Of Love and Arranged Marriages

(significant spoiler warnings for NOBUNAGA THE FOOL and The World is Still Beautiful, and a mild one for NO GAME NO LIFE ep.2)

In the current anime season that’s just wrapping up, three couples from two shows I happen to be watching are together because of political marriages.

Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s just a sign of the times, but it’s been somewhat gratifying to see these pairs put in the effort to make their relationships work, and with a minimal amount of angst to boot.

Both Oda Nobunaga and his sister Ichihime in NOBUNAGA THE FOOL agreed to marry not for love, but for the betterment and protection of their province.

Nobunaga desired the power of the Regalia that Queen Himiko of Yamatai was offering. From what I recall, he made it seem like acquiring a wife in the process was just a fringe benefit. Regardless, he continued to value her as an ally and treated her with gentleness and faithfulness, even though he was obviously not particularly attracted to her.

When Ichihime accepted the marriage proposal from Gaius Julius Caesar, a foreign aggressor who had threatened their land and their people, it was as part of a deal so that he would halt any further attacks and offer his protection instead. In doing so, she left behind the man at home who loved her.

Ichihime was true to her vows and gave her all to the relationship. She worried about her husband when they were separated and even tried to save him when he seemed to lose his way.

In both cases, though, their spouses did not need to learn to love them back. Himiko was already in love with Nobunaga when she offered her Regalia in exchange for his hand in marriage. And Caesar was infatuated enough with Ichihime that he was prepared to alter his allegiances and potentially betray his own side.

The World is Still Beautiful featured a more traditional example of a politically-motivated arranged marriage, with the union of the young leader of the Sun Kingdom, Livius, and Princess Nike of the Principality of Rain. Neither of them knew each other beforehand. In fact, the Sun King didn’t even know which princess he was going to wed as Nike and her sisters decided it amongst themselves using a game of rock paper scissors!

Nike and Livius were both hard-headed and opinionated, so it predictably took some time for the two of them to get comfortable with each other. Before long, though, they started to trust and support one another. They even chose to stay together when offered an out.

Conversely, it seems as if romantic love has fallen out of favour nowadays. Stephanie Dola of NO GAME NO LIFE, upon realizing that she was inescapably in love, demonstrated the reaction of a contemporary anime girl by smashing her head repeatedly against a wall.

When she caught herself fantasizing about marrying the guy, she smashed her forehead again.

It’s understandable, really. I mean, any self-respecting girl would be wary to find herself trapped in such a vulnerable situation.

In a later episode of The World is Still Beautiful, Nike came to the realization that she was actually developing genuine romantic feelings for her husband. She responded by violently smashing her head against the wall.


2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2014 (Japan)

Representatives from a number of advertising agencies convene for the Santa Monica International Advertising Festival. There’s wheeling-and-dealing and politicking, as the participants try to get votes for their own company’s ad, often resorting to blatantly dishonest methods. Jobs and reputations are on the line.

For the most part, the movie was entertaining enough to watch and certainly had its funny moments. Ultimately, though, I didn’t really buy into the story. The proceedings just seemed too exaggerated. By the time the main character launched into his speech about being true to oneself, I kind of felt like laughing, even though that part was not meant to be funny.

Also, although it was probably not intended to be offensive, I do think they went too far with the stereotypical depiction of gays in the film.


2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2013 (TIFF Encore Presentation)

Amid ongoing gang wars, a yakuza boss’s wife is about to be released from jail after doing time for murder. He has promised to show her a movie with their daughter as the star. Meanwhile, there’s a group of amateur filmmakers who are willing to lay down their lives in the service of creating the ultimate action flick.

WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? is bloody, crazy violent, and also absurdly funny. The characters are surprisingly likeable, as well, despite being a bunch of murderous gangsters and idiots.

At the end of the day, though, I kind of hoped that there would be a point to all the carnage, some more plot, if you will, but there was not.

Don’t get me wrong; I still enjoyed the film. I think I had a smile on my face the entire time except when I was wincing at the butchery – and sometimes it might have been both at once. Taken as an unrestrained celebration of glorious, comedic violence, the film is a rousing success.

Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji)

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2014 (Japan)

I attended back to back screenings of Black Butler and The Little House. In both films, a member of the hired help is in the lead role and the family business is toy making. Aside from that, the two could not be more different. While The Little House is a serious historical drama, Black Butler is an action thriller with a healthy dose of comedy.

