Anime Review: Code:Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~


Code:Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ is the story of a young woman, Cardia Beckford, who is left alone in a mansion by her father. He tells her she cannot leave and that she must never know love because she is a monster. Her touch is a corrosive poison that melts anything she comes into contact with save the specially designed sheets and clothing her father crafted for her. One day, her father is supposed to come back for her, but before that happens, Queen Victoria’s soldiers arrive to take her away.

She’s stolen from them by none other than master thief Arsène Lupin, who brings her into his gang of friends who are hunting for Cardia’s father, legendary scientist Isaac Beckford. Cardia decides to join them rather than go back to the mansion, so she can learn more about herself, the strange gem embedded in her body in place of a heart, and to find her father.

Code:Realize is set in an alternate Victorian England, powered by steam-driven technology, and Lupin’s group is composed of literary figures who supposedly lived in that time period. So Cardia ends up rubbing shoulders with Victor Frankenstein, Count Saint-Germain, and Impey Barbicane. (I had to look up Impey, who apparently is from a Jules Verne novel From the Earth to the Moon.) Abraham van Helsing joins them shortly afterward.

The show also features other literary cameos such as Captain Nemo and Herlock Sholmes (the “getting around copyright” adversary of Arsene Lupin), making it fun to watch for period fans, as long as one doesn’t expect too much historical accuracy. Even Queen Victoria herself has a sizeable role.

Cardia’s father isn’t just the greatest inventor in the history of Britain, he’s also suspected of being behind a terrorist plot, and a mysterious organization known as Twilight is after Cardia, led by none other than a boy claiming to be her brother.

Though her companions get some time in the limelight, the anime keeps the story focused around Cardia, her discovery of Isaac’s true plans, her budding sense of self, and her growing trust and affection towards Lupin. All this happens in a steampunk world full of cars, trains, airship races, government conspiracies, and mad alchemy. But even though the story is imaginative, it doesn’t quite come to life, and I think it’s due to the series’ struggle with its roots.

Code:Realize is based on an otome visual novel, so in the source material the player is Cardia and she pursues a romance with one of the men, so all five are young, single, and good-looking irrespective of how old they should be at this point in history.

It’s a really good otome, where the rest of the story is just as engaging as the romance, making an anime adaptation an excellent chance to pull in a crossover audience. Unfortunately the anime doesn’t go for that and positions itself as a more traditional reverse harem show where one girl is surrounded by a group of guys who all like her, rather than a badass group of friends who are trying to help one of their own (which is closer how it feels in the game, ironically enough).

It might be due to the run time constraints, but a lot of the banter between the different men is missing in the anime, making them seem more like work partners rather than true companions. This flattens their characterization and makes their strongest bond through Cardia rather than each other, which doesn’t feel convincing when most of them don’t get enough time to fall in love with her either.

This weakens the run up to the finale, when Cardia and her five friends are supposed to be working as a cohesive unit. The series actually has a fairly action-oriented second half, with London under siege due to an insurrection. We know the six of them are supposed to be composed of battle-tested friends, because they’ve been together since the start of the show and they’ve done some jobs together, but we don’t feel it, which is too bad because the last two episodes are otherwise pretty good.

Both in the game and the anime, Cardia starts off the story as an emotionless doll due to her isolation, but as time goes on she starts to display more of a will of her own. She never gets as expressive as in the game, which will probably be the biggest disappointment for fans of the original, but even as muted as she is, she’s still better than the average otome heroine, and the animation staff lets Cardia fight for herself in combat so she avoids the standard heroine helplessness for the genre. Her battle choreography isn’t particularly great to look at, but it’s about par for the course for the rest of the cast.

Despite the loss of characterization, the anime otherwise does an extremely good job of adapting the game. This is no mean feat considering that a single playthrough is about 15 hours long and most of that time is spent reading. Though it was a given that the anime would follow Lupin’s storyline, since he’s the series’ poster boy, there are a lot of details from the other romance routes that are necessary to understand the story as a whole, and the show manages to weave them in. This allows things like Saint-Germain’s backstory to work when it wouldn’t have if the script had scrupulously stuck to Lupin’s in-game storyline.

The adapted script is also unafraid of moving plot moments to different places in chronology or different locations from the original. Frankenstein, who was originally not part of Lupin’s gang, is already with the group by the time Cardia meets him, speeding up what was originally a much slower start to the story. Some element of cutting and rearrangement was expected, but Code:Realize does it a lot and remarkably without losing a single plot thread. Events might not occur exactly as in the game, but the story remains intact.

In the end, Code:Realize is perfectly viewable version of the source material, even without being a prior fan, but as an adaptation it has a lot of flaws in what was otherwise a promising premise. My feeling is that the adaptation writer was trying so hard to make the plot fit in the time allowed that characterization fell to the wayside in favor of leaning on common otome anime tropes instead of what made Code:Realize unique among its peers.

Number of Episodes: 12

Pluses: Entertaining steampunk worldbuilding, smart adaptation to condense the source material into 12 episodes without losing much of the plot, Cardia is not as helpless as typical for otome protagonists

Minuses: Characters are fairly flat across the board, series wants to be a simple reverse harem romance but can’t get away from the source material’s action scenes, combat choreography is subpar

Code:Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ is currently streaming at Crunchyroll (subtitled), Funimation (dubbed). Funimation has licensed this for eventual retail distribution in the US.

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’s short fiction has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and Intergalactic Medicine Show.

Anime Review: Recovery of an MMO Junkie


Recovery of an MMO Junkie was my must watch show of the fall season. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first heard about it, because there have been a lot of anime in recent years about people getting stuck in virtual RPG worlds, but this is different. There is no getting trapped. This is simply a romantic comedy featuring a delightful cast of adult gamer nerds, and we need more series like this.

