Anime Review: Death Parade

written by Laurie Tom


The concept of Death Parade is nothing new. Stories of people being judged after death goes back to the earliest religions. But what makes it special is watching the various souls who pass through for judgment and how the judgment process itself is potentially unfair.

Death Parade has some manic customers, but the series itself is understated, letting peoples’ lives, and deaths, unfold for the audience at the same time as it does for the mysterious woman who is Decim’s assistant; Decim being the arbiter who decides the fate of the people being judged.

The woman without a name has no memories and serves as the audience’s surrogate because she does not know what she is doing in this purgatory world where the staff look like elevator attendants and barkeeps, and the souls of the deceased come to be judged.

All the inhabitants there are neither alive nor dead, having been created specifically for the purposes they carry out. Decim is an arbiter who works in a bar called Quindecim (Latin for “fifteen”) where he periodically receives two souls that died at the same time, which means they will be judged together.

While this sometimes means they died in the same event, other times it’s just coincidence and they do not know each other at all.

The memories of the dead are partially suppressed, leaving them unaware of being dead and how they died. Once in the bar, they are convinced to play a game with their freedom and their lives at stake. The game is typically competitive, designed to bring out the worst in the players as all their regrets return and they come to realize that their lives are already over.

But still, people are complicated. Death doesn’t change that, and even after death there are surprises.

The first episode is a whopper of plot twists and revelations, focusing on a married couple, their history together, and how they ended up dying. But the real stinger comes in the second episode, which shows the same story from the perspective of Decim’s assistant and turns everything on its head once more.

Though there is a certain episodic-ness to the story, with new characters constantly coming and going for judgment, there is an larger overarching storyline. I don’t really care for the higher level scheming, because I think it raises too many questions about how the whole afterlife system works and who put it there in the first place, but I do like the friendship between Decim and his unnamed assistant.

It takes some time to grow during the early episodes, but it becomes clear that the inhuman Decim is being changed by his amnesiac companion, who clearly wasn’t created in the same fashion he was. Her history and her beliefs become the emotional core around which the rest of the series revolves as she becomes increasingly disillusioned with the idea that it’s possible to judge a person without having really known them.

Death Parade surprised me, largely because the woman’s progression is so gradual I didn’t think too much about it until the last few episodes. When I started this show, I did not think I would end up needing a tissue in the end, but I think anyone’s who has experienced the loss of a loved one will be able to relate.

I highly recommend this series. It does get a little lost in the middle, but it’s short and packs a powerful punch.

Number of Episodes: 12

Pluses: judgment games are interesting to watch, facial animations are top notch and really drive home the emotions spilling out of the characters

Minuses: meanders a bit in the middle, worldbuilding outside of Decim’s bar isn’t really that interesting and not well addressed

Death Parade is currently streaming at Funimation and Hulu and is available both subtitled and dubbed (though dub requires a Funimation subscription). Funimation has licensed this for eventual retail distribution in the US.

laurietomLaurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie is a previous grand prize winner of Writers of the Future and since then her work has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and Crossed Genres.

Anime Review: Magic Kaito 1412

written by Laurie Tom

magickaitoMagic Kaito 1412 is a largely episodic series centered around the adventures of Kaito Kuroba, a high school junior who moonlights as a gentleman thief to thwart the people responsible for the death of his father, the original Kid the Phantom Thief.

The source manga was started in the 1980s and only went three volumes before Gosho Aoyama launched the much more successful Detective Conan (known in the US as Case Closed), and despite efforts to modernize the setting, there are still plot sensibilities that feel much more at home in the 80s than modern day, such how easily and quickly Kaito becomes the new Kid the Phantom Thief. In a play on words, Kaito the protagonist’s name and “kaitou” the word for “phantom thief” are pronounced almost the same. It’s that kind of show.

Magic Kaito 1412 quickly runs through the origin story of the second Kid the Phantom Thief and from there mostly follows a stand-alone format, featuring a new heist or personal adventure of Kaito’s each episode (barring multi-parters). Sometimes characters are introduced and come back in a later episode. Sometimes they are never seen again. But this isn’t a particularly deep show, or a realistic one. It’s all about having a good time as Kaito tries to deal with the thefts and his double life.

As a gentleman thief, Kid always sends advance warning that he’s going to steal something, and then proceeds to do. Nothing stops him; not traps, not guards, not even a date with his not-really-girlfriend (though he does have to get creative with the last one). And because he’s the son of both a magician and a thief, many of his thefts involve a high degree of showmanship, making use of misdirects, disguises, props, and other tricks to help him set up the theft and get away.

A lot of what he does is not humanly possible, but are the kinds of things that the kid in us wishes we could do. Kaito is cocky, hyper-competent, and gets away with almost everything.

Then, because Kaito is only stealing things to stay one step ahead of the crime organization that killed his father, he returns the stolen gems afterwards when they turn out to be different from the one he and his enemies are looking for. (I guess it’s understood that if Kid gives it back, it’s obviously not the right gem, because we don’t hear about those gems being stolen again later.)

Despite the fact the premise is structured around his father’s death and thwarting a crime organization in search of immortality, Magic Kaito is generally a light-hearted show that’s eager to please. Most times, the reason why Kaito is constantly stealing things isn’t even brought up, and he doesn’t wallow in the negative emotions behind his motivation (though the two-part finale does raise the question about how he really feels about what he’s doing). And while Kaito’s double life is not a new topic in storytelling, I love that it’s more often a source of comedy than the drama it could have been.

The episodic nature of Magic Kaito also makes this series lovely when time commitment is a problem, since there’s little need to remember storylines from one episode to the next, but it does have a flaw that has nothing to do with how individual stories are presented.

Detective Conan and Magic Kaito are conveniently set in the same world, and Aoyama never forgot his earlier creation. Kaito in his Kid persona has made several appearances in Detective Conan, which is a franchise juggernaut with more TV episodes than The Simpsons. By the time this review is posted, the 19th Detective Conan movie will have released in theaters featuring a face off between Detective Conan and Kid, who takes up as much space on the movie poster as Detective Conan himself. Awareness of Kid is huge among the Japanese fanbase.

This leads to the problem where Magic Kaito 1412 just can’t cut the apron strings to its more famous brother. The first time Shinichi Kudo shows up in Magic Kaito (before his transformation into Conan) it’s a fun nod to the genius teen detective and a real pain in the butt for Kaito, when he realizes just what he’s up against. It’s definitely one of the better episodes because Kaito has to work so much harder for his win.

But someone must have decided that the show needed more Conan, so there are subsequent crossovers which directly correlate to episodes of Detective Conan that were never licensed in the US. While it’s nice seeing Kid match wits with Conan, the handling could have been a lot better, leaving me feeling like I had missed something because there was a Conan version of the story that the episode assumes I’ve already seen.