Considering the fantasy aspect of the demon manservant, Black Butler plays out much like a Hollywood superhero movie. Sebastian and his master, Kiyoharu, take on a complicated murder mystery. Along the way, they encounter plenty of intrigue and action, including some impressive gun-fight and sword-fight sequences. Well, Sebastian usually wields silverware; he is a butler, after all.

Hiro Mizushima turns in an excellent performance as the titular butler. Just by narrating a few lines early on, it is subsequently easy to tell what Sebastian is thinking from only subtle changes of his expression.

All in all, I found the movie to be delightfully campy and fun.

The Little House

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2014 (Japan)

A tale of a loving family and a secret romance as recounted in the memoirs of the family’s loyal maid. Most of the film’s events take place around the time of the Second World War. Having the human story in the foreground gave relevance to the depiction of the effects of the war and illustrated what the mindset was like at the time.

The Little House’s narrative unfolded languidly and gave the impression of being very realistic. It was well-acted and convincing, almost making you feel as if you were witnessing a piece of history.

I saw this film 2 days after watching A Tale of Samurai Cooking, also a family drama/love story set in a specific historical period, and it’s hard not to compare the two. I liked the pacing and lighter tone of Samurai Cooking a lot and appreciated that it was remarkably devoid of nastiness, even though it could have easily gone in that direction. Obviously, real life is not like that, so if you like to see realism in your movies, you might be partial to The Little House.

Just that I personally prefer the rose-coloured, feel-good experience of Samurai Cooking.

A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story

3.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2013 (Japan) – Opening night film of 2014 Toronto Japanese Film Festival

A talented young woman named Haru is recruited to marry into a renowned kitchen samurai family so she can help teach the “incompetent” heir to improve his skills. Not only a historical tale of cooking and developing love, there’s also a fair amount of drama, sword-fighting action, political unrest, and even some light-hearted humour at times.

It’s almost worth the price of admission just to see the gorgeous Japanese scenery and beautiful costumes. And of course there’s the food too. It would be wise to eat something before going to see this.

The story developments flow naturally in a well-paced manner. The movie elicits feelings in a way that touches you, rather than hitting you over the head.

Likewise, while the score is noticeably beautiful on several occasions, it fittingly complements the action without being overly dramatic.

If I were to complain about one thing, it’s that the theme song at the end sounds too weird. The female vocal is strangely shrill and just doesn’t sound good. But that’s really a teeny tiny blemish on an otherwise remarkably enjoyable film.

Mid-Spring 2014 Anime Ranking

01. KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA (Sidonia no Kishi) (ep. 1-8) – Really loving this show! Far and away my favourite of the season so far. This frequently brutal and thrilling space opera, about humanity’s struggle for survival thousands of years after aliens, called Gauna, destroyed the Earth, had me hooked by the 3rd episode.

One of the biggest initial challenges was that everyone kind of looks the same. I’m sure it’s completely intentional given the amount of genetic engineering that has occurred, but man, did it ever make it hard to keep track of who’s who, especially in the beginning. The monochromatic colour palette was no help either.

I’m normally not a fan of computer animation, but I have to say it actually works pretty well here. The movements do look a bit stiff occasionally, but really, the narrative is so immersive that none of that bothers me; there’s just no opportunity to dwell on it. I’m really glad I didn’t dismiss this one just because of the CGI.

Anime storylines featuring a boy who shows up and mysteriously has the ability to operate a special mecha are a dime a dozen (eg. Captain Earth, DAIMIDALER, and Dai-Shogun from just this season alone). This show had maybe the most plausible explanation I’ve ever seen – Nagate was raised apart from the population but he practised extensively on a VR simulator all his life. It’s looking like there might be more to it than that, too.

At the close of ep. 8, a Gauna sample has been brought onto Sidonia. I would have done the same thing. Not just because of its familiar appearance, but also because it’s important to study the enemy if you ever hope to understand or defeat them. On the other hand, after all their efforts to keep the Gauna from making physical contact with Sidonia ever again, they now have one on board…

Incidentally, SIDONIA also gets my vote for best OP/ED of the season with its closer “掌 -show-” by Kitamura Eri.
Edit: (streaming on Netflix starting in July)

02. YowaPeda (Yowamushi Pedal) (ep. 26-33) – Onoda has spent the series training and learning about cycling from his peers and his sempai. It’s finally come full circle in ep. 33, as Onoda gets a chance to help Tadokoro by showing him his own special riding technique – and we finally get to hear the Hime Hime song in its entirety!
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

03. Ace of Diamond (ep. 26-34) – In the current arc, Seido is facing off against Yakushi, a formidable opponent, and it’s coming down to a battle of wits between Miyuki and Yakushi’s coach. Furuya, too, is called upon to rise to the challenge. Episode 34 had no shortage of awesome plays. We actually went back and watched several of the scenes over again so we could appreciate them fully!
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

04. Blade & Soul (ep. 1-9) – This show seems to be under the radar for most viewers. Is anyone else watching this?

All the powerful characters in this action-fantasy, be they gang leaders, village chiefs, bosses, good guys or bad, are all female. And why not? Sure, they are all busty and barely dressed, but that doesn’t matter to me, because they are shown to be genuinely strong.