Thirty-year-old Moriko Morioka has been worn down by the grind of her office job, which was incredibly hard on her since she is naturally a people pleaser with low self esteem. So she quits and decides to live off her savings while she gets back into gaming.

She finds a new MMORPG, since the old one she used to play has shut down, and makes a male avatar called Hayashi simply because she wants to play a cute guy. As someone who plays male characters just about as frequently as female ones, I love that MMO Junkie acknowledges that women will play male characters too. Before long, Moriko meets another player who plays a female support character called Lily.

Hayashi and Lily hit it off and rapidly become best buddies in game, all without knowing who the other person is in real life, which isn’t at all uncommon with online gaming and internet friendships. While Moriko suffers from crippling anxiety at meeting people in meatspace, she is open and enthusiastic when she has Hayashi to act as a barrier to other people.

And course, the romantic comedy twist is that the girlish Lily is actually played by a man, Yuta, who has his own hang-ups and insecurities (though he’s still much better put together than Moriko). Arguably the biggest joy of watching MMO Junkie is seeing these two introverted dorks finally come together.

Moriko is a wonderful protagonist. Aside from being in her thirties, she’s relatable in how she is not put together and suffers from a great deal of social anxiety. She doesn’t mind running to the store in sweats to pick up food and prepaid game cards, but if anyone should pay attention beyond ringing up her total at the cash register, it’s completely mortifying. Moriko doesn’t see herself as someone worthwhile, so she has trouble believing anyone else would either.

Though Moriko’s reactions are done for comedy, those who suffer from social anxiety will completely understand how this is how we feel, even while we laugh along. Even an innocuous bit of curiosity from a store clerk can be taken completely the wrong way by the socially anxious. But at the same time, every time she manages to overcome a social hurdle, no matter how small, she’s easy to cheer for, because we know how hard she’s worked to get that far.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is clearly aware of how games work. Not so much in the mechanics department, but how the players in those games work. There are lots of touches that show the creative staff know games and the behavior of the people who play those games. For instance, in one scene a character spends the entire conversation idly crafting while in game. (Because what else are you going to do when your character is busy making fifty scrolls? You talk to people or go afk.) And there are similar small player to player interactions that will ring true to people who have played MMOs; the guildmaster being the repository of everybody’s secrets and personal hang-ups, players saying something confidently thing in game while uneasily hoping it sounded good in real life, spouses logging on each other’s characters, etc.

They are often small touches, to be seen once and then never repeated, but the fact the creative staff is aware of so many things without reducing them to repeated gags really makes the game world feel like there are real people behind the computer screen, even though we only see the faces of a few of them. There are conversations about work and university, characters aren’t always online at the same time, and it makes it feel like people have a life outside of the game.

Though every episode takes place at least partially in the game world, at least half is spent in the real one, since MMO Junkie is really about the people on the other side of the monitor rather than an epic adventure, especially since Moriko is trying very hard to avoid people discovering her true situation.

Quitting her job was probably the best thing for her mental health, but she’s well aware that it’s not socially acceptable to be an unemployed thirty-year-old woman who spends all day (and night) gaming, and her social situation is one of the biggest hurdles in getting her to acknowledge that Yuta could possibly be interested in her.

If there’s any flaw in the series, I’d say that it’s so short! Everything wraps up quite adorably, and there is a bonus 11th episode for viewers on Crunchyroll (it’s a home video exclusive in Japan!) as well as an animatic for Episode 1. The bonus episode is pretty forgettable fluff, but if you need a little more of Moriko and Yuta it satisfies well enough. The AR animatic is skippable though.

I highly recommend Recovery of an MMO Junkie. This is my light-hearted favorite of 2017.

Number of Episodes: 10 (plus 1 bonus episode)

Pluses: sweet romantic comedy, thirty-year-old female protagonist (!), accurately captures the nuances of being a MMORPG gamer

Minuses: supporting cast doesn’t get much development, coincidences are laid on a little thick

Recovery of an MMO Junkie is currently streaming at Crunchyroll (subtitled) and Funimation (dubbed). Funimation has licensed this for eventual retail distribution in the US.

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’s short fiction has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and Intergalactic Medicine Show.

Anime Review: Chronos Ruler


Chronos Ruler teeters on the brink of being a really good show, but doesn’t take full advantage of the best parts of its story. It’s like the writer had a lot of ideas, kept throwing them out, and chose to stick with the most cliched plot threads because the audience would be most comfortable with them. And yet, there are parts that are genuinely good that make Chronos Ruler more than yet another show about people fighting monsters.

We’re introduced to Kiri and Victor Putin as a duo hunting Horologues, time-devouring monsters that appear to people who experience a regret so deep that they wish to rewind time. Rather than granting those wishes, the Horologues feeds on a person’s time (causing them to grow younger and forget things) until nothing is left.

Initially the pair are introduced as brothers, with Kiri looking like the serious one and Victor the lazy, ladies’ man who likes to write every embarrassing moment Kiri has in his journal just so he can bother him about it later. There’s a splashy fight scene in the first episode, they save a poor girl, and all of it feels very by the book action fantasy for an urban European setting.

I might have dropped the show then, but the fight scene at the climax of the first episode forces Victor to regretfully use his Speed Up ability (as a Chronos Ruler he can command time around objects to make them freeze in mid-air or speed up their trajectories).

And that’s when we learn the truth about the pair.

Victor is actually Kiri’s father and due to a prior injury from a Horologue, every time he activates Speed Up he also de-ages. Along with losing his age, he loses his memories. The journal he keeps is how he remembers what happened between him and Kiri and he’s regressed so far at this point that if he didn’t have the journal he wouldn’t remember he had a son at all.

It’s a crazy gut punch at the end of an otherwise paint by numbers first episode.