It’s particularly egregious that the episode where Kid and Conan first meet face to face is not in Magic Kaito 1412, leaving newcomers to assume they had met at some point before. Fortunately, in this case, interested Americans can watch episodes 78-79 of Case Closed streaming on Funimation to get up to speed (they fit in right after episode 6 of Magic Kaito 1412).

All said and done, I really liked Magic Kaito 1412 to the point I can safely say it’s my favorite show to have come out of 2014. It’s not perfect, but it’s the sort of thing where you know exactly what you’re going to get and it delivers. Watching Kaito steal things as Kid and parade around friends and enemies rarely fails to put a smile on my face. He really sells the show and everything that comes along with it.

I can see why Kid is a perennial favorite among Conan fans, and the show seems to have done well in the TV ratings, so I’m hoping that it will return sometime in the future, though there is very little manga material left to work with.

But if there is next time, please, more Kid and less Conan.

Number of Episodes: 24

Pluses: doesn’t take itself too seriously without being completely preposterous, Kaito in his Kid persona is really fun to watch, almost as much focus on Kaito’s life out of costume as in it

Minuses: no definitive ending since the manga is unfinished, Kaito is so skilled a protagonist he’s rarely in substantial danger, crossover episodes with Detective Conan/Case Closed are not newcomer friendly

Magic Kaito 1412 is currently streaming at Crunchyroll and is available subtitled.

laurietomLaurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie is a previous grand prize winner of Writers of the Future and since then her work has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and Crossed Genres.

Anime Review: Aldnoah.Zero

written by Laurie Tom

aldnoah.zeroAldnoah.Zero got off to a spectacular start, being the only show of 2014 that left me completely mindblown by the end of the first episode, and for its first half it was my favorite thing that year. But it takes an unexpected direction after the halfway point and I don’t think it was for the better.

In an alternate present day, Mars has been colonized thanks to the 1972 discovery of a warp gate on the moon by the Apollo 17 mission. But Mars was still an inhospitable world and one of its early settlers discovered the remnants of an alien technology called Aldnoah. Aldnoah bound itself to his genetic material so that no one other than him and his descendants could activate it and he declared himself emperor of the new Vers Empire on Mars. Those who served him became known as knights.

In 1999, war broke out between Earth and Mars over sharing resources which resulted in the shattering of the moon’s warp gate, much of the moon itself, and stranding large chunks of the Martian military in the resulting satellite belt. Though the war ended with the breaking of the moon, it was not a decisive win for either side. Now in 2014, the Martian princess, Asseylum, granddaughter of the man who was first bound to Aldnoah, wishes to visit Earth in an overture of peace.

The story in Aldnoah.Zero really needs to be spoken about in two halves, partially because there is a time skip at the halfway point. The first half centers around the apparent assassination of Princess Asseylum by Terran terrorists (actually Martian terrorists who want to overthrow the royals, but when Martians and Terrans are both humans it’s not easy to tell them apart). Technologically superior Mars declares war and underequipped Earth is quickly invaded.

We see the war largely through the eyes of two characters; Inaho Kaizuka and Slaine Troyard. Though both are Terrans, Inaho has always lived on Earth and Slaine crash landed on Mars as a child and grew up as a servant of the Martian royal family.

The first half of the series is stuffed with fantastic underdog battles where Inaho takes out enemy pilots in superior mecha by outthinking them. Each Martian mecha is different, with unique powers and weaknesses due to the Aldnoah technology, making their defeat a puzzle to be solved. As a result, no two battles are the same.

As Inaho is trying to protect the princess, who didn’t actually die in the terrorist attack, Slaine is trying to rescue her and foil the plans of those who would have her killed. The two teenagers repeatedly come into contact with each other on opposite sides of the battlefield. Even though both of them fear for the princess’s safety and want her returned to stop the war, Slaine is afraid the Terrans will manipulate her and Inaho fears the same about the Martians, especially knowing that it was other Martians who originally tried to kill her.

This conflict comes to a head in the mid-series finale, which was amazing… except then the time skip happened.

How well the time skip is received likely depends on which male protagonist the viewer related to the most and how much they care about Slaine, who has proven to be a divisive character.

The second half takes time to get going with some strange plot concessions that range from improbable to head-scratching that ends up undoing much of the shock that happened in the mid-series finale and the plot is clearly restructured as a fight between Inaho and Slaine and what kind of future they want to bring about. Despite the fact they both love the princess doesn’t mean that they’re on the same page about protecting her.

The puzzle battles largely disappear, replaced by political intrigue and more general skirmishes as if to remind the viewers there’s still a war going on. The rest of the cast is still here, but largely fade into the background, leaving several of their personal stories unresolved.

As for the princess herself, while she is active and trying to stop the war in the first half, she is sadly fridged for a good portion of the second (almost literally) because otherwise things wouldn’t have gotten out of hand to the degree they did. She’s not a bad character, and once she’s active again she makes it clear that she is not a prize to be won and chooses her own path, but it would have been nice if she hadn’t spent so much of the second half as a figurehead.

I have mixed feelings about the second half largely because it wasn’t what I expected after the first, and I don’t think enough was done to explain the change in Slaine over the timeskip. While he doesn’t come across as a drastically different person, it’s clear that something about him is off and doesn’t entirely jive with who he was before.

And that’s the problem. The second half rides almost entirely on Slaine, whether or not the viewer buys his actions and the motivations behind them, and it’s a bit strange considering how powerless he was in the first.

Aldnoah.Zero could easily have run into another season if a different decision in the final episode had been made, but it manages to wrap up all the major plot threads in a satisfactory manner, as well as the fates of the three main characters of Inaho, Slaine, and Asseylum.

Overall, I would still recommend Aldnoah.Zero to people who aren’t otherwise inclined to watch mecha shows, because it focuses so much on interpersonal relationships and how communication (or lack there of) drives so much of what happens between people. There may be giant robots, but they are hardly the focus. The battles are well thought out, particularly in the first half, and I never felt like someone pulled an instant-win card to get them out of a tough strait.

But if one finds that they cannot stand Slaine in the first half of the show, it’s probably not a good idea to continue as it’s unlikely any opinion on him will improve.

Though I rarely comment on music, composer Hiroyuki Sawano has done a fantastic job with Aldnoah.Zero, creating memorable tracks such as “No Differences,” an anti-war theme that only plays during combat scenes, as if Princess Asseylum herself is there to remind the soldiers of Earth and Mars of why she had come in peace in the first place.

Number of Episodes: 24

Pluses: mecha combat where tactics matter, first half is full of unexpected and awesome plot twists, distinctive and memorable music score

Minuses: Slaine’s murky change in morality in the second half, second half is substantially weaker as a whole than the first, Martian side of war isn’t as fleshed out as its Terran counterpart making them harder to sympathize with

Aldnoah.Zero is currently streaming on Crunchyroll, Daisuki, and Hulu and is available subtitled.

laurietomLaurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie is a previous grand prize winner of Writers of the Future and since then her work has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and Crossed Genres.

