- Trailer: English dubbed version
- What it’s about: Fourteen years ago, there was a coup in Neo Verona. The reigning Capulet family were slaughtered down to the last woman and child by their rivals, the Montagues. Or so it was thought. A single survivor, the duke’s young daughter Juliet, was smuggled out of the castle and kept secret for over a decade while the ground was laid for a rebellion against the Montagues and a restoration of the Capulet dynasty. Juliet herself is unaware of her heritage, and has been fighting as a vigilante against the increasingly corrupt and violent city guard in defence of the people, when she runs into a young noble named Romeo – the son of Duke Montague.
- Why you should watch it: It’s an excellent example of the “action romance” genre, and balances both halves incredibly well. At the same time, the plot spins out at a perfect pace, neither lingering nor rushing through Juliet’s progression and her coming to terms with her destiny. The animation and character designs are clean and well-executed, and the soundtrack (including a Japanese cover of “You Raise Me Up” as the title song) adds an emotional depth to every major scene. It’s also interesting to see an “outside view” of Shakespeare’s work; it’s a different story than the one you might know, more fairy tale than Greej tragedy, but it’s still quite well told. The English dub is well worth picking up if you don’t have a strong preference for subs, as there’s some poetic lines from the original work put in now and then that add some flavour to the script.
- Caveats: There is little effort put into creating nuanced antagonists. Montague himself is a classic moustache-twirling tyrant and the traitors, turncoats, and city guards are unambiguously evil. This simplification carries through into the plot itself, with much of the original tragedy excised and streamlined. As a standalone work the show is excellent; as a reflection of the classic play it’s a little lacking. This is not exactly a fair comparison to make, though.
- Themes: Much like the original, doomed love is where the meat of the story lies. Acceptance of one’s duties and obligations, and heroic sacrifice to see them through, is also a primary focus for Juliet’s “coming of age” as well as several secondary characters.
- Similar works: The Twelve Kingdoms. If you want more adaptations of classic Western literature, try Zetsuen no Tempest or Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
- Trailer:Note that the promotional materials for this show were created to be deliberately misleading, painting it as a simple Slice of Life show. Nonetheless, here’s the official preview trailer
- What it’s about: Yuuki Yuuna is a Hero. That is, she’s a proud member of her middle-school Hero Club, and she spends her days helping others with tasks great and small. As it turns out, however, the club is a front. It’s an excuse to gather together girls with the potential to use Holy Magic in defense of the world against the alien Vertex threat. This looks like a dream come true for the valiant Yuuki, but nobody seems to be able to give a straight answer about the details of the threat they face.
- Why you should watch it: The show is quite explicitly modeled after the hugely successful and influential Mahou Shoujo “deconstruction” Madoka Magica – just look at the character designs and colour schemes and you’ll get a good idea of the roles each of the girls are going to play in the show. That said, the series takes its own path, spending a great deal more time developing its characters and showing them living their lives, and all the while the audience waits for the other shoe to drop. The audience gets a sense that something is off, something is wrong, but without anything specific to put a finger on. This tension is maintained marvelously. The show slowly builds upon itself, reaching a crescendo, allowing for all of the built up emotion and uneasy feeling to spill over. The result is a consistent ride of trepidation that never lets up.Backing this up is some seriously gorgeous artwork for the “battleground” world and an energetic soundtrack that keeps up handily with the action set pieces.
- Caveats: First off, this is unapologetically a Mahou Shoujo series, complete with fan-servicey transformation scenes and butt-kicking middle school girls. What “twists” there are are also spread across the whole series, so you’re going to be spending a great deal of time watching general Slice of Life scenes with the characters interacting in a relatively normal middle school environment.
- Themes: Sacrifice and altruism, friendship and family. Power comes with a price, but that price is worth paying to protect those you care about. As the show explicitly states, anything is possible if you try hard enough with your friends.
- Similar works: Madoka Magica, Selector Infected WIXOSS.
And with this last non-anime entry, I’ll be getting back to posting recommendations for actual anime series and films shortly.
- Trailer: Book 1 Trailer
- What it’s about: The follow-up to the massively popular Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra follows Aang’s successor: a headstrong teenage girl from the Water Tribe named Korra. While she lacks Aang’s spiritual centre, she nonetheless excels in the more physical aspects of her identity and is eager to begin fulfilling her duty as the Avatar. Blocking her progress, however, is her ongoing struggle with mastering the fourth and final elemental magic of Airbending. With the only surviving airbenders housed in Republic City, far away from her childhood home in the Water Tribe, and with mounting rumours of civil unrest requiring the attention of the Avatar, she sets out to find her destiny.
- Why you should watch it: In one sentence: it’s a more grown up version of A:TLA. The morality is more ambiguous, the conflicts less one-sided, and the characters older and explored in greater depth. At the same time, it doesn’t hesitate to draw heavily on the established lore and the fantastic visuals and soundtrack of its predecessor. Korra herself is an interesting character. Her inexperience with diplomacy and sheltered childhood causes her to lean heavily upon the combat-oriented aspects of her nature to pull her through any conflict. But this is a new age: a mechanised, democratic age. Is there any place for the “spiritual balance” role of the Avatar today?