Moments when the series is dealing with Kiri and Victor’s loss are generally the strongest of the bunch, especially once they are joined by Mina who may or may not be Victor’s wife and Kiri’s mother. I’d have to say that watching a show where a guy is traveling around with his immature parents who both look and act younger than him is not something I’ve seen before and it’s definitely part of the show’s charm.

But for every moment when the show addresses their unique family dilemma and Victor’s lost memories, there’s a lot of stuff we’ve seen before, particularly if you’ve seen D.Gray-man.

While it’s not a complete knock-off, it’s hard not to see similarities between the Chronos Rulers and the Black Order, the Horologues and the akuma, and the Oath of Time and Innocence. And Chronos Ruler is not as well crafted as D.Gray-man.

The threat of Victor losing more time, more memories in every battle is removed before it can really be an issue and we don’t get to settle into what Kiri and Victor’s lives are like before they’re scouted out by Mina and brought to the Chronos organization, which Victor has forgotten about (and apparently never told Kiri about).

Some of the battles are by the books, and others are really imaginative, taking advantage of the fact we have characters who can speed up or slow down time around objects or a particular space. The fact that the battle quality fluctuates so much, even within the same fight, is annoying for an action show because instead of elaborate set pieces we get occasional bits of brilliance surrounded by a lot of run-of-the-mill screaming and posturing that has been done before in better anime than this.

I almost quit at episode 7, which lands between story arcs, but persisted because of the familial relationships and figured I’d give the show one more episode to improve itself, which it did, just enough to keep watching.

In another season I probably would have dropped this and I can’t recommend it. Its two strongest points are how Victor’s lost memories impacts not just him but also his loved ones, and creative uses for Speed Up and Slow Down abilities in combat. Unfortunately the show fails to fully exploit either of them, in favor of being a vanilla action show.

And that’s a shame. In more capable hands this could have been a series to watch.

Number of Episodes: 12

Pluses: Victor, Kiri, and Mina’s messed up familial relationship, creative uses for time acceleration and deceleration in combat

Minuses: series leans heavily on common action tropes without doing anything interesting with them, villains aren’t interesting or threatening

Chronos Ruler is currently streaming at Crunchyroll (subtitled) and Funimation (dubbed). Funimation has licensed this for eventual retail distribution in the US.

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’s short fiction has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show.

Anime Review: Classroom of the Elite


Classroom of the Elite has some nice ideas, but swings wildly in execution. The premise is that Japan has set up a super elite school where every graduate is guaranteed to be accepted to the college of their choice. Though students are not allowed to leave their entire high school career and communication is cut off with the outside, the living facilities are top notch (there’s even a sizeable mall on campus) and every student is given a budget to live on, starting with 100,000 points (the equivalent of 100,000 yen or $900) to pay for their first month’s expenses.

Students are judged as a classroom, based on merit, and points are awarded at the start of each month. Otherwise they are free to do as they like. Several of the first year students of Class D fritter away that first month’s worth of money with the happy expectation that they will get the same amount next month. Others fall asleep in class once it becomes clear that their teacher won’t say a word if they do.

Naturally, this system is not as kind to the students as they initially take it for. Most of the class is close to broke by the start of the second month and not only that, but they’ve collectively failed their exam so badly that they are awarded zero points for the next month’s living expenses. They won’t starve, there are free hand-outs for students with no points, but they won’t be able to buy anything worthwhile, and students who fall too far behind will be expelled. Their instructor reiterates that they must earn their points through merit, and makes it clear to them that anything can be purchased at the school with enough points.

And that kicks off the series. It’s a cutthroat competition between the first year Classes A through D as they struggle to either climb or remain at the top. (Unlike American high schools, where students change classes with every subject, Japanese classrooms are static.) None of the classes are fully aware of the rules of the school, but they are encouraged to compete against one another and naturally Class D ranks at the bottom.

The protagonist is Kiyotaka Ayanokoji, who initially looks like an introverted guy who’s terrible at making friends, and I was disappointed he wasn’t as lame as he appeared to be. There are a lot of protagonists who are supposed to be the “everyman” but Kiyotaka was fun because he lacks the earnestness of a lot of those characters. Instead we had an apathetic everyman who figured he should at least try to make a good first impression to his new classmates and ended up giving himself the blandest introduction possible.

I liked that!

But Kiyotaka has a hidden history the anime doesn’t fully get into, and the upshot is that he’s actually really smart, a great manipulator of people, and probably should be in Class A except that he manufactured his scores on his entrance exam to get himself put in Class D.

We don’t know anything about what the hell Kiyotaka’s actual plans are, even by the end of the series, but if you like watching a guy subtly outsmarting other people, he’s not a bad pick. His bland facade allows him to get away with things because most people don’t suspect anything from him and he’s very good at deflecting credit on to other people.

I ended up liking this version of Kiyotaka as well, but he doesn’t have much of a character arc because of how the anime chooses to present him. Fortunately, secondary protagonist Suzune Horitaka does.

At first she’s a prickly character too haughty to get involved with her classmates. In fact she’d rather the worst of them drop out because she wants to rise to Class A, and her current classmates aren’t going to cut it. But gradually she comes around to believing that she should look out for her classmates and that she can’t do everything by herself.

Class D is filled with the school’s miscreants and all are deficient in some manner, and not necessarily in discipline and study habits. The fact Suzune is there at all points at some flaw in herself, which she is reluctant to acknowledge.

Since both Suzune and Kiyotaka are the cunning ones out of the class, most of the series involves the two of them working together to outsmart the students of other classes and/or save their fellow classmates. Though Suzune is sharp and dominates the earlier episodes, she’s not on Kiyotaka’s level. The more of his backstory comes out, the more apparent it is that Kiyotaka is really the one in control.