Spring 2015 Anime First Impressions

written by Laurie Tom

Spring looks to be a slower season than the packed viewing schedule I held in winter. It helps that this time Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works is the only returning series that I was already watching and it won’t have to fight much for my viewing time. Last winter’s Fafner: Exodus will not air its second cour until later in the year.

Depending on how things shake out in spring, it’s possible I’ll go back and finish one or two of the shows I left behind in winter, but right now I’m just looking for two more series to watch alongside Fate/stay night.

Here are my thoughts on the first episodes of some of the new spring shows.

Blood Blockade Battlefront

blood blockade battlefront

Why I Watched It: New York City has become a battleground for the supernatural, cut off from the rest of the world by a bubble that keeps the craziness, and the New Yorkers, contained inside. I had heard favorable comparisons to the cult hit Baccano.

What I Thought: The first episode is pretty frantic with very little explained other than the basic worldbuilding that enables a world where otherworldly creatures existing openly on the streets along with normal humans. The combat is a little over the top, and I’m not sure I like the snooty demon who seems to be getting set up as the antagonist, but I love the mix of mundane and supernatural where the humans don’t see anything unusual about living with their new neighbors.

Verdict: I will be watching. Leonardo seems an unusual choice in protagonist in that his powers are decidedly non-combative in a very combat-oriented anime, but it might mean an interesting change of pace.

Where to find stream: Funimation and Hulu

Gunslinger Stratos: The Animation


Why I Watched It: Parallel worlds where the main character’s other self is the villain, paired with gravity-defying gun-fu combat scenes? It didn’t need much else to sell itself. It’s also based on the Gunslinger Stratos arcade game which never came to the US.

What I Thought: It’s not as light on story as I thought it would be (but that’s not saying it’s deep either). Tohru isn’t much different from most anime protagonists in that he’s a reserved young man who wants to do the right thing, but he’s a pretty good shot, likely only hampered because he’s such a nice guy, which is of course a problem his antagonistic alter ego doesn’t seem to have. Literally falling into a parallel world where crazy gun battles are commonplace is kind of contrived, but I’m willing to give this a benefit of a doubt just to get to the good stuff.

Verdict: I’ll be watching. Based off the first episodes I’ve seen, it’s surprisingly the one I want to watch the most out of this season’s premieres.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll

The Heroic Legend of Arslan

arslan senki

Why I Watched It: Arslan Senki is a venerable novel series set in a fictional world inspired by historical Persia. It was adapted as a direct to video anime before in the 1990s, but was never finished. Considering its pedigree, I wanted to check it out.

What I Thought: The first episode didn’t impress me too much at first. Eleven-year-old Prince Arslan is woefully naive and mostly ignored by his royal parents. It’s a road that’s been trod before. But when he meets a prisoner-of-war his own age who’s destined for the slave market, he’s baffled that anyone would choose to die rather than be guaranteed food each day. Clearly the series is setting up for some shattering event that will throw Arslan into a war that challenges the beliefs he grew up with. And the people of the opposing country are not saints either, since they’re invading to kill the heathens who do not share their beliefs.

Verdict: I might be watching, but it’ll probably depend on what happens to Arslan and how quickly he matures (or if a more interesting cast member gets introduced). While he ages to fourteen in the next episode, I’m not sure how much more of his naivete I can take.

Where to find stream: Funimation and Hulu

Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?

is it wrong to pick up girls

Why I Watched It: That title says it all. It sounds like a comedy about someone whose life is essentially a role-playing game. I had to give it a shot no matter how bad it might be.

What I Thought: Main character Bell is surprisingly not trying to pick up every girl in sight, but rather wants to impress a single lady who saved his life (though his reason for going into the dungeon in the first place was to meet one). Believing that she’s totally out of his league, Bell embarks on a quest to become stronger in his strangely RPG-style world, which means level grinding to improve his stats and getting money to help grow the Familia, or adventurer’s guild, of his goddess patron. There’s some annoying fanservice courtesy of the goddess who has a crush of her own on Bell, but I like that Bell seems pretty set on who he wants.

Verdict: I’m probably going to pass. It was funny, but living in a RPG world feels really overdone right now, with both Sword Art Online and Log Horizon still in recent memory. I don’t think Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls brings anything new to the table.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll

My Love Story!


Why I Watched It: Based on a girls’ comic, My Love Story! breaks popular convention in that the main character is a big, stocky guy with a heart of gold but the face of a thug. All the girls want his good-looking best friend instead, until he gets a chance to be someone’s hero.

What I Thought: It’s incredibly rare to see a romance from the male point of view, especially from the guy who is typically the wingman and has yet to discover he’s actually the protagonist in his own love story. Takeo is sweet, but a bit broken down since every single girl he’s ever had a crush on has instead confessed their affection to his conventionally handsome best friend (who then shoots them down). So when a girl crushes on Takeo for real he decides she must also be interested in his best friend and he should do whatever he can to help them hook up.

Verdict: I might be watching. While the setup is a nice change of pace, I’m not entirely sold on it. Being a non-action piece, a lot is going to rely on the characters, and other than Takeo himself I haven’t found anyone else engaging.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll



Why I Watched It: The latest from manga creator Rumiko Takahashi, best known for Ranma ½ and Inuyasha (though my favorite of her work is Maison Ikkoku). My tastes have changed since I was originally introduced to her work and I don’t think I’ll like it as much anymore, but I’ll still check the latest out.

What I Thought: It definitely feels like a Takahashi series with her unique art style and brand of comedy, though I’m surprised the whole first episode went by without a single lewd joke. Instead much fun is made of male protagonist Rinne’s stinginess to the point that he believes main character Sakura’s 1500 yen ($12.61 US) is a small fortune. Most stories involving a girl who can see ghosts and a boy tasked with guiding restless spirits back to the wheel of reincarnation would probably take itself seriously, but Takahashi’s absurdist rendition of ghostbusting has Rinne paying a few yen every time he needs to operate/purchase the tools for his job and features a lonely ghost finally agreeing to go to the wheel of reincarnation because there are girls over there.

Verdict: I might come back and watch later. I was really surprised. If I liked comedy more I think this would have ranked higher.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll

Seraph of the End


Why I Watched It: Honestly, I didn’t really want to watch another show with vampires, no matter how nice the promo art looks, but Hiroyuki Sawano is one of my favorite composers ever and he’s scoring this one so I figured I’d at least listen.