- Caveats: There are a few nits to pick. The writers’ insistence on including a love triangle (until the excellent third season) has a definite negative influence on the plot. Not enough time is given to flesh out the antagonists for the first two seasons, largely due to funding constraints (it was never made clear whether they were getting another season or not). Korra as a character stumbles more than she progresses, falling back into old habits only to relearn the lessons that earlier episodes should have instilled in her.
- Themes: Spiritual balance, and the ongoing struggle between tradition and modernity. Finding one’s place. Each season has its own motifs and themes, usually personified in the villain character and their particular motivations.
- Similar works: The Twelve Kingdoms, Romeo x Juliet, Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic
- What it’s about: 100,000 people across Japan receive a mysterious package containing ¥100M ($1,000,000) and a note. The note informs them that they’re now entered into the “Liar Game Tournament” and provides the identity of one other person who received the same package. The only rule of the first round of this tournament is that, in 30 days, each person has to return their starting sum. If you can steal any cash from the other person, you can keep it. Of course, the other person will still owe ¥100M…
- Why you should read it: Liar Game is a dramatised exploration of psychology and game theory. Throughout the tournament, the anonymous organisers introduce increasingly complex scenarios for the “contestants” to act out. The solutions are all discoverable if you want to think them through for yourself (though the optimal strategy is, after the first one or two, often incredibly non-obvious or counter-intuitive at first glance). Or you can just sit back and enjoy the protagonists solving it themselves. There’s days’ worth of content already published, even if you binge through the volumes non-stop.
- Caveats: The art is a little bit shaky in the first volume. It takes a good long while for the protagonist to see any actual character development, since she’s more or less an audience stand-in.
- Themes: Greed. Application of game theory and psychology.
- Similar works: One Outs, Kaiji and Akagi are easily the closest in feel to the manga.
Trailer: “White” Trailer
What it’s about: The world of Remnant is aptly named. In the face of an innumerable horde of deadly beasts known as the Grimm, humanity has been forced back and back again until only a handful of regions scattered across the continents remain. Only the harnessing of the mysterious and powerful substance known as “Dust” and the ongoing efforts of the elite Hunters allows for some semblance of normality within the sanctuaries. The story follows an unlikely batch of new candidates looking to become Hunters, a group of first-year students who stumble into a conspiracy that threatens to upend the delicate political balance keeping humanity united.
Why you should watch it: The show’s two big selling points are its fight choreography and its soundtrack. Both are absolutely first-rate and the show’s major set-piece battles are some of the most stunning action scenes I’ve seen in animation. RWBY is decidedly Western in its humour and plot development – it feels a lot like something Joss Whedon might have put out back in the Buffy days. The cel-shaded computer-rendered animation is definitely unique, but if other series could pull off the same feats seen here I’d be more than happy to it taken up more widely.
Caveats: RWBY very much runs on the “Rule of Cool” – logic takes a backseat to what the creators think will look great in a fight. The show also spreads itself a little thin. This doesn’t matter so much with the first season, as you’d expect a lot of time set aside for character introductions and dangling new plot hooks, but they keep adding more and more in without resolving what’s come before, and it’s starting to feel a little top-heavy – particularly since every new character introduced means that much less time for developing the core group.
Themes: Each of the characters goes through their own little arcs with their own takeaway message, but the overall theme is that of living up to expectations (or in Blake’s case, repudiating them), of taking charge of one’s own destiny. Ruby is years younger than her peers, Weiss has her family reputation, Jaune his parents, Pyrrha her celebrity, etc.
Similar works: Soul Eater.
- What it’s about: Have you ever wondered if the “red” that I see is the same as the “red” that you do? These subjective experiences have a name – qualia – and they can define your identity and your limitations. Marii Yukari suffers from an odd condition: she’s utterly unable to distinguish living creatures and people from inanimate objects. To her, her classmates appear to be intricately designed robots. This strangeness has cost her one friend and gained her another. But things take a turn for the weird when it becomes apparent that the “Observer Effect” of quantum physics has broader implications than one might suspect.
- Why you should read it: The story is actually quite hard to discuss without spoilers, because it’s utterly defined by its second act. That’s not to say that the opening arcs don’t do a good job of setting up the characters and the conflict, it’s just that once you’re past the introduction, Murasakiiro no Qualia ratchets up the stakes so far and so fast that you’ll plough through the last volume or two without stopping at all. If you truly want to see what “making a real effort to solve an intractable problem” looks like, this is the work to try.
- Caveats: The final few chapters have not yet been translated. The story so far is good enough that you should read it anyway. The technobabble pretends to be scientifically accurate, but don’t take it too seriously.