I haven’t talked too much about the plot, and that’s mostly because it’s uneven. The good parts, the outsmarting other students, are really good, with an incredible amount of scheming going into the setup for the final episode. But when it’s not operating at peak, it’s usually in a valley, and the worst offender is the pool episode that literally has nothing else to do with the story. I usually can put up with a filler fanservice episode, but episode 7 was so mind-numbing puerile I almost skipped ahead. (The only reason I didn’t was due to fear of missing something important. But there isn’t anything, so skip away!)

Classroom of the Elite is based on a series of novels, and while they haven’t been translated into English, you can guess where at least one of the novel breaks is, since the last four episodes are clearly a contained story arc and there are previous episodes that are similarly clumped. (The pool filler probably exists because they needed to pad the run to avoid starting another book they couldn’t complete.) From a pacing perspective that makes things a little weird as there’s no real season finale, so much as the culmination of a story arc.

Also, because the novel series is very much ongoing, we don’t get a lot of answers. We learn a little more about Kiyotaka as a person, but the school year is not even half over, Class D has made some progress but is still ranked lower than Class C, and everyone else is still scheming. The last episode is a high point, but would be more palatable as a season break rather than an ending without any guarantee that there will be future episodes.

This series has some good moments and a nice concept, particularly for those who like cutthroat scheming by teenagers, but it’s difficult to recommend on account of its lack of resolution and general unevenness. If it eventually has a second season it might be able to pull itself together into something remarkable, but without a way for the audience to continue following the story it’s just unsatisfying.

Number of Episodes: 12

Pluses: excellent scheming and rule manipulation, Kiyotaka is an cunning mastermind, nice worldbuilding

Minuses: no resolution, quality of episodes swings wildly, the pool episode is a waste of time that has nothing to do with the rest of the series

Classroom of the Elite is currently streaming at Crunchyroll (subtitled) and Funimation (dubbed). Funimation has licensed this for eventual retail distribution in the US.

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’s short fiction has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show.

Fall 2017 Anime First Impressions

I’m running late with this season’s impressions. Unlike last summer, which was fairly lackluster, fall had a number of new anime series I wanted to check out, including what is becoming one of my favorites ever, so I think it’s still worth bringing attention to these, even though the season is almost over!

As usual, I look for two to three series to keep me entertaining throughout the season and this fall wasn’t hard to choose from.

The Ancient Magus Bride


Why I Watched It: This is the most buzzworthy show of the season, about a lonely teenage girl who auctions herself to the highest bidder only to discover the man who has purchased her is a magus with the head of a beast, who takes her for his apprentice.

What I Thought: It was gorgeous to look at, but I wasn’t entirely sold by the first episode. Though Chise has obviously been troubled throughout her life due to being an orphan who sees supernatural creatures that most people can’t, I still didn’t feel connected enough with her to understand her pain to the point that she decides it’s better that someone other than her is in control of her life. Elias is interesting since he is clearly not human, but his own mysteries aren’t covered in the first episode. Also, it’s just a bit creepy that one of the reasons he bought her is that he would like to marry her later, assuming she’s interested.

Verdict: I might watch later. I have a feeling this will pick up in an episode or two, now that the main characters and their living arrangements have been established, but at least for the start of the season there’s other stuff I’d prefer following.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll (subtitled) and Funimation (dubbed, subscription required)

Code:Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~


Why I Watched It: Based on my favorite otome game, Code:Realize is an adventure/romance set in 19th century steampunk London. Cardia lives isolated in the manor where her father left her because she is a poisonous monster whose body melts everything she touches, until one day the queen’s men find her and she is rescued by the dashing gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin.

What I Thought: I was a little concerned about the animation style going in and it still has an odd airbrushed look to it that bothers me, but the adaptation itself is on point and actually flows better than the Chapter 1 in the original game, even though a lot of things are rearranged or cut to quickly get Cardia integrated with her new companions. The show doesn’t shy away from Cardia’s potentially graphic flesh melting abilities and it shows enough to get the point across without entirely sugar-coating how lethal she can be. There are still a lot of questions left at the end of the episode, but I think it’s enough to be a satisfying appetizer for anyone looking for a steampunk fantasy.

Verdict: I’ll be watching. I likely would be anyway even if it turned out as a lesser incarnation of what we got, but to my relief this episode is actually good. Cardia might seem lackluster as a protagonist right now, but assuming they stick true to the spirit of the game we’ll see her grow over the course of the series.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll (subtitled) and Funimation (dubbed, subscription required)

Juni Taisen: Zodiac War


Why I Watched It: I don’t like the art style of this one, but I heard about how each episode is from the POV of a different character in the death game. As a narrative trick it’s an interesting conceit, because it prevents the audience from knowing who’s going to make it to the end of the series. And admittedly, I’m partial to stories about deadly games. This one is themed around warriors who each take a name of an animal from the Chinese zodiac.

What I Thought: The premise is that there are twelve families who once every twelve years send a representative of their family to fight in the Juni Taisen (literally: Twelve War). Boar is our first POV character and her father won the last one. Each of the combatant’s swallows a poisoned gem at the start of the competition that will kill them within twelve hours. The winner has to collect all twelve gems and then will be given the antidote as well as the fulfillment of any wish they have. It’s not really clear why every family participates or how they benefit since the wish goes to the individual, but if you just want a killing game with sick rules and hyper competent combatants this dishes it up in spades.

Verdict: I’ll probably be watching. Honestly, with two death game series this season it’s a toss up between this and King’s Game to see which I’m going to stick with or if I’ll manage both. Boar’s backstory was very nicely built and I assume later episodes will similarly build out the rest of the cast.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll (subtitled) and Funimation (dubbed, subscription required)

King’s Game


Why I Watched It: The manga version of this has been on my radar for a while (the source novel has not been translated), making this the second death game anime I’m checking out these season. The unwilling players of the King’s Game receive text messages demanding that they complete an action, and gradually the demands become more and more outlandish.

