオテニー Neotenī) from World World World

This, more-technical-than-usual AKFG song is the best song of theirs’ in a decade.  There is a powerful mood to it.  It constantly builds upwards to a series of choruses that end in a bright 3-note guitar riff that is, for a lack of a better word, resplendent.  “Neoteny” is not just a great song for fans of J-rock, but I would recommend anyone hear this tune at least once.

01.Midwinter Dance (真冬のダンス Mafuyu no Dansu) from Fanclub

That’s right, my favorite Asian Kung-Fu Generation song is an unreleased track from Fanclub.  For all they hype Ajikan has received in the US after most were introduced to them through Anime, the tunes from Fanclub and onward have appealed to me much more.  Not to say the older, more well-known stuff is bad, but “Mafuyu no Dance” is, at least in my mind the perfect type of rock song.  It’s simple, it’s catchy, and it builds to something more than it was at its start.  The final chorus of this short tune is backed by a melodic lead guitar riff that ties everything together.


I hope to do more of these band countdowns in the future but for now I have some game and movie reviews coming around the corner…

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My 40 Favorite Asian Kung-Fu Generation Songs – Part 3 (20-11)

  1. “Senseless” (センスレス Sensuresu) from Fanclub

It’s rare that a song in Japanese can directly translate to English as well as “Senseless”.  The lyrics paint a picture of a world projected to us only through TV screens and signs, never allowing us to feel or see anything for ourselves.  The plea “do not delete me” (roughly), implies an existence so indelibly tied to the digital world that its complete removal is the loss of one’s self.  This song benefits from one of AKFG’s best guitar riffs in their entire catalog;  A bouncing, energetic musical refrain that wraps the song.  It doesn’t have the standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structure, so having that riff to tie it together makes the whole feel cohesive.  It’s a powerful, relevant message packed in a amazing rock tune.

  1. “All right part2” from Landmark

Another exploration in musical escapism, “All right” is a less-poetic pop song featuring Chatmonchy guitarist and frontwoman Eriko Hashimoto.  It isn’t deep, it’s just deadly-catchy!  This is a song that will never leave you.  If you are prone to madness from having a song stuck in your head for good, you may want to avoid this one!  However, if you want a cheery pop song with a rock edge and a great riff, this jam’s for you.

  1. “Standard” from Wonder Future

Ajikan are masters at crafting simple, steady building verses into powerful, moving choruses.  “Standard” follows your standard three-chorus structure, telling the story of a young, happy girl who captivated a few people in a fleeting moment with careless singing and when she moved on, nobody remembered her.  I do not know exactly what inspired this theme, but the idea that a person so small can impact people, even briefly, then keep going without knowing what, if anything, they left in their wake is an interesting image.  The cheery guitars and triumphant chorus of “Standard” make this newer single one of their best.

  1. “Well Then, See You Again Tomorrow” (それでは、また明日 Sore dewa, Mata Ashita) from Landmark

Taking their sound back to their early days, “Sore dewa, Mata Ashita” keeps a classic AKFG sound with a minor key leading into a wordy, upbeat chorus.  I’m not entirely sure what this song is about from the lyrics, but it is a great rock song in its own right.

  1. “Loop & Loop” (ループ&ループ Rūpu & Rūpu) from Sol-Fa

An endless cycle of separation, sadness and reassurance, “Loop & Loop” is one of the band’s most successful and well-known singles.  Released as an EP not even a year after their debut album, it is one of the first singles that I think really hinted at the sound Ajikan would land on by the time Fanclub would come out two years later.  Catchy, flighty and energetic, “Loop & Loop” is a timeless entry in their repertoire.

  1. “Black Out” (ブラックアウト Burakkuauto) from Fanclub

“Black Out” seems to discuss a continuing separation from reality, but this is not made entirely clear by the lyrical translation.  The song is elevated by an excellent dual-guitar riff melody that, at least for me, will become more timeless with age.  Having the same build-up to an anthemic chorus as a songlike “Standard”, “Black Out” nails it and was really one of the songs from the mid-2000’s that really got me into AKFG.

  1. “Love Song of the New Century” (新世紀のラブソング Shinseiki no Rabu Songu) from Magic Disk

A gripping, emotional music video emphasizing a powerful song about carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders into a new Century, as though we are expected to leave the past behind by some sort of arbitrary demarcation point, “Shinseiki no Rabu Songu” uses shocking imagery to invoke memories of the not-so-distant past.  Musically, this is a very technical song.  From, the warm, haunting guitar riff that guides the song, to the backbeat rhythm and emphasized bass line, it builds on a heavy theme with a powerful and complex choral structure.

  1. “Tightrope” (タイトロープ Taito Rōpu) from Fanclub

Painting a picture of a dream, “Tightrope” is a smooth, two-step-style tune with a peaceful main riff and a hefty build-up.  It is melodically-moving and a masterful way to close out an album as great as Fanclub.