I have nothing against shows with predominantly male characters – check out all the sausagefests in the rest of the top 6 right here – that’s just the way fiction comes. But there’s no denying how refreshing it is to see something with this many strong females in it. Ironically, this program was not made by women, for women. If anything, I think it might be the opposite. Regardless, the creators’ respect for women is very evident in the production.

Maybe that’s part of the reason why this show struggles to find an audience, though. Female viewers see the revealing outfits and assume it’s a show for guys. Meanwhile, many guys have little interest in a show full of warrior women with not even one male for them to fawn over.

Blade & Soul is perhaps also not well-suited for viewers who expect major characters to be overtly expressive. Alka, the lead, is like a killing machine and shows no emotion. As someone who has previously sympathized with strong, silent types in anime, I can personally tolerate Alka just fine; and I’m enjoying the series so far.

Actually, if there’s one thing I could really do without, that would be Karen’s dancing, in the show and in the appalling ED sequence. Now that is some really horrid-looking CGI.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

05. Haikyuu!! (ep. 1-9) – I seem to be enjoying quite a few sports anime recently. This one’s about volleyball. It took a while for me to warm up to the 2 main guys. Good thing their sempai were so likeable from the start. Especially Tanaka; he’s the best.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

06. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders (ep. 1-9) – Between the elder and the younger JoJo, it’s hard to tell who is the bigger asshole. One is kind of a racist, the other is quite the misogynist, and yet, incredibly, they both manage to come across as funny and endearing!

I never had much interest in the fight sequences (that’s just the way I’m hardwired), so the best part for me is how these creatively over-the–top characters interact with each other. And that’s enough to keep me looking forward to JoJo’s week after week.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

07. Chaika – The Coffin Princess (Hitsugi no Chaika) (ep. 1-8) – I was really impressed with the first 2 episodes. It seemed like a lot of thought went into the action and the fights. Plus, there was that exploding unicorn, which is definitely not something you see every day, even in anime!

After that, the show has settled into more of a routine action fantasy thing. The execution is still above average, but I find the characters, especially Toru, to be a bit wanting in the personality department.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

08. The World is Still Beautiful (Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii) (ep. 1-8) – Princess Nike of the Principality of Rain moves to the Sun Kingdom for an arranged marriage to young King Livius. Naturally the two butt heads in the beginning, but soon find a common understanding.

I thought the recent episodes involving romantic rivals were a bit tiresome; fortunately they moved on from that fairly quickly.

The series has been a generally pleasant experience, with a couple of notable exceptions. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks Nike’s rain-summoning song is horrendously cringe-worthy. And I don’t even remember what the ED sounds like because we skip the sequence every time. It’s too awkward to ogle images of the boy king sleeping in the buff. That just feels wrong.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

09. Baby Steps (ep 1-9) – The tennis anime. Eiichirou is new to the sport and he approaches it in a highly technical and mathematical manner. It’s rewarding to see his gradual progress.

The drawback: the character designs are ugly. The way Ei-chan’s hair sticks out like a mohawk in the middle of his bangs is really weird. And “pretty girl” Natsu’s super wide eyes sometimes look empty and crazed. It’s kind of scary.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

10. NO GAME NO LIFE (ep. 1-8) – Legendary brother and sister gamers Sora and Shiro try to take over an alternate world in order to save humanity. This wildly colourful show has its share of pandering and overpowered protagonists, but it frequently succeeds at being imaginative and fun.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

11. Captain Earth (ep. 1-9) – Insofar as being another anime about a young man and giant mecha, this one is fairly competently made, though far from engaging.

I’d say it’s not in the same league as Star Driver or Eureka Seven, although it is definitely a cut above last season’s Buddy Complex.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

12. The irregular at magic high school (Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei) (ep. 1-9) – I enjoy reading other people’s (disparaging) post-episode commentaries of this terrible anime so much that there’s no way I’m going to drop it.