What I Thought: Unusually for a horror anime, our protagonist knows a lot about what’s going on. Nobuaki is actually the lone survivor of a previous King’s Game and he transfers to a new high school where he’s quickly ostracized by the rest of the class when a new game starts up. He knows that everyone who disobeys the King’s orders will die and that it is a supernatural phenomenon rather than a human being, but nobody else believes him, at least initially. I’m curious how this will play out though, because the end of the episode makes such an impression that it feels more like what aren’t they going to do to stay alive?

Verdict: I’ll probably be watching. There are some things that don’t make sense, like why nobody knows about the previous King’s Game (even if it wasn’t written down as due to supernatural causes, the violent and bizarre deaths of all but one student in a class should have been the stuff of national headlines), but I’m curious about how a more knowledgeable protagonist might change the formula on how to survive.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll (subtitled) and Funimation (dubbed, subscription required)

Kino’s Journey: The Beautiful World


Why I Watched It: Kino’s Journey is based on a long running novel series about a wandering adolescent kid and their talking motorcycle Hermes. Each episode Kino arrives in a new country with new experiences to be had. This is not its first adaptation, and I’ve heard it’s good, so I wanted to see for myself.

What I Thought: Without any preamble, this episode starts with Kino already on the road. They meet up with another traveler who tells them about a nearby country where it’s legal to kill people, and undeterred, they proceeds to visit the country as part of their ongoing journey. Of course, the truth about the town and it’s willingness to kill is the crux of the episode, and Kino leaves unharmed to go on another journey later. On a translation note though, the first episode has character to refer to Kino’s gender as male, but this may have been a translation mistake due to Kino’s age and unisex outfit, since the dialogue itself doesn’t use gender pronouns in Japanese. The previous Kino anime series referred to Kino as female, but that may have been a different extrapolation. It’s entirely possible that Kino’s gender is simply left to the audience to decide.

Verdict: I might watch later. I think I would have loved this show in middle school (the nuance and violence level is probably too high for elementary school), since it features an independant pre-teen who gets to travel all over the place with their trusty motorcycle buddy, a pair of guns, and nobody bats an eye. Unfortunately there’s a lot of other stuff this season that’s more to my taste, but I think this will be an excellent pick for a lot of people.

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll (subtitled)

Recovery of an MMO Junkie


Why I Watched It: The titular junkie is a 30-year-old adult woman, which is not what I expected for a series of this name, but at the same time, I think that’s fantastic, as women are capable of being MMO junkies as much as men (says the former MMO guild leader in me). I’m a little leery that it might lean too hard on stereotypes, but we’ll see!

What I Thought: I did not expect this to be a romantic comedy. After recently becoming unemployed, Moriko gets back into gaming and joins a new MMORPG. Her male fighter avatar Hayashi quickly meets a female healer named Lily who helps her get acquainted with the game and they hit it off, becoming good friends. Though she probably doesn’t know yet (since it’s an online game), it’s clear that Lily is played by a man who lives in the same area as her, and they briefly cross paths while getting ready for their Christmas Eve “date” online. I really like the touches that feel like the characters are actually players in a game. They talk about getting home after work, the guildmaster has to worry about potential drama because two guild members are having romantic issues, and the game has relatable silly parts like taking on monsters that are too high a level or accidentally running away because the player hit the wrong button.

Verdict: I’ll be watching. I like that the writing feels like it was done by someone who has spent a lot of time in an MMO and that the main two characters are crossplaying, since a lot of anime seem to forget that a fair number of the “men” online are actually played by women (the reverse being less surprising).

Where to find stream: Crunchyroll (subtitled) and Funimation (dubbed, subscription required)

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’s short fiction has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show.

Anime Review: Natsume Yūjin-chō Roku


Natsume Yūjin-chō Roku is the sixth season of the long-running series (also known as Natsume’s Book of Friends). I previously reviewed seasons 1-4 here and season 5 here.

Natsume Yūjin-chō follows the ongoing misadventures of teenage Takashi Natsume, who has the ability to see youkai (spirits out of Japanese folklore) when most people cannot. Because the series is episodic, it’s generally easy to slip into the middle with minimal knowledge of what has happened in the past, but a few of Roku‘s episodes work better knowing Takashi’s (and his grandmother Reiko’s) history.

Takashi has met other people who can see youkai, and the sixth season features two two-part episodes dealing with exorcists and their relationships with their youkai familiars. Most humans who can see youkai find work in exorcism, which is a practice Takashi dislikes. Like his grandmother Reiko, who wrote down the names of youkai in what became the Book of Friends, he prefers to settle things on more humane terms without imprisoning any wayward spirits.

But he is friends with Natori, who is an exorcist, and because of that friendship Takashi becomes involved with couple incidents involving old familiars and how they behave when the human they were bonded with has passed on. Takashi also has to deal with the knowledge that the Book of Friends is not something he can share (since we learned it was a forbidden practice last season). This creates a real fear in him that he can’t let Natori know the truth about what he’s carrying, while at the same time Natori is aware that there is something Takashi is protecting that he will not share with anyone.

It was a surprising bit of story advancement in a series which largely works as a slice of life with youkai. And that’s not the only revelation, as Roku teases more of Takashi’s heritage, but this time in regards to a different ancestor we have not yet met.

The remaining episodes mostly run with the usual formula of Takashi encounters a youkai with a problem or who is causing a problem. This is not a strike against the series, as that’s long been the heart of the show, but it doesn’t break much in the way of new ground.