  1. “My World” (マイ・ワールド Mai Wārudo) from Sol-Fa

Despite being hard to decipher, “My World” is a great song.  It has a strong melody and an excellent pre-chorus that really make it stand out.  This is one where it’s really hard to say anything particularly clever, so I say just give it a listen.

  1. “A Lost Dog and the Beats of the Rain” (迷子犬と雨のビート Maigoinu to Ame no Beat) from Magic Disk

Used as the opening for the anime series “Tatami Galaxy”, “Maigoinu to Ame no Beat” is a pretty unique song for Ajikan.  It features a lot of the band’s staples but adds a brass section and a touch of ska to the mix.  It’s experimental for sure but works very well and it ranks high among my favorites, just outside of the top 10!


Maigoinu To Ame No Beat @ Yojouhan Shinwa…

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My 40 Favorite Asian Kung-Fu Generation Songs – Part 1 (40-31)

  1. “N2” from Landmark

Kicking off this list, we have “N2”, a song that is darker in tone than most of their other songs, especially compared to what you would hear most their more recent albums.  For me, Landmark was somewhat of a disappointment, unable to live up to the high standard set by Magic Disk.  A few great songs stand out, though.  N2, a song about economic destitution, demoralization and anger, it’s a pretty aggressive tune.

  1. “Planet” (惑星, Wakusei) from World World World

Keeping with Ajikan’s common themes of self-empowerment and anti-authoritarianism, “Planet” calls for everyone to aspire to be more than even you thought you could be.  Inspirational as many of their tunes are, Planet is touched by a punk tone that is very “AKFG”.  The rhythm changes, sudden shift to off-notes and diving bass lines make this one of their more unique tracks.

  1. “Understand” (アンダースタンド Andāsutando) from Connected to You 5m

“Understand” is somewhat cryptic.  It could be lost in the translation but it seems to be about a person who is wracked by an unbearable grief for something that is not entirely their fault and the message is somewhat of comforting empathy.  While I generally like Ajikan’s later stuff a little more, “Understand” is a great modern punk song.

  1. “World Apart” (ワールドアパート Wārudo Apāto) from Fanclub

For me, 2006’s Fanclub was the first time AKFG’s greatness would shine through, and songs from this album will frequent this list.  Having a powerful lyrical melody, there is a force of passion in the vocals that would become a common element in many of AKFG’s more energetic tunes.  The driving drums, guitar solo and heavily distorted guitars give this one a louder edge as well.

  1. “Easter” from Wonder Future

From 2015’s Wonder Future, Easter paints a pretty morbid picture in its lyrics.  Images of death, themes of careless abandon, even gore are scribbled throughout the lyrics.  This one is a little cryptic and it may be a little lost in translation.  There are references to rebirth or resurrection (hence the title), however the rest of the lyrics are more strange than anything else.  “Easter” hearkens back to the sound of their first two albums, the sound that made them famous, and is an interesting return from the more dramatic, alternative sound they had embraced in albums leading up to Wonder Future.

  1. “Bicycle Race” (バイシクルレース Baishikuru Rēsu) from Landmark

Warm, effected guitar, a peaceful sound and a charging lead in an upbeat, almost 90’s-sounding chorus make “Bicycle Race” one of the best tracks on Landmark.  Themes of picking up pieces of something broken, a cheeriness highlights an optimism for a happy end.  Whether it comes is another question…

  1. “After Dark” (アフターダーク “Afutā Dāku”) from World World World

The imagery in “After Dark” implies that something really bad has happened.  Something that isn’t clearly defined.  The lyrics are dichotomous to the upeat song.  Anime fans will know this song as one of the openings to the popular series Bleach.

  1. “Butterfly” (バタフライ Batafurai) from Fanclub

“Butterfly” explores an idea of coming out on the other side of hardship, or just a down period, stronger than before. Showcasing Ajikan’s musicality, this song’s mixing of moods and melodic structures built on a minor key layer well.  Especially in the intro leading into the first chorus.  The funk-inspired bass mixed with the muted guitar make this another winner from Fanclub.

  1. “Eternal Sunshine” from Wonder Future

A musically-moving, driving chorus caps a well-structured alt-rock tune in “Eternal Sunshine”.  A song about lost love and moving on, it features mixed musical tones with a peaceful guitar riff.  These picked, simple-but-melodic riffs are a specialty of Ajikan.  In an era where rock riffs are stale and uninspired they try to write structured guitar tunes that carry very well.  Gotoh’s shaky vocals are the only thing that keep this one out of the top 20.  It’s still a great song.

  1. “Rewrite” (リライト Riraito) from Sol-Fa

One of AKFG’s most famous song thanks to it being featured as an intro on the hit series Fullmetal Alchemist, “Rewrite” is just a great, kickass song.  Utilizing some traditional rock formulas, this song has some distinctly-classic-rock qualities.  The simple guitar riffs layer well and tie the heavy, aggressive chorus together.

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