What I Thought: Better than expected. When all humans above age 13 die to a mysterious virus, vampires take children under their “protection” and provide them with food and clothing in exchange for being livestock. Most of the first episode is story setup, showing main character Yuichiro and his best friend Mikaela as children as they deal with their new reality and try to escape the underground city the vampires are keeping them in, so it’s hard to see how the rest of the show will play out. The vampires are pretty ruthless though and I was surprised to see how high the underage body count was. The episode ends with a time skip bringing Yuichiro to sixteen and no information as to what happened in the intervening years.

Verdict: I might be watching. It’s piqued my interest, but I’ll have to see how it stacks up against the rest of the season. If it avoids having angsty vampires it’ll stand a better chance.

Where to find stream: Funimation and Hulu

Conspicuously missing:

Digimon Adventure tri – The much anticipated 15th anniversary series for the Digimon franchise seems to have been delayed. After the hype train that has been running since last year, it’s a little bit of a disappointment, but hopefully this means the series will have a chance to fix any production problems it might have been having.

Sushi and Beyond – Based on a British journalist’s book about how he and his family took a 100-day trip to Japan to try out a wide variety of local foods. It seems that it’s being broadcast in some local Japanese TV stations in the US in partnership with NHK World, but there has been no simulcast arrangement.

Laurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie is a previous grand prize winner of Writers of the Future and since then her work has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and Crossed Genres.

Anime Movie Review: Lupin the 3rd vs Detective Conan: The Movie

Lupin vs Conan

I was very surprised to see the Lupin the 3rd vs Detective Conan: The Movie go up on Hulu since it had been a couple years since the movie came out and the release in February was done with little to no fanfare. There is no English language DVD or Blu-ray release and it was not put out by the US licensees of Lupin III or Detective Conan (Case Closed in the US). Instead, the original Japanese production company was the one who posted it to Hulu.

I never watched any of the Lupin III series before largely because I’m not fond of the older art style (Lupin III started in the 1960s and doesn’t look like what we typically consider anime) and because I’m not really in the target demographic for his hijinks. Lupin is a womanizing thief who is constantly trying to get into the pants of various women, particularly a busty femme fatale who he both adores and is constantly being crossed by.

But Detective Conan was one of my favorite anime series when I was in college. I never saw the whole thing (it’s still running new episodes even today!), but Conan as a character is a nice mix of smartass and brilliant detective that it’s fun to watch him solve a case. He also has a bit of a problem in that he’s actually a teenager, but a mysterious drug that people used to try to kill him had the unexpected effect of de-aging him by about ten years instead, making him look like a first grader. Most people aren’t aware he’s really Shinichi Kudo and Conan Edogawa is just the alias he’s using while hiding his survival.

After the cold open, the movie helpfully gives the background of both the Lupin III and Detective Conan characters for those new to either one, but I think someone who has never seen either would have a more difficult time getting into the movie. Having never seen Lupin III I was only vaguely familiar with his crew of helpers and whenever one of them showed up and did something amazing it was all right, I could follow the story, but some of what they did felt out of character for a Conan movie. I imagine that fans in the reverse situation felt the same.

The mix of art and storytelling styles felt very jarring. Conan debuted in the 1990s, and while the art style is distinctive, it’s much closer to modern anime than Lupin III. When you put the characters together, they don’t look like they should be on screen at the same time. Lupin III’s art leans towards very thin individuals, particularly in the legs, with more realistically proportioned facial features. Conan’s male adults are bulkier and everyone has larger eyes. Conan also doesn’t do busty, but Lupin III’s Fujiko has a gigantic chest.

As far as the storytelling styles go, crossing Detective Conan and Lupin III is probably best likened to doing a James Bond and Encyclopedia Brown crossover. That’s a rather extreme comparison, but the target demographics are probably similar between countries. Lupin III is aimed at young men, older teenagers and adults. Hanky-panky is okay and expected. Detective Conan is aimed at children and families (though due to differing cultural standards, Conan routinely deals with murder and on screen blood and it’s okay since the criminals are caught in the end).

Which leaves me wondering: Who is this movie aimed at?

While Detective Conan has plenty of adult-aged fans, it’s still feels out of character to see Lupin trying to get frisky with Fujiko when that’s not something a fan has come to expect when watching Conan.

Moving past the rough style merge, the movie does all right. It’s a sequel to the Lupin the 3rd vs Detective Conan TV special that was not translated into English, but it’s possible to get by without having seen it. I haven’t.

It only really serves to explain the villain’s motivation in the end, but being a crossover movie I think most viewers are here to watch Lupin and Conan do their things, and they do them well. Conan not only solves a couple different mysteries at the same time, but manipulates multiple parties so when a big confrontation happens, no one gets hurt. And Lupin manages to pull off some fanciful getaways.

I’m not likely to track down any Lupin III material, but he’s scene stealer. I can see why he’s been such an enduring character, I’m a little surprised by how often he gets himself handcuffed only to escape later considering how Detective Conan’s own recurring thief character never gets that close to arrest.

And speaking of said thief… While he does appear in the movie, it’s not for very long, but he does get the last laugh. Kid fans should be pleased.

Overall, I’d say fans of one or the other franchise would be fine giving this movie a shot. It’s not as impenetrable to understand as I thought it would be, and better than I expected, but definitely has some rough edges.

Lupin the 3rd vs Detective Conan: The Movie is currently streaming subtitled on Hulu.

laurietomLaurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie is a previous grand prize winner of Writers of the Future and since then her work has been published inGalaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and Crossed Genres.

Anime Movie Review: Fafner: Dead Aggressor: Heaven and Earth

written by Laurie Tom

Fafner: Dead Aggressor: Heaven and Earth is the movie sequel to the TV series Fafner: Dead Aggressor. Having been animated six years later, 2010’s Heaven and Earth is able to take advantage of improvements in CG animation (the alien Festum really benefited) and a bigger budget as everything looks much, much better.

Unfortunate the story is not as strong. Being constrained to an hour and a half, the movie reveals that the Festum were not defeated so much as divided by the destruction at the end of Fafner: Dead Aggressor, though the people of Tatsumiyajima Island have been able to enjoy what appears to have been two or three years of peace.

The eighth graders who were not pulled into service at the end of the TV series are now older and active pilots, though without combat experience, and the survivors of the original series are now veterans, though not without scars.

Though it hasn’t been as long for me between seeing these characters, it was still pleasant seeing how they have matured and moved on. Kazuki and Maya might be a non-starting relationship, but I really like how Kenji and Sakura were still together, even after everything that’s happened.

Very little effort is made to bring anyone up to speed with the TV series. Characters come and go with little explanation of who they are and what they do. Most of the new pilots had previously appeared in the series as potential back-ups so it helped that they did not come out of the blue, with one exception. Akira seems to have been included because someone could not resist having a single mecha piloted by twins.

I realize this is a mecha anime so I can buy into neural-controlled mecha without much issue. Pilot thinks and robot moves. Simple enough. But what happens when you have two pilots and one robot?