- Themes: If you have no limitations, how do you know when to stop? When does a hope become an obsession? The corrupting influence of power, and how our perceptions define our realities. Predestination vs free will. There’s a whole bunch of stuff in here.
- Similar works: Far and away the closest work to this is Steins;Gate. I’d go so far as to say that they’re really twins separated at birth. Madoka Magica is another anime series worth trying out if you enjoyed this.
Given that this blog is meant primarily as a back-up storage for the blurbs I’m using on Reddit, I’ve been oddly hesitant about putting up those rare examples of stuff *other than* anime that I regularly suggest on /r/animesuggest. That said, I’d be annoyed if I lost them, so I’m going to take the opportunity over the Christmas holidays to upload them here.
- Trailer: No official ones for Book 1, though this unofficial one works nicely.
- What it’s about: The world is split into four political factions, defined by their mastery of a particular Classical element (Fire/Water/Air/Earth). Bridging the societal gap is the Avatar – a hero capable of using all four elemental magics, cyclically reincarnating into each nation in turn. One hundred years ago, the Avatar went missing, and the militarised Fire Nation took advantage of his absence to set about subjugating or slaughtering the other nations. The story follows the recently re-awakened Avatar as he seeks to master his birthright and return balance to the world.
- Why you should watch it: Avatar is that rare fish: a show that, while nominally for kids, has enough witty humour, action, and an intelligent enough plot to entertain adults as much or more. Once the show hits its stride it begins to weave a cohesive story together with fantastically choreographic fight sequences, goofy jokes and character development. The show’s story continues through three seasons and culminates in one of the most viscerally satisfying finales in Western animation. The world, its cultures, and its magic system are all well-realised and explored in depth over the course of the show.
- Caveats: It takes a few episodes for the show to find the right pace and confidence in itself. Until then, it errs a little too far on the “silly” side for an adult audience (though it’d still be perfect for its target demographic).
- Theme(s): Balance (physical/spiritual, emotional/intellectual, etc). Moral courage. Living up to expectations.
- Similar works: The obvious choice would be its sequel, The Legend of Korra, which expands on the same themes in a later version of the world. In Japanese animation, shounen such as Hunter x Hunter or Naruto are the closest parallels.
- Trailer: PV Trailer
- What it’s about: Haruno dreams of growing up and getting away from her small life in the local inn. She wants to travel the world! But she doesn’t have the will to go through with it. One day a new guest arrives, a gregarious blonde Australian girl named Cynthia who has led the exact life that Haruno so eagerly wants for herself, visiting far-off places with her Honda motorcycle. Will Cynthia’s stories be enough to motivate her to get up and do something?
- Why you should watch it: At first glance, One Off seems more like an advertisement for Honda than anything else, but the director (Junichi Sato) soon demonstrates his credentials in establishing an endearing cast and story for this short slice of life OVA series. The scenery is very well-animated and the characters of Cynthia and Haruno both have their own distinct personalities and goals. Cynthia in particular makes for a great comic relief counterpoint to Haruno’s pessimism and daydreaming. Everything just meshes together nicely; the series is a perfect short “pick me up”, motivational without being mawkish.
- Caveats: The rest of the cast are mostly just window-dressing. We don’t really get enough time with any of them to get much of an appreciation of their individual qualities, just a single defining trait for each of them. Which is fine as far as it goes, particularly for such a short series, but the show is definitely more about creating a mood than about things actually happening.
- Themes: Finding the motivation to live your dreams. Growing up and moving on.
- Similar works: Tamayura, by the same creator
- Trailer: PV Trailer
- What it’s about: The Hundred-Man Slayer. That’s what they call him. A ronin samurai who killed his master and then every enforcer sent after him. As punishment, he was cursed with immortality until he finds a way to redeem himself. With no skills other than his swordsmanship, he pledges to kill a thousand evil men to make up for the murders he’s already committed. Along the way he runs into an orphan named Rin, who seeks vengeance for the slaughter of her family.
- Why you should watch it: In short: the characters and the action scenes. Manji himself doesn’t show a tremendous amount of growth, but Rin’s character – her ideals, motivations, and desires – are extremely well-developed over the course of the series. The fights are well-choreographed and brutal and can get quite inventive in the various ways that Manji’s immortality is put to the test. The animation is remarkably good; the character designs are first-rate and the show makes good use of modern cinematographical technique to keep the action fresh. If you’re looking for something gory with a “badass” protagonist taking on all comers, Blade of the Immortal is a good choice.
- Caveats: When I started the show, I’d kind of hoped that they’d play up the “immortal” aspect a bit more in terms of longevity (like Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne, for example). The intro shows Manji in the modern world, after all. But nope, the entire story spans a few months in a single time period. Aside from that, the soundtrack can most charitably be described as…experimental. It’s very different to the standard music you’ll see in action anime, but I’m not sure that it’s actually an improvement.
- Themes: Revenge and redemption, mostly in the context of finding your own reasons for living.
- Similar works: Afro Samurai, Berserk. Outside of anime, Kill Bill.