There is one episode worth calling out though, for being the first genuinely creepy episode of Natsume Yūjin-chō. Despite being a series about youkai, it’s usually tame with its imagery. Even if the characters are startled, they’re rarely meant to be terrified. “Nitai-sama” takes its cues from more horror oriented fare though, where the youkai is known to be malevolent and takes its time in revealing itself. It’s probably an insufficient scare for those used to actual horror, but the episode is definitely more intense than the usual for Natsume Yūjin-chō and especially will not go over well with people who have a fear of dolls.

Roku isn’t going to win anyone over who isn’t already watching, but for those who are, it’s a surprisingly forward look at potential stories to come. Now the question is, will there be a Natsume Yūjin-chō Nana (Seven)?

Number of Episodes: 11

Pluses: more of the same low key storytelling, plot development for Takashi, lots of lovely stories about the bonds between humans and youkai

Minuses: more of the same low key storytelling, season is on the short side, story doesn’t really do anything with the potential complications that come up

Natsume Yūjin-chō Roku is currently streaming at Crunchyroll (subtitled).

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 the Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction.

Anime Review: KADO: The Right Answer

written by Laurie Tom


KADO: The Right Answer is an usual piece of science fiction for anime to tackle. While first contact scenarios are about as common in anime as in Western movies, they are usually played for action (when the aliens are hostile) or comedy (when the aliens are not). KADO chooses to begin with an alien whose motivations are obscure by our understanding.

Yaha-kui zaShunina arrives in a giant extra-dimensional cube that lands on top of a passenger plane, accidentally absorbing it and all the people inside. Fortunately, one of those on board is ace government negotiator Kojiro Shindo. When the alien entity does not appear to be immediately hostile and goes to the effort of absorbing the the concept of human language, the two of them begin to communicate.

zaShunina offers humanity a means of advancement, with technology far above what is currently available. We’re not talking spaceships, but an unlimited energy source for humans to do with what they will. He (zaShunina takes on a male appearance but probably does not actually have a gender) likens his offer to a person who has so much of something they no longer have need of it all. If he has more bread than he can possibly eat, why not share it? This is why he has come to give gifts to humanity.

It’s a completely reasonable line of thinking, but naturally wreaks havoc across Japan (where zaShunina landed) and the rest of the globe as it will completely revolutionize industry.

Much of the series deals with how deal with zaShunina’s gifts (because he doesn’t stop at unlimited energy) from the point of view of nations and individuals. It’s not an action-based series and all the human characters are adults, though one scientist is childlike to the point of annoyance, but her mentality works for the story so I’m a little more forgiving than I would otherwise be. People are rightfully concerned about what zaShunina will mean for humanity and whether humans are moving forward too fast.

For the most part the early conflicts move well, featuring reasonable and restrained responses that we hope would be mirrored should any such event happen in the real world.

Shindo is the lead protagonist, but it’s difficult to see inside his thoughts and know him as a person, which is likely why Episode 0 exists. Because he agrees to represent zaShunina in discussions early on, so the anisotropic being has a human representative, he ends up cut off from a lot of the cast. zaShunina also does not fully understand how humans work, so a lot of Shindo’s interactions with him don’t really show him as a person so much as an aide.

This changes later on due to the influence of Saraka Tsukai, another negotiator, who is the designated representative of the Japanese government. While most people are intrigued by the possibilities zaShunina brings them, Tsukai tends to be the one voicing the counterargument, that perhaps it’s best if humanity continues to struggle and advance based on its own labor rather than what an alien being has given them.

KADO: The Right Answer is largely a thoughtful piece, exploring the ramifications of human advancement through alien intervention, and expresses numerous points of view. This is the nice thing about it. We see the cautious and the eager. About the only thing we don’t see are bands of crazy protesters, but barring a few outside shots the story takes place in Japan so it’s possible that this may be more of a cultural difference.

Where it begins to fall apart is towards the end. We know the story can’t just be about zaShunina bringing gifts to everyone, so something happens to raise the stakes, and what happens feels contradictory to the tone laid by previous episodes. The resolution itself is a bit of headscratcher. There’s a small part of it that works, but the rest involves a pretty hefty sacrifice from a couple people that isn’t really discussed before it happened, so it doesn’t feel as polished as it could have been.

KADO is also one of a growing number of CG-animated anime. For budget reasons, CG is getting more popular, but still has difficulty recreating the two dimensional look of traditional hand drawn animation. KADO handles itself fairly well, and the CG is handy for a project like this where there are a lot of alien artifacts that need to look unusual and outside of our reality. The human characters are rendered pretty well too. Though they are clearly computer generated rather than hand drawn, they’re one of the better efforts in recent years.

Overall, I think KADO is a worthwhile experiment. It doesn’t hit the heights it could have, but it’s a worth a look.

Number of Episodes: 12 (13, if including Episode 0)

Pluses: interesting premise, range of human reaction of alien intervention is pleasingly diverse, adult cast

Minuses: negotiation theme ultimately has no impact on the ending, ending requires huge sacrifices that don’t have much setup, pacing is really slow

KADO: The Right Answer is currently streaming at Crunchyroll (subtitled), Funimation (dubbed). Funimation has licensed this for eventual retail distribution in the US.

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’s short fiction has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show.

Anime Review: Attack on Titan Season 2

written by Laurie Tom


Attack on Titan‘s first season aired far enough back that I don’t have a review on Diabolical Plots to point newcomers to, but suffice to say it’s good! It crosses over to mainstream media much easier than most anime, but the story was clearly far from complete, which brings us to Season 2.

Be aware that there will be first season spoilers as I tackle the second season!

Attack on Titan took four years to return, which is surprising considering how popular it is. Part of the delay was no doubt because the first season had chewed through most of the available manga at the time it was animated, but considering that the second season is only covering one additional story arc, rather than two, I’m not sure why the studio waited so long. The manga has completed three more story arcs since the end of the first season, so from a storytelling standpoint, there’s a lot to work with.