No time is spent on how this works or why it is an advantage, and the fraternal twins of different genders, who have problems understanding each other (and don’t have the plot time to figure things out), are tossed in the mecha and they pilot it like it’s no big deal, which I had some trouble buying into. I suspect there was originally a subplot here, since it’s mentioned that their parents were the original pilots of the two-person Fafner, but if that’s the case, the two-person mecha should have been pulled along with it.

All of that is secondary to the fact the Festum have changed due to the events at the end of the TV series. Due to the influence of humans on their psyche, the Festum are trying to annihilate the island (and then presumably the rest of humanity) in greater numbers than before. There is also some creepy weirdness in that not all of the Festum are united anymore. While we saw the beginnings of that kind of schism in the TV series, it’s much worse in Heaven and Earth.

The movie is fine for revisiting characters a couple years down the road and for the visually impressive combat scenes, but otherwise feels more like a light snack than a satisfying meal. Because of the time constraints, the story just can’t play to the strengths of the TV series and its large cast works against it.

It does end on a positive note, pointing towards a possible peace between humans and that which was previously incomprehensible.

The new 2015 TV series Fafner: Dead Aggressor: Exodus is supposed to be set two years after the movie, which is why I watched Heaven and Earth (and the original TV series), but it feels very skippable to me, and if the new series does a good job it should bring newcomers up to speed.

Fafner: Dead Aggressor: Heaven and Earth is currently streaming both subbed and dubbed on Hulu. The subtitled version was watched for this review.

laurietomLaurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie is a previous grand prize winner of Writers of the Future and since then her work has been published inGalaxy’s Edge, Penumbra, and Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction.

Anime Catch-Up Review: Fafner: Dead Aggressor

written by Laurie Tom

fafnerdeadaggressorFafner: Dead Aggressor is a series from ten years ago, and it shows in the character designs and the 4:3 aspect ratio of the original broadcast, but those do not detract from making it one of the more unusual mecha shows I’ve seen.

While Fafner starts with the usual teenage protagonists as the pilots, what draws me in is the attention paid to their parents, who are both their commanders and their support crew in the war that suddenly finds their figurative Eden.

Twenty-nine years ago, long enough that many of the younger adults were born post-crisis, an alien entity emerged and most of Japan was destroyed. But a small group of researchers hid on a mobile, artificial island with a cloaking device, taking their research with them.

There, they built weapons to fight the alien Festum and also raised children to pilot the special robots called Fafners, that are the only weapons powerful enough to routinely destroy them. The Fafners are named after the giant in Der Ring des Nibelungen who turned into a dragon to protect his treasure, and they are finicky things that will only accept pilots that meet certain genetic criteria.

Then as the pilot ages and their brains continue to mature, they lose the ability to sync with the machine (all controls are neural). Hence one of the best rationales I’ve seen for having teenage mecha pilots.

Most of their history is unknown to the teenagers, who grew up thinking that the rest of Japan still exists and that they simply live on one of the smaller islands. This is an intentional choice by their parents, who want the children to have as ordinary a childhood as possible. The adults work as shopkeepers, teachers, craftsmen, and so on until the day a Festum finally finds them, at which point it becomes apparent that all of the adults know the truth, even those that were born on the island and were former Fanfer pilot candidates themselves.

Once exposed again to the outside world, the island’s inhabitants are forced to deal not just with the Festum, but the rest of humanity that is still out there and has been searching for them for the last twenty-nine years in hopes the advanced technology the researchers fled with will save them.

Though the protagonists are essentially tools created for the day they might be needed, it’s clear that many of their parents love them regardless of the fact they were born to be the island’s primary line of defense. One of the most moving scenes is when Commander Makabe and Dr. Tomi go around to all the parents of the best pilot candidates (most of whom have second jobs as part of the island’s military command and support staff) and let them know their child is being conscripted.

How the parents react, even knowing this day could come, touches on emotions that most mecha anime never address. One of the fathers is a Fanfer mechanic, and there’s a short scene where he tells his wife he can’t put off work that evening because of their son (who will be going into battle soon).

The result is something quite unusual, as I can’t think of any other anime that spends so much time on family, whether its parents, children, or siblings. It does make the cast rather difficult to keep track of since there are several pilots and parents for almost every one of them, but I think the effort’s worth it, as every death (and there are several) means something to someone.

That said, Fafner: Dead Aggressor does not entirely come together. The alien Festum aren’t meant to be understandable, in fact the core of the problem is that neither humans nor Festum can abide each other’s existence, but even if their mind is alien, some things about their behavior just doesn’t make sense if examined too closely.

And if one hopes for an explanation for why a giant robot is the best weapon against alien invaders, there isn’t one. It is still a mecha series at heart.

The quality of the characters varies. Lead protagonist Kazuki isn’t bad per se, but he’s not very interesting. He’s the lens through which the audience views most of the show so he’s ignorant of everything and is a little idealistic, even when the audience knows what he wants is a bad idea given the situation (granted, we’d have a less interesting show if Kazuki’s idealism didn’t keep causing trouble).

Some of the series’ most trying moments come when Kazuki decides to talk enemies into defeat, which can strain believability.

The rest of the cast has significantly less time, but enough to feel like individuals rather than cut-outs, which is an accomplishment, since there is only so much time the show can give any one character. Aside from Kazuki, the rest of the cast gets about the same amount of attention, including several of the adults, whether they are parents or previous Fafner candidates.

In a way that works since it’s harder to tell if someone is wearing plot armor and if they’re going to make it to the end of the series, but because of the greater distance between the audience and individual characters, it’s more that we feel for those who keep living than those who’ve been lost.

Even though Fafner isn’t perfect, it’s memorable for what it accomplishes, and putting a human face on war. While I initially thought it was naive for the adults to have worked so hard to maintain the illusion that the world outside still existed, by the end I understood. Fafner is a loss of innocence story for the pilots, but they are grateful they had the innocence to lose.

Number of Episodes: 26

Pluses: teenage protagonists with parents just as invested in the fight as they are, more realistic treatment of the costs of war than most anime

Minuses: not much character depth, backstory reveal is on the slow side, sometimes the amount of information withheld from the protagonists doesn’t make sense

Fafner: Dead Aggressor is currently streaming both subbed and dubbed on Hulu. The subtitled version was watched for this review.

laurietomLaurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie is a previous grand prize winner of Writers of the Future and since then her work has been published inGalaxy’s Edge, Penumbra, and Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction.

Winter 2015 Anime First Impressions (with Fall Bonus)

written by Laurie Tom

Unlike last fall, which had an anemic number of shows that interested me, this winter has several. It’s also becoming more common for TV series consisting of more than 13 episodes to split their cours to run in staggered seasons rather than back to back. Hence last summer’s Aldnoah.Zero and Tokyo Ghoul are both returning for their second halves this winter, and this winter’s Durarara!! x2 will take a hiatus in spring and return in summer.