It was recently put to me that I followed GUILTY CROWN to the end for the same reason; and that’s a pretty apt comparison, actually. In both cases, the art, character designs, and other superficial aspects are attractive. However, both have unappealing protagonists who expound questionable, rather off-putting social messages. And both series can be entertaining if you’re watching for the unintentional laughs, but otherwise, are quite painful if taken seriously.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

13. riddle story of devil (Akuma no Riddle) (ep. 1-8) – Unlike last season, in which many series took a while to hit their stride, several shows this time around hit the ground running. Riddle story is one example of a show that started out much better than expected.

However, it has since devolved into a fight of the week scenario. The ending is always the same, too, with the loser just conveniently disappearing. And unfortunately, that seems to be the trend this season, where series might start out strong but then utterly fail to keep up the momentum.

I suppose there will be some big reveal at the end after all the fights are over, but getting there could be a bit tedious. At least the main character is likeable; she’s also of the strong, silent variety, which I apparently admire.
(streaming at FUNimation)

14. ONE WEEK FRIENDS (Isshuukan Friends.) (ep. 1-9) – Hase is determined to be friends with his classmate Fujimiya even though she suffers from a memory disorder. It’s sweet and touching and the kids are cute. I think this anime deserves the praise that it frequently gets; it’s just that I personally find it to be a tiny bit dull. It’s the kind of show that I might forget to watch if I didn’t have it written down on my list.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

15. NOBUNAGA THE FOOL (ep. 13-21) – Well, if you enjoyed the first half, this cour continues to deliver more of the same. Da Vinci is still playing with his Tarot cards, Mitsuhide still gets an opportunity to flick his hair in practically every episode, and Jeanne continues to be useless and needlessly sexualized.

The OP and ED themes are decidedly not as good this time around, though.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

16. La corda d’oro -Blue Sky- (Kiniro no Corda: Blue Sky) (ep. 1-9) – Not sure why I’m watching this show. I didn’t even watch the first series. All I can say is it’s harmless and inoffensive. I find it somewhat amusing that they are music students taking part in a musical competition, but they use terminology usually heard in sports anime or war stories. Oh yeah: the best part is the Yokohama scenery.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

17. BLACK BULLET (ep. 1-9) – This has been pretty consistently mediocre. The visuals are nice, but the pointless monologues and out-of-place boob jokes betray the show’s lack of substance.

The showdown between Rentaro and Tina in ep. 7 was actually thrilling and well-animated. Too bad the resolution was so hokey. Well, it was obvious that Tina would eventually switch allegiances, but still. At one point Rentaro even thanked her for “saving” Enju’s life. Um, she shot her full of bullets and stopped just short of killing her; “spared” her life, I could see, but “saved” is preposterously generous. So in the end, Rentaro, Kisara and Enju, all of them targets of Tina’s prior assassination attempts, welcomed her with open arms. Meanwhile, Tina acted like she was completely guiltless; not even a, “I’m sorry I tried to kill you. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” I guess this is what you can get away with if you’re cute enough. Oh, anime.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

18. BRYNHILDR IN THE DARKNESS (Gokukoku no Brynhildr) (ep. 1-9) – The initial premise sounded interesting, but when I realized that all the secondary characters were girls, I thought it might be bad. So going in, I expected this show to be haremy and fanservicey. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that the first 2 episodes were fairly restrained and respectably plot-driven.

However, it’s just gone down from there, to the point where it seemed like 50% of ep 5 was juvenile, unfunny sexual pandering. And that, regrettably, seems to be the pattern that the show has settled into since then.

On the plus side, the other 50% is still decent, which is why I haven’t dropped it yet. And the anime boasts a surprisingly classy intrumental OP. I can’t recommend this show to anyone, though. Some of those icky parts actually make me cringe.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

19. The Kawai Complex Guide to Manors and Hostel Behavior (Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou) (ep. 1-9) – I came close to dropping this head-scratchingly-titled anime several times. Pretty much nothing happens in it. There are a few funny moments here and there, but I could easily stop watching and not miss it at all, I think.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

Notable Drop:

MEKAKUCITY ACTORS (ep. 1-4) – Clearly I am not the target audience for this series. I have virtually no prior familiarity with the Kagerou Project’s Niconico music videos. On top of that, I frequently have a very negative visceral reaction to SHAFT aesthetics and animation style.

If I wasn’t watching with my sister, who has a passing interest in Kagerou Project, I would never have made it through 4 whole episodes! I just couldn’t take it anymore after that.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)