After a brief recap, Season 2 picks up only moments after the end of the first season, with Annie being hauled away while encased in crystal and the Scout Regiment trying to figure out what to make of the mysterious Titan that appears to be inside one of the great walls that surrounds their country.

When a priest hurries over and tells Hange to cover the hole in the wall so the entombed Titan doesn’t wake up, it becomes clear that there are a lot of secrets to their world that some people are privileged to know and others are not. Worse, Titans have appeared inside the greater Wall Rose, which should not have happened unless the wall has been breached.

The Wall Rose invasion kicks off a furious first half of the season as the Scouts try to figure out where, or even if, the wall has been breached. The breach of the outermost Wall Maria at the start of the first season devastated the human population. Losing the middle Wall Rose as well would be a catastrophe.

Worse, there’s a new intelligent Titan involved and many of our fresh recruits have been isolated from most of the military. They are unarmed, without the maneuvering gear that allows them to sling themselves into the air to fight Titans, and they’re about to get surrounded.

After the gut-wrenching opening, the real story this season is figuring out who the enemy of humanity really is, because they are facing something much more complex than the mindless Titans outside the walls. At the end of the first season, Commander Erwin Smith had promised to flush out the Titans hiding among humanity, and in Season 2, he certainly delivers.

Arguably the biggest reveal happens at the season’s midpoint, capping off the manic first half, but the story doesn’t quite regain its footing afterwards.

Though a short breather is nice, the story loses momentum when it stretches past a single episode, which it does. The animators do their best to try to keep the episodes exciting when most of the plot involves people sitting around, but to be fair, they’re constrained by the fact the series has chosen to hew extremely close to the source material and there is a chapter where the characters literally spend the entire time sitting in trees. It wasn’t so noticeable in the manga, but the same chapter fares pretty badly in animation, even with a few additional scenes to break up the view.

Fortunately, Studio Wit knows how to sell a climax and the season swings back to full spectacle with a blood churning rally at the end. The season doesn’t end with many answers, but we do have a better picture of the enemy and even more questions for future story arcs.

Much has been made about the studio only animating half the episodes they did last time, especially since Season 2 started with enough source material to last in the ballpark of 35 episodes, but with the wonky exception of the Colossal Titan, which was clearly an out of place piece of CG, allowing the animation team to focus on a smaller set of episodes seems to have turned out to be a good thing.

Every episode is much more detailed and pleasing on the eyes than the first season, and the first was no slouch when it came to animation. There are fantastic sequences of running along walls, riding through murderous Titans, and soldiers flying through the air with their omni-directional mobility gear. Any random screenshot will have much better shading and line work.

Composer Hiroyuki Sawano returns as well with one of his best soundtracks to date, remixing themes from the first season and adding new favorites, whether it’s the heart-pumping “Barricades” or the thoughtful “Call of Silence.”

Despite the pacing stumble in the second half and the lack of answers, I still recommend Attack on Titan: Season 2 to anyone who enjoyed the first. It plays to the series’ strengths and then pushes itself to become even better at what it does best.

Best of all, on the heels of the season finale, Season 3 was announced for 2018, so there won’t be as long of a wait for the next round.

Number of Episodes: 12

Pluses: Gorgeous and highly detailed battle sequences, midpoint plot reveal is a great twist, a lot of side characters from the first season really get a chance to shine

Minuses: A lot of first season questions are still unanswered, sitting in trees episode was unusually boring, pacing is off in second half

Attack on Titan Season 2 is currently streaming at Crunchyroll (subtitled), Funimation (dubbed), and aired on Cartoon Network. Funimation has licensed this for eventual retail distribution in the US.

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’s short fiction has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show.

Anime Catch-Up Review: Fafner: Right of Left

written by Laurie Tom

fafnerrightofleftFafner: Right of Left wasn’t available to English speaking audiences for a long time. Animated back in 2005, it’s the second oldest entry in the long running Fafner series, but never made it stateside, likely due to its status as a direct-to-video prequel.

Right of Left was also skippable when the Heaven and Earth movie came out in 2010, but when the Exodus TV series emerged in 2015, it became clear that Right of Left wasn’t optional viewing anymore, as they made references to characters and the plan that makes up the heart of Right of Left. It was clear I was missing something.

Thankfully, at some point in the past year or so, it quietly slipped into the streaming library at Daisuki.

Right of Left takes place about half a year before the original Dead Aggressor and involves the class ahead of Kazuki and the others who will become the pilots of the first show. As such, we get treated to slightly younger versions of most of Dead Aggressor‘s pilots, back before their worlds got turned upside and raked over the coals.

However, because we know the pilots of Right of Left don’t exist in Dead Aggressor (save for the one who’s killed in the first episode), it’s a safe conclusion going in that Right of Left is going to be a downer. Some tissues may be needed.

Right of Left doesn’t spend much time worldbuilding and largely runs with the assumption that people have seen the original Dead Aggressor, and having been a direct to video release, that would have been a safe assumption. The story primarily follows two students, Ryo and Yumi, who become Fafner pilots at a critical time when their home, Tatsumiya Island, is about to be discovered by the alien Festum.

Their core is not fully developed yet (that happens in Dead Aggressor) and if it comes into contact with the the Festum, it will become corrupted. Not to mention that having aliens hellbent on wiping out humanity finding the island would be bad in general.

The island’s adults decide that they have no choice but to activate the experimental Fafner mecha and undertake a dangerous operation codenamed the L-Plan, which involves a decoy vessel to lead the Festum away from the island (Tatsumiya is mobile artificial island, so the L-Block is essentially part of the island sailing off on its own).

The sixty days of the L-Plan are arguably the most intense parts of Right of Left as we see the days count down as the staff and pilots have no idea how they’re supposed to survive. Because the Festum can read minds, none of the participants are allowed to know the full plan to prevent their enemy from outsmarting them. They only have four Fafners, and the pilots take shifts to avoid being assimilated by the alien technology they’re using. But then they start losing pilots, and they start losing mecha. They start losing hope.