With Aldnoah.Zero and Tokyo Ghoul returning, and two of the fall shows I did enjoy continuing into winter (Yona of the Dawn and Parasyte), this winter is experiencing something of a logjam and something’s gonna give, but I’m not sure just what yet.

Assassination Classroom

assassinationclassroomWhy I Watched It: It has an absurd premise where an octopoid being blows up the moon and then agrees to teach a class of teenagers to kill him within a year. If they succeed, he won’t blow up the world. The alien’s yellow humanoid octopus design is very distinct, making the show easy to recognize.

What I Thought: Despite its life or death premise, the show is largely a comedy and rolls with its bizarre premise. Kuro-sensei moves as fast as Mach 20 and none of the world’s governments have managed to kill him, so they’ve agreed to let him teach a class of students as he’s requested. Oddly enough, they’re the E class, made up of the school’s lowest performers, but their strange genocidal teacher is also the best one they’ve ever had, praising them when they do something well (even if its an attempt on his life), and honestly trying to get them to do their best. It makes for an interesting dynamic since they need to kill their teacher, but they actually like him.

Verdict: I’ll save it for later. It’s off to a good start and I liked it, but because it’s based on an ongoing manga I’m not sure we’ll get a satisfying ending and there’s too much else to watch right now.

Where to find stream: Funimation and Hulu

Cute High Earth Defense Club Love

earthdefenseforceWhy I Watched It: It certainly wasn’t for the title. Rather, it looked like it might be an interesting twist of the magical girl genre in that the protagonists running around in frilly outfits and using sparkly attacks are all male this time around.

What I Thought: It’s better than the premise sounds and there are a lot of good laughs. Four male high school friends and a sudden fifth are arbitrarily chosen to save the world with the power of love by an alien that looks like a pink wombat. This includes magical girl style transformations into their frilly combat outfits, though they are wearing either shorts or pants instead of skirts (the tail of their coats is the nod to the skirts). The boys take this about as well as can be expected. But despite compulsions to pose and say weird things (they try and fail at getting their costumes off), they finally give in and fight this episode’s monster, which in frequent magical girl fashion, is a transformed classmate. I about died laughing when they used their wands and instead of calling out a magical girl-style attack they used things like “Something-or-Other Storm!” and “I Am Awesome Fire!”

Verdict: I have no idea how I’m going to find time to watch this, but I really want to. Might end up being a save for later.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll

Death Parade

deathparadeWhy I Watched It: Based on a previous short film, Death Parade is one of the more mature offerings this season with no signs of teenagers. It takes place in a sort of purgatory for people who have died, where visitors are asked to play a game to determine their fates.

What I Thought: Death Parade won’t win awards for originality, but the execution is spot on and beautifully animated. A couple on a honeymoon are the purgatory bar’s first visitors and are convinced to play a game of darts with their lives on the line, unaware that they are already dead, and what a game of darts! As they play the game the audience is led and misled regarding the truth about their marriage and how they died. My only concern is that the deceptively energetic opening credits features a lot of other bar employees besides the bartender who managed the game in this episode and I’m not sure I want the focus to shift off the visitors. I’m completely down with a Twilight Zone anthology format.

Verdict: I’ll be watching. Unless the format changes too much, I’m going to try to find space for this one.

Where to find stream: Funimation and Hulu

Durarara!! x2

durararax2Why I Watched It: I really enjoyed the first Durarara!! in 2010, even though the series defies a convenient plot summary. The closest thing I can say is that it’s about some of the inhabitants of the Ikebukuro neighborhood of Tokyo and all the very weird, even supernatural, things that happen around them. Why and how it all happens makes about as much sense as it does in real life, and maybe that’s the point.

What I Thought: Durarara!! x2 is just as mind-bending as the original, and goes to pains to show how nothing has really changed in Ikebukuro. The style of the opening and ending credits are direct callbacks to the distinctive look of the original, and the episode itself follows the same non-linear storytelling that has encompassed all animated versions of Ryougo Narita’s novels since Baccano. I can’t honestly say I know what’s going on other than it looks like all the weirdness will probably revolve around a serial killer eventually since that plotline is the only one that is not directly a part of anyone’s life… yet.

Verdict: In another season, I would probably watch this right away, but because of the non-linear storytelling that looped back and forth, between and within episodes in the original, I think Durarara x2 would be better saved for later marathoning so I can better keep things straight in my head.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll

Fafner: Dead Aggressor: Exodus

fafnerexodusWhy I Watched It: The sequel to 2004’s Fafner: Dead Aggressor and it’s 2010 movie, Heaven and Earth. Presumably problems continue with the alien Festum trying to deal with their own changing nature and trying to annihilate humanity. Exodus is supposed to take place two years after Heaven and Earth which should make most of the protagonists adults now.

What I Thought: Exodus doesn’t waste time, giving viewers a breakneck intro to where humanity is in the war with the Festum before moving on to glimpses of almost everyone who survived the original series and the movie. I was pleasantly surprised by the original Fafner: Dead Aggressor because of its unusual focus on whole families being part of the military structure while still trying to be a family, and I’m honestly not sure where Exodus is going to be able to go thematically now that the original protagonists are adults. It’s not clear if they can still pilot the Fafners (compatibility slips once past the teenage years), so I’m curious how the show will continue to involve them, especially those that chose to avoid full-time military work. New pilot candidates have been introduced as well, so there will definitely be enough characters to pilot the Fafner mecha, but I’m hoping the show will focus more on the original cast and where they go from here.

Verdict: I’ll be watching. I don’t know where the show is going, but enough of the key staff from the original series have returned, along with just about all the voice actors, that I want to give this a chance.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll

Gourmet Girl Graffiti

gourmetgirlWhy I Watched It: I’m not normally much of a fan of slice of life shows, but Gourmet Girl Graffiti is about a girl who’s good at cooking, and I hoped to see lots of delicious anime versions of Japanese food.

What I Thought: It was definitely a good idea to watch while I was eating, and not while I was hungry. The level of detail on the various Japanese dishes was great, and the main character Ryou is obviously really into cooking so there’s a lot to be learned about how food is prepared and how leftovers from the making of one dish can be made into another just from listening to her dialogue. On the other hand, some of the animation of Ryou eating seems to have the wrong idea about what people mean when they say “food porn.” It’s a small part of the show, but very noticeable.

Verdict: Interesting side adventure, but not likely to be going back.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll

Maria the Virgin Witch

mariavirginwitchWhy I Watched It: The art style isn’t quite to my tastes, but I heard good things about it and the Hundred Years War between England and France is a really unusual setting for an anime.

What I Thought: There are a lot of jokes about Maria’s virginity and the naivete that comes along with it, mostly from her succubus familiar. Aside from that, this is a version of the Hundred Years War where witches exist and meddle with battles out of patriotism or for profit (or to enforce peace in Maria’s case). There are surprising historical touches, like the English giving the French the bowfinger or capturing knights for ransom, that I wasn’t expecting in what easily could have been generic medieval warfare.

Verdict: I might come back to it later. It’s not my usual cup of tea, but the historical part of the story piqued my interest.

Where to find stream: Funimation and Hulu


Quite unusually, there was one show picked up for winter simulcast that actually started in the fall and it’s still running. Back episodes are being added at a pace of two old episodes for every one new.

Magic Kaito 1412

magickaitoWhy I Watched It: Set in the same universe as Case Closed, Magic Kaito focuses on a high school student who becomes a master thief to fight against his father’s killers. Case Closed (also known as Detective Conan) was one of my favorite anime series back in college and I always wanted to see some of the manga artist’s lead character, Kaito.

What I Thought: The opening episode feels a little dated, which isn’t surprising given that the manga was started in the 80s. Even though there are touches to show it’s modern day (video calling on a laptop), the show’s core sensibilities, how quickly Kaito both accepts and assumes his new position as a master thief appeals to an earlier time.

Verdict: I’ll be watching it when time allows, hoping that it has the same crime-solving (or crime-committing!) attention to detail that the Case Closed series is known for.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll

Fall Leftovers

There are the only three shows I was interested in last fall, and all of them I continued to watch. Fate/stay night is now on break and will resume in spring. Yona and Parasyte continue into winter.

Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works

fatestaynightunlimitedWhy I Watched It: This is supposed to be an alternate telling of the well regarded Fate/stay night series and it has a female protagonist so I figured if I was going to jump in, this would be a good starting point.

What I Thought: Rin turned out to be a decoy protagonist, only starring in the zero episode, and it’s still the same main character, Shirou, as in the original series for the rest of it, but apparently we are going through a different storyline from the visual novel series (which has multiple endings). The series has beautiful action sequences between the mages and the Servants they command, but the worldbuilding falls down if looked at too closely. It works best as a popcorn show.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll

Parasyte -the maxim-

parasyteWhy I Watched It: Parasyte originated as a Seiun Award-winning science fiction horror manga that questions what it is to be human. The manga was first translated into English back in the 90s and no other story I’ve read has so eloquently pointed out the many flaws in humanity while still saying it’s okay to be ourselves. I mainly had two concerns going in. 1) Parasyte is at times very gory and will have to be censored for its broadcast run. I’m rarely an advocate for gore, but Parasyte might be one of the few stories that is less powerful without it. 2) I’m really not digging Shinichi’s new character design. It makes him look like an introverted nerd, which he never was, and I’m concerned that might mean they’re changing his personality.

What I Thought: The adaptation made some changes the bring the story to modern day, and the rapport (or lack thereof) is spot on between main character Shinichi and alien creature Migi, who has taken over his right hand after a failed parasitic invasion. There are odd additions to the story while at the same time condensing others, but it’s still coherent and I found I liked the changes more as time went on. The gore is partially on screen, but toned down, and there’s no escaping the fact people are being eaten. Shinichi initially comes off as a bit more of a wimp than in the original manga, but he’s not unbearable, and I can understand why they gave him the glasses since it allows for a later transformation to become more pronounced. If it hadn’t come out against Aldnoah.Zero it would probably be my favorite show to have started in 2014.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll

Yona of the Dawn

yonaofthedawnWhy I Watched It: Asian fantasy adventure story geared towards the female audience with a female lead character who does not appear to have a prominent love interest in the promotion art. Plus she’s holding a sword.

What I Thought: The early episodes are a bit slow as Yona tries to come to grips with the fact that the cousin she loves has just killed her father the emperor and usurped control of her nation in one fell swoop. But after being on the run for a few episodes she finally comes to accept that she can’t let things stay the way they are and we see the birth of a warrior. She’s not particular good at the start, but she’s persistent and I like that the show makes it a point to show how hard Yona is training every day as she and her guardian, Hak, journey in search of the legendary dragons who will be able to help her reclaim her country.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll

laurietomLaurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie is a previous grand prize winner of Writers of the Future and since then her work has been published inGalaxy’s Edge, Penumbra, and Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction.

Anime Catch-Up Review: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

written by Laurie Tom

Originally airing in 2011, I didn’t watch Puella Magi Madoka Magica because I dismissed it as another magical girl show, which I’ve largely aged out of. The magical girl genre typically features elementary to middle school aged girls (more rarely high school) who get nifty transformation sequences to turn into superheroes that combat evil. Themes typically include love, friendship, and doing the right thing.

Despite the innocuous character designs showing a typical magical girl cast, Puella Magi Madoka Magica is not typical at all and what comes out of it is a hideously dark and twisted take on the genre, where doing the right thing doesn’t mean you’ll be rewarded for it in the end. Most magical girl anime is perfectly fine viewing for the pre-teen set, but I wouldn’t be comfortable showing Madoka to anyone younger than twelve.

There is blood, there is death, and the show takes everything that makes a magical girl what she is and makes it sick and sinister.

Though it takes until the end of the third episode to really ram home that this isn’t your little sister’s anime, there are enough “tells” in the first two episodes that it’s not following the usual playbook.

For one, in most magical girl series, the main character Madoka would have become a magical girl in the first episode and it would have been the start of her adventure. Instead, she is given an extraordinary amount of time to consider what she would wish for in exchange for becoming a magical girl.

For another, in the first few minutes, there is a dream sequence where Madoka sees another magical girl fighting a losing battle against a clearly superior enemy, and she’s told that the girl cannot give up or she will lose everything. While it’s true that magical girls in a typical series will fight for their friends, family, and even strangers, it’s rare that the stakes are laid out so plainly with the implication that giving up is not an option.

The result is that Madoka plays an unusual role as the heroine who actually doesn’t do much for most of the series, but suffers along with everyone else. She has the potential to be one of the most powerful magical girls ever, but she sees the toll it exacts on the other magical girls and is rightfully scared to step up to the plate, at least not without a wish that would make all her sacrifice worthwhile.

The obligatory cute sidekick character Kyubey isn’t immune to being cast in a different light, either. Like his counterparts in a typical magical girl series, he’s the one who gives the heroine her magical girl powers, but unusually, he does it in exchange for a single wish. At first it sounds like a good deal, until the show reveals what eventually happens to all magical girls. (There are two possibilities and neither of them are pleasant.)

While the take on the genre is certainly refreshing, its execution probably could be cleaner. Once it’s apparent what kind of show this is, then one of the most important twists (from the perspective of the characters) becomes obvious as early as episode 2. Puella Magi Madoka Magica still had some surprises in for me and I definitely would not have predicted the ending, but the dark point two-thirds of the way through the series had been telegraphed so far ahead of time that it felt rather weird seeing the characters experience it as a shock.