This makes Right of Left a grueling watch, even if we never get the know the names of most of the dead. There comes a point where the remaining crew members are wondering if they are even intended to make it out alive.

Their mission does succeed in the end, because this is a prequel and Dead Aggressor still happens, but it is not a happy story. While Right of Left is very short and cannot afford to spend much time with any of its characters, Ryo and Yumi are relatable and worth getting to know for the brief time we are with them.

I recommend this to fans of the original Fafner: Dead Aggressor, but it is not an entry point for new viewers. Of all the entries that followed the original, Right of Left is quite possibly the strongest regardless of being the shortest.

Number of Episodes: 1 hour long entry

Pluses: palpable sense of dread, excellent building of sympathy for main protagonists in such a short span of time

Minuses: no time for character building for anyone else, technical explanation for why the diversion plan should work isn’t fully covered

Fafner: Right of Left is currently streaming at Daisuki and is available subtitled (or totally unsubbed if raw Japanese is preferred!).

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’s short fiction has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show.

Anime Catch-Up Review: Psycho-Pass

written by Laurie Tom

psychopass1 Psycho-Pass is an original self-contained anime from 2012 that I missed during initial broadcast. I’m generally not a big cyberpunk dystopia fan, so I only came back when I kept hearing about it. This review covers the first series, which is stand-alone.

I’d never thought about how much different American TV storytelling is from Japanese until I watched Psycho-Pass and realized how western its presentation is. Character development, particularly for the supporting cast, feels paced out like I would expect on an American show, with small nuggets here and there that lead to an eventual payoff, and the world itself draws clear inspiration from Philip K. Dick (particularly Blade Runner and Minority Report).

Combat is visceral and limited to what is realistically possible, not just what looks good, so there are few explosions and no death defying leaps. Despite the protagonists being members of the police force, they can and do screw up even when it counts.

The result feels like a western live action drama, except that it’s an animated series from Japan and most of the characters are Japanese.

Like its more famous cyberpunk counterpart, Ghost in the Shell, Psycho-Pass asks questions about the state and validity of its world. In this future, all aspects of life are governed by the impenetrable Sibyl System.

Citizens are subjected to cymatic scans which register their mental health and ability to think outside the law, and people whose Criminal Coefficients rise beyond a certain point on the index are labeled latent criminals and taken into therapy (by force if necessary). With therapy, it’s possible for those people to return to society, especially if caught early, but a fair number don’t return and remain in isolation wards away from the rest of the population.

Particularly vicious latent criminals can rank high enough on the scale to warrant immediate lethal enforcement, though this is rare, since ordinary people can’t hide from the system that easily without being identified. Generally if someone ranks high enough for lethal enforcement they’ve already done something cruel enough to warrant it.

Criminal acts and violence tend to mentally stress the well-being of everyone around them, resulting in everyone’s coefficients going up, so the idea behind Sibyl is that it’s better to lock away the few who would endanger the many, and the result is that Japan is so safe that most people don’t even lock their doors.

Psycho-Pass follows the story of Division 1 of the Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigation Department as told through the eyes of Akane Tsunemori, the new inspector who joins the team at the start of the show. The unit is composed of two inspectors, who are citizens in good standing, and four enforcers who are latent criminals given a limited amount of freedom in order to do their job, which is to flush out and capture other criminals, latent or otherwise.

Since one needs to be able to understand criminals in order to be equipped to capture them, it’s generally not possible for an inspector to do the meanest parts of the detective work, because if they were capable of thinking that way, they would be a latent criminal themselves.

Much of the interpersonal drama between the characters has to do with the inspector/enforcer divide and how it affects the judgement and behavior of the characters involved. Inspector Ginoza, Akane’s senior at the start of the story, warns her not to befriend them and to keep a professional distance, but Akane can’t help wanting to understand them and see them as people. Though Ginoza’s attitude initially seems to come from a sense of superiority, over the course of the show we learn that’s not the case at all.

Sibyl keeps most people safe, but it’s not ideal, and some enforcers are former inspectors who succumbed to notions of revenge or distrust over the course of their jobs. One enforcer was labeled as a latent criminal when he was five, and becoming an enforcer was the only way he would ever go out in the world. Even employed by the Bureau, he can’t go anywhere except the office and his living quarters unless an inspector is accompanying him.

Being a crime drama, Psycho-Pass largely focuses on the failures of the system and how criminals can get around it. What do you do when the system cannot properly assess a criminal, when enforcement is only possible if Sibyl can read them? It starts with mostly stand alone episodes that build into a larger story arc, which wraps up by the end of the series.

The Sibyl System is brutal to those who don’t fit neatly within it, and there are no moments of epic heroism or revolutions of any kind. Division 1 doesn’t have a change of heart where they fight the system or help people escape from it. Rather, the characters acknowledge that the system is imperfect, but it’s the best they’ve got so they’re going to enforce it.

Psycho-Pass is completely stand alone, though there is a second series that was animated a couple years later.

The first episode in particular is a gem at worldbuilding, character introduction, and setting the stakes. Without a wasted minute, viewers know exactly what they’re signing up for, and Psycho-Pass does not disappoint.

Number of Episodes: 22

Pluses: dystopian cyberpunk at its best, excellent worldbuilding, trying to be a moral person in an inflexible system

Minuses: some members of Division 1 never get much character building time, Kogami is promo-ed like he’s the main character but he’s pretty one note, execution of criminals is usually ridiculously violent

Psycho-Pass is currently streaming at Crunchyroll (subtitled only) and Funimation (both subbed and dubbed, but subscription required). Funimation has licensed this for retail distribution in the US.

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’s short fiction has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show.