My other issue is that a lot of the problems the characters have is because no one talks to each other. If someone had asked as early as episode 1 or 2 “Where do witches come from?” the show would have gone a completely different direction.

Mysterious transfer student Homura Akemi is the prime offender because she knows almost everything and tells no one anything, especially not Madoka, who she is trying to prevent from becoming a magical girl at all costs. Homura has enough at stake that it’s arguable that she rather than Madoka, is the real protagonist of the series, but it takes so long for her story to get out there (including why she doesn’t talk about what she knows) that it’s a little frustrating.

I realize that accepting that weird enemies coming out of nowhere is a staple of magical girl shows, but if the show is going to address the emotional and physical toll of being a magical girl, it should also give its cast a bit of a brain. Just because the protagonists are in middle school doesn’t mean that they won’t have questions or suggestions on how to fight better, things they would be able to address if they knew their enemies. That said, Homura’s backstory episode is probably my favorite episode of the series.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is very short at only 12 episodes and is completely self-contained. Though it pulls on the heartstrings (depending on the viewer, having tissues during the final episode might be a good idea), I have a little trouble recommending it because of the need for certain things to play out in a certain fashion or the story will not work. That said, it’s very short and can easily be binge watched since the entire series is only six hours long.

Number of Episodes: 12

Pluses: Darkly unique take on the magical girl genre, haunting soundtrack captures the despair perfectly, all loose plot threads are wrapped up by the end

Minuses: Plot requires certain questions not be asked or things would not turn out the way they do, foreshadowing is a little too heavy handed sometimes

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is currently streaming at Crunchyroll and Daisuki and is available subtitled.

Anime Catch-Up Review: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

written by Laurie Tom


Fullmetal Alchemist has been around since the early 2000s. It was one of those anime series famous enough that it was hard to be a fan and not have heard of it.

In 2009, a few years after the first FMA wrapped up, it was rebooted. That felt unusually soon, but the first series had deviated heavily from the original manga (at the creator’s request, since the manga was still ongoing) and the second series was going to be true to the soon-to-be ending manga. The buzz around the second series, titled Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood in English, was even stronger than the first one.

But I didn’t think much of the two teenaged protagonists. What I knew was that Edward and Alphonse Elric had tried to resurrect their dead mother through alchemy (that never goes over well) and as a result of that botched attempt Ed lost his right arm and left leg, and Al lost his body so his soul had to be bonded to a suit of armor. Much of the story involves them searching for a way to become whole again, and I wasn’t really interested in following two teenagers trying to fix themselves after having done something horribly stupid.

Fortunately, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a lot more than that.

Manga creator Hiromu Arakawa has built a world that invokes the look of 1930s England, with cars, telephones, radios, and trains; a world where alchemy is considered a science. The country of Amestris lives and breathes independent of the Elric brothers’ existence, which allows the series to be so much more than two teenagers trying to fix a childhood mistake.

I’m sure Ed and Al do well enough with their target demographic of pre-teen and teenage boys. They’re incredibly talented and kick-ass for their age with just enough emotional insecurity to make them relatable. Much of the show’s humor centers around the antics of the two of them, and Alphonse’s animations are adorable when he’s out of sorts (though Ed’s sensitivity about his height is a little overdone the first few episodes). But for me, it’s the parallel conspiracy story that gets me going.

The brothers are searching for a way to restore themselves and a possible key to that is finding or creating a philosopher’s stone, which magnifies an alchemist’s ability. Normally alchemy requires an equivalent exchange; alchemists cannot create something out of nothing. Since a philosopher’s stone reduces or outright negates the need for exchange, it’s a highly desirable object for alchemists beyond the Elric brothers.

This sets up the parallel storyline.

While the Elric brothers are dealing with their own issues on the center stage, there is another story involving a conspiracy within the military, philosopher’s stones, and a civil war from six years ago. The two overlap from time to time, and eventually merge later in the series, but for the first half of the series the Elric brothers are largely in the dark or only tangentially involved with what’s going on.

This segment of the story is spearheaded by the ambitious Colonel Roy Mustang who understands that there is something rotten in his country’s military and he intends to root it out. Roy’s storyline is fascinating to watch, because he’s very aware he’s playing a dangerous game against an unknown enemy who outranks him, and his enemy is equally aware that Roy is getting too nosy for his own good.

Roy plays his moves intelligently and shoots for the long game; so long that his real agenda doesn’t even come out until halfway through the series (a rarity for a protagonist). And since he’s not the titular character (Ed is the Fullmetal Alchemist) the moments when he finds himself in trouble are a lot more nerve-wrecking since there’s less of a guarantee he’ll make it out intact.

The two plots connect through the Elric brothers’ pursuit of a philosopher’s stone and because as a state alchemist Ed reports to Roy Mustang, though Roy seldom gives him any direct orders or involves him in any of his plans (probably because he knows the Elric brothers are uncontrollable wild cannons). Roy himself is also a powerful alchemist, specializing in fire.

I have a suspicion that the manga writer/artist made Roy too powerful a secondary protagonist because he frequently gets hamstrung in ways that keep him out of the action. While the Elric brothers often start fight scenes at full strength, Roy is usually wet (he can’t start a fire when damp), crippled, or both when faced with a potential battle. When he finally does get some action in, it ends up being one of the most badass scenes in the first half of the series.

This isn’t a show that I would have watched on my own, but it’s better than I expected and I can see why it was so popular. The use of alchemy throughout the series is not only well designed and integral to the story, but allows for some creative problem solving that just wouldn’t be possible for protagonists in most other series. Given the 1930s setting, this can mean knowing the chemical composition of what they’re transmuting. It feels very smart.

Though Ed and Al aren’t my typical cup of tea, I don’t dislike them, and they eventually grew on me by the end. But I would have found the series more difficult to get into if Roy had not been working in the background. I really needed that more mature storyline and the element of danger and uncertainty that came with it. It’s a bit of a shame that when their enemies become one that Roy’s role becomes diminished in much of the third quarter of the series (more hamstringing), though he bounces back in a spectacular way by the end.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the grand revelation of the villain’s plans at the end of the story, but I can’t deny that the final episodes demanded to be watched one after another. What comes together in this series is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s probably one of the best I’ve watched in a long time.

Number of Episodes: 64

Pluses: Uncommon period setting, cool alchemy system, good sense of suspense, Roy Mustang makes everything better

Minuses: Ed and Al feel like they’re unconnected to the greater storyline in the early episodes, the final villain’s motivations don’t quite come together

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was reviewed on Blu-Ray and watched in the original Japanese with subtitles. The first four episodes are available for free both subbed and dubbed on Hulu.


laurietomLaurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie is a previous grand prize winner of Writers of the Future and since then her work has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Penumbra, and Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction.