The (Rarely) Good, The (Usually) Bad, and Saekano ♭

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Light novel adaptations have a reputation for being disasters waiting to happen. The number of light novel adaptations that come and go each season seems to increase as time goes by, with a number of them being pelted by viewers with verbal insults and sarcastic raspberries. History has shown that many of these novel-to-anime transitions can be fairly successful (Toradora!, Monogatari series, Baccano!, to name a few), but to compare it to all the misses, the scale tends to dip towards a dark and stormy direction. In recent years, the number of these adaptations that have given me a stir has been quite low—try as some might to remain on my good graces—but a certain series has appeared that has reminded me that light novels can be a source of quality entertainment.

It does so by laughing at the clichés light novel stories normally cruise upon.

Saekano’s first season was a rocky trail, full of ups and downs and rough footings. Its biggest fault lie with its inability to stay consistent in both its parody and level of seriousness with its actual story and characters. It paints the image of the typical high school setting with the typical female character archetypes fighting over the typically overbland male lead while working together in the typical environment of a club. However, quite soon into the first episode, viewers will find something off about the dialogue, the situations, and one specific character. It follows the trends perfectly, though not without some subtle inclinations of self-awareness. Self-awareness? Subtlety? Together?

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Gloriously, it found its shtick. It uncovered the power of quiet strength within the ability to gently mock what it’s so keenly identifying with. With this, a path of unpredictability follows, allowing the writer to control exactly how these typically overdone situations play out, and how these typical archetypes are developed as people. Unfortunately, I feel it overindulges in its display of tense, sexual situations involving the male lead for the sake of sexual fan service. Too often it paraded itself as being self-aware while also partaking in everything it seemed to mock without reason. What would be a great way to mock the oversimplified, one-dimensional, and horribly slow pace of developing relationships between teenage characters abundant with sexual tension? Actually developing their relationships. Saekano doesn’t quite seem to understand this.

Hearing that a sequel was announced, I was honestly excited. I found there was enough potential left undone in the first season to warrant more chances in a sequel. To some extent, there are some lingering drawbacks to what Saekano ♭ does that ring familiar when reminiscing about the first season. What ends up becoming different is what it almost drops altogether.

The biggest compliment that one could give to Saekano ♭ is that it feels like a serious story. From beginning to end, the situations presented feel realistic within the context of the characters’ bonds and the weight of their club’s growing popularity. This doesn’t feel tight within its beginning episodes, which is probably the biggest flaw and another level of inconsistency that the story takes in stride. An occasional line about the characters being self-aware exist, but as the series goes on, it disappears. All it does is embody the drama and the emotions that would come with the story at its current position, months past its chronological starting point. As though Saekano as a series had evolved from its caterpillar roots into a butterfly of its own volition, it almost completely abandons its cynical nature and takes it upon itself to sterilize the tone for the sake of maximizing its emotional potency.

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This ends up being the most intriguing factor of Saekano ♭, seeing as it wonderfully transitions from its condescending mimicry to hopeful drama concerning following in one’s decisions and ideals. It does exactly what I felt should have been done more in the first season, even if somewhat sporadically and with many spoonfuls of bitterness. Its final few episodes provide a lot of character insight and how they would react under tense situations; “adversity,” if you will. Even if one character seems to be getting more than the other. There’s something there for people to latch onto, and no longer does the series rely on balancing the act of being serious about not being serious. Should it have taken this seriously from the start, who knows how the series could’ve ended up. As it is now, it at least gains points for being fairly unique.

I suppose the entire point of this post was to both generate buzz for a light novel-adapted anime I find of good quality while also lamenting that light novel-adapted anime can’t take more risks. I understand the business, the desire to make a profit by taking refuge into the clichés that sell and that work. Primarily sex and fantasy flicks that don’t offer much intellectual stimulation. But imagine a world where stories can be free to be as imaginatively weird or stupid or challenging as possible. To cast off the shackles of what the money commands and have people be given the liberty to write what they please. Ah! Please excuse me, I’m getting a little too idealistic. In any case, Saekano ♭ is a decent sequel and a rare example of a light novel-adapted anime that has enough to tickle the noggin to stimulate the internal pump, all while transcending its initial identity to prominent execution of industry standards.

The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.

Entry #20: Ao no Kanata no Four Rhythm (SoA 2017)

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(Recommended, once again, by D.)

I would write a thought-out post on this anime, but I forgot I even watched it about ten minutes after I finished.

Just kidding. Sort of.

A long time ago—back in late 2012—I watched a series called Hoshizora e Kakaru Hashi. Even back in my early days of anime-perusing, it was especially notable for being horribly dull and uneventful. Tack on five years to present time, and I watched Ao no Kanata no Four Rhythm. It’s especially notable for being horribly dull and uneventful.

One could almost copy/paste a lot of the strengths and weaknesses of Hoshizora and put them here under a different name. The two series share a number of similarities, such as both being adapted from visual novels and involve competitive sports (though Four Rhythm has a larger emphasis on it). Their biggest differences being Hoshizora involves lots of romance and Four Rhythm has sci-fi stuff. On a technical aspect, neither series has any particular flaw… other than being incredibly simplistic in its presentation.

It’s no secret I prefer subtlety over bluntness, however in the case of realistic(ish) settings, I’d prefer a boost of energy or enthusiasm, some way or another. Four Rhythm has a nice introduction, filling in the minor details and introducing the characters and hinting at their inner insecurities. At some point, they begin to develop a formula to go by, mostly involving the primarily female cast practicing and competing in the sport the anime makes up: Flying Circus. The details go like this: it involves people using anti-gravity boots to fly around and touch airborne buoys or slap each other’s backs to score points within a time limit. Sounds cool. It isn’t.

What makes Four Rhythm so dull is that its focal point, Flying Circus, isn’t entertaining. The rules are too simplistic and the strategies put into it are almost never complex. One could literally just zoom around and touch buoys or slam on their opponent’s back for the whole time and that’d be it. Admittedly, the “dogfights” are more entertaining than touching buoys. Rather, I think without the buoys, it could pass off as an intriguing form of aerial wrestling. Unfortunately, this is what we get and it’s pretty bland. Not only with the game, but how the game is shown. Cliché is a nice word to describe the drama attached to Four Rhythm. One could also use phrases such as “Lazy shounen ripoff” or “Typical sports stuff.”

I acknowledge that a lot of what I’m criticizing isn’t really bad on its own. It’s just that there’s really nothing new here, nothing that hasn’t been done before better by other series. And while applause is granted for Four Rhythm’s creativity with its shtick, it just has no… “oomph.” No spark. No pizzazz. Nothing out of the ordinary. Floating around in meaningless existence.

Oh, I guess the animation’s pretty okay. Yeah, I got nothing.

Personal Score: D

Critical Score: C-

The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.

Entry #19: Higashi no Eden (SoA 2017)

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(Recommended by a coasting chatter.)

They may as well have translated this title as Eden of the Least. Here is yet another example of a series not taking itself to its full potential, but due in part to there not being enough time to get everything fully fulfilled. In the first few episodes, characters are established, their personalities are bursting, and their interactions are perfectly realistic within the confusing introduction. Everything within the shadows reveals itself at a nice pace and the manner in which things are brought up are entertaining to see. The combo of a strange boy with unknown origins and a girl whose trying to become something in society are a charming pair, with even more intrigue involved with knowing the “mysteries” behind each character. What’s provided to the viewer early on is a promising masterpiece in waiting—only if one is willing to wait, as this series isn’t.

Something of the same vein as KiznaiverHigashi no Eden suffers from a very rushed and incredibly unfulfilling finale. The weight of the plot that is to be revealed is far greater than what the series can develop in a mere eleven episodes. Part Mirai Nikki, part Ghost in the Shell, the atmosphere of the overall conflict affects the world, and the participants are trapped within a game that they cannot escape from. However, the emphasis of the game is to change the world for the better. So, what makes it better? The series hardly seems interested in answering that, such for the sake of trying to tie everything together as well as they could under the time allotted. The ending suffers for it, and if not for the two sequel films, it would become a story filled with an underwhelming sense of bravado, brushed under the rug without the tools to help it grow.

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Almost ironically, the longer the series goes on, the more it crams itself with things to develop. Much like a shounen hero bearing the weight of everyone’s grief on his shoulders, Higashi no Eden continues to pile on thing after thing until it’s crawling towards the finish line. (Many) More characters, more plot developments, more moral graying, and more things to add to the already enormously lenient plot that needs to be filled to make sense. It already doesn’t, as the very foundation of why the game exists in the first place and the capabilities of the players’ powers is far too vague to take seriously, but why not try and establish a little security? By the final moments, everything’s so cluttered that one forgets why they even cared in the first place.

But there is a lot of good here. It’s just unrealized good that can’t find any solace within the junkyard of unnecessary slop. The main couple are, to some extent, developed and have wonderful chemistry. The humor isn’t bad, the pacing is good up until the final episodes, and without the easy plotholes formed around the power of the players of the game, the intrigue behind Eden’s mystery is well-established. It constantly keeps one’s attention through baiting more clarity on the male lead’s origins and his relationships with those around him. The payoff is lousy, though the build-up is fairly consistent in its allure.

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On the topic of “consistency,” animation is of the same caliber. While not glossy or particularly unique, the animation in Higashi no Eden allows a lot of the humor and the realistic situations to feel more real. Not without zany overreactions, which I would argue is a positive, the comedy aspect is underused, but sprinkled just enough to liven up certain scenarios that may otherwise qualify as dull. Standard as it may be, I quite liked the designs of the characters, particularly the main couple. They fit their characters’ quirks perfectly; the normal, hopeful female and the mysterious, quick-witted male. Their faces remind me a tad of modern-day Digimon character designs, with a touch of Studio Ghibli. There were never any noticeable fluctuations in animation, though some shortcuts were taken every once in a while.

It’s an easy watch, but an unfulfilling one on top of it. I would almost feel more comfortable telling people to shy away from the series due to its rushed ending, but without seeing the sequel films, I can’t make that call. It’s entirely possible those films can justify what the series wanted to do in its limited time table. Until that point, the series itself is somewhat of a time-waster, promising a number of interesting details only to have the final product be pretty ordinary. All that once seemed to be a reason to keep going is basically abandoned by the end in favor of the major plotline. The same applied to my tolerance.

Personal Score: C

Critical Score: C

The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.

Entry #18: Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso (SoA 2017)

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(Recommended, once again, from somewhere over the rainbow.)

Imagine, if you will, a stone. This stone has been sitting, completely motionless, on the untainted soil of a far-off rural place for decades. No fear of nature or mankind can deter the stone from moving from its spot upon the isolated plain. Resolute in its stature, it occupies the space it feels true to embody, comfortable in its blissful state of hibernation. Such time has passed and the stone never wavers—no wind so strong or bouts of irrigation too severe could stir the rock from its rightful place. Forever holding, always withstanding. The stone carries on wordlessly, motionless.

Now let me ask you a question: after imagining that short snippet, full of pseudo-intellectual musings and blunt determination, do you care at all about that stone? No, of course you don’t. Because it’s a fucking stone.

Shigatsu no Kimi no Uso is a lot like that stone, carrying forth in its stationary state. With it comes the most prominent flaw that, perhaps excusable, effectively destroys everything this anime hopes to accomplish: it’s artificial. It’s fake. It’s not real. It’s a mirage, an illusion, a decoy, insufficient in its authenticity. Like the stone, it is not worth caring for; and like the stone, it carries on regardless.

These characters, this story that they’re placed in. Their thoughts, their motivations, their actions, the way symbolic things seem to just happen out of circumstance. Everything feels so forcibly overindulgent, so egotistically self-serving that it damn near insults me that it tries to parade itself as this David among anime. Its atmosphere is repugnant, devoid of the soft touch necessary to really provoke the harrowing themes presented in a relatable and realistic tone. Very few times does it succeed in allowing what it tries too hard to evoke truly unravel in an un-condescending fashion.

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In short, the characters do not feel real. The setting does not feel real. Shigatsu in its entirety feels like a carefully constructed ruse to manipulate the audience into caring about puppets in human clothing. A lot of this is attributed to the writing, which is atrocious. Constantly whispering the most overdramatic cues, things that the viewer can perfectly see without the use of words—oh, how this anime adores to listen to itself speak. There’s too much jabbering, too much emphasis on telling the viewer exactly what to think and how to feel, instead of letting the imagery speak for itself. Like the author was scared that a moment without obvious self-reflection through monologue would tear down the foundation of their beautiful sanctuary of a drama. If these characters could go a single moment without thinking about how pitiful their existence is, perhaps it wouldn’t be so obvious that everything will be okay by the end.

This hostile nature shows through even more about halfway through the series, when the arc of the male lead in a sense “concludes” and focuses more on the side-characters, none of whom I care about. The exploration of the childhood friend’s attraction to the male lead is so boring, so unfulfilling that I almost wonder if I’m watching a completely different series. On its own, I wouldn’t complain nearly as much, but these characters… they’re all so mirrored by their ideals and/or character archetypes that they may as well not even try. Being that they’re a part of this series, with this writing and this atmosphere, makes their development doomed to fail—in the most melodramatic and self-introspective way possible.

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But then there are outliers: the rival pianists opposite the male lead. Initially, they’re the same manner of puppetry as everyone else, but as the series progresses and the three begin to see the way in which they improve one another as musicians, it becomes… actually worthwhile. The scene in which the three sit down and enjoy egg sandwiches together (IF NOT FOR THE WRITING MAKING THEM SPOUT UNNECESSARY SHIT THAT IS PERFECTLY OBVIOUS TO THE EYE) is actually heartwarming, and made me somewhat wonder how the series would’ve fared if they cut out the romance aspects (as in cutting blondie and childhood friend out completely) and focused on pure competition arcs. After all, the competitions were the points where the anime became… not-as-obnoxious-but-still-somewhat-obnoxious.

Despite all that I complained about previously and the still withstanding hostility present with the series, the writing and the atmosphere are the only things that really drag this series down. Large aspects as they are, they’re the only things that can be seen as major flaws with the series. Not to mention, these aspects are almost frustratingly controversial, as what I see as overdramatic, others could see as necessary. What I see as puppets for characters, others could see as characters with genuine heart and complexity. These aspects are the only things I feel can be combated with this series, at least from a technical aspect. Everything else ranges from “alright” to truly spectacular.

Most prominently, and perhaps most important to this series’s success (from a cynic’s viewpoint) is the wonderful animation. Shigatsu is a gorgeous anime, one cannot deny that. The designs are a great blend of realistic and typical anime, highlighting facial features such as lips and cheeks and what-not. Even more so, animation is fairly consistent in being top-of-the-line. When the series wants to convey the feelings of the characters, it can absolutely do so. Some of the most beautiful representations of emotions can be found here, if not trying to compete against the writing. If the series would just stop talking, a lot of these moments could become fantastically immersive.

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Here’s a controversial statement: I liked the comedy in this series. Well, that statement isn’t entirely accurate. It’s not that the comedy is particularly funny, but it’s spirited and animated with such energy that I can’t help but find it charming. It reminds me a lot of Miman Renai and a little of Kill la Kill‘s bouncy exuberance. Obviously the mood is different here, but it features much of the same over-the-top absurdity that makes it fun despite it. This also made me wonder how the series would’ve fared if it decided to be a slice-of-life comedy instead of a hyper-mega-force drama. Is it a bad sign that I keep imagining what a series would be like if it wasn’t the series it already was?

Essentially, Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso is a stone that tries to become the most pitiful and moving stone to ever grace the earth. Except it’s a stone, an inanimate object, that only the biggest treehuggers would care for. Obviously, the accolades and popularity surrounding this anime makes my opinion on it within the minority, but that’s the cost of being within a demographic so keen on empathy. I guess you could say it’s THE POWER OF EMOTIONS!!! at work, performing overtime, on Thanksgiving, on every planet in the solar system.

Personal Score: C-

Critical Score: C

The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.

Entry #17: Uchuu Senkan Yamato 2199 (SoA 2017)

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(Recommended by a complex rodent.)

Another short one today. It can be summed up simply, and effectively, without much elaboration.

Uchuu Senkan Yamato 2199 is a testament to anime of old, particularly that of space opera. After all, much of anime’s popularity back before I was ever born spawned from the fascination with transcendent robotics and machinery, a la Astro Boy and Mobile Suit Gundam. With it comes the territory one might expect from a series of yesteryear, only with an updated design.

It’s almost sickening to criticize the series for being true to itself, as it embodies a lot of the heart and spirit that went into the original series, full of love and creativity. It’s a lot like how many people see the new Star Wars films: an ode to the original fun and almost campy appeal of the original trilogy, just with newer stuff. That being said, when comparing it to the technology available and to those with the same narrative themes, there are series that still do it better.

That isn’t a swipe at 2199, as the series on its own is very well done, capable of holding its own against the newest trends and current generation. Its simplicity adorns the structure of the series, which allows for a number of other elements, such as character and story, to make a more weighted role in its quality. In layman’s terms, 2199 tries, and one can definitely see this in its progression.

What brings it down is that it suffers from a lot, and I mean a lot, of little tedious inconsistencies that eventually build up to dull the sensation of full-on enjoyment. One such thing is predictability, as the series is fairly by-the-books and doesn’t like to hide much from the viewer’s expectations. Another is plot armor, which keeps characters alive (both good and bad) for way longer than they should, and through events that really, really, really should kill them. And in a cruel respite almost designed to test my patience, this series also relies quite heavily, especially in the final episodes, on THE POWER OF EMOTIONS!!! For the most part, this is bearable, but when it starts performing miracles that predicate the “necessity” of happy endings, that’s when I start to groan.

There is certainly more good than bad here, and nothing is so glaring that it would hamper the enjoyment of the series’s overall structure. Should one like to employ upon an intergalactic adventure that could also double for a history lesson, Uchuu Senkan Yamato 2199 is a fulfilling experience that I feel lives up to the significance set by its original work. Though, I wouldn’t set hopes sky high, as the number of little trifles that scatter themselves throughout are enough to make not every moment smooth sailing.

Personal Score: B-

Critical Score: B

The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.

Quick Thoughts on Renai Boukun

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It’s one of those shows. You know it the moment you see the cover. One of those shows where you look and immediately think, “This is gonna be pretty dumb.” That is the only context you need going in, because it will not leave you disappointed. Renai Boukun is pretty dumb.

That is its only merit. It is stupid fun for the sake of it. Should it have been that way all throughout, perhaps I would’ve liked it more. Much to my dismay, Renai Boukun gets ahead of itself and tries to take itself… seriously… by its final two episodes. Lord, have mercy on my soul, for thou hath given me a sumptuous pillar of sin.

It’s dumb fun, and that’s all it will ever be. So to try and incorporate serious dramatics into a series devoid of all seriousness, the series is effectively ruined. Love, bonding, character development; all that is a foreign concept that shouldn’t be trifled with. Should one throw fish on land? Should one try and put pigs in the sky? These things, these concepts, just do not exist. They do not happen. Without proper balance, neither does the dumb insanity, riddled in fan service, work with what Renai Boukun’s serious questions on love and commitment by its final episodes. The viewer couldn’t possibly take it seriously, and I would argue the series wouldn’t either.

The biggest asset to the anime’s arsenal is its almost parody-like aloofness. Harems are not normally subtle, but Renai Boukun takes every cliché and makes it seem necessary to its “plot.” It’s fairly intoxicating to see a series so willing to dine in on every meal on the menu without hesitation. Its expressiveness and enthusiasm isn’t entirely rare, but it serves itself well when it plays itself off as a play on its genre. But to then change course and have its cake and eat it, too, it effectively sabotages its chances of being, how should I say, ironically wonderful. Almost in a Cat Planet Cuties or Ladies vs. Butlers! kind of way.

There’s a lot to be said about how little can be said. Any more and I run the risk of overexplaining the obvious—that being that Renai Boukun screwed itself into being something almost transcendingly pleasurable. In a guilty way, of course. Initially, it almost seemed like one of those dumb series I could look back on fondly and reminisce about its wackiness. Now, it’ll be lucky to not fall within the category of “Oh, yeah. I watched that once.”

The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.

Entry #16: Drifters (SoA 2017)

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(Recommended, once again, by Cake-o’s Bakery.)

It’s ironic that I ended up watching this directly after Arslan Senki (and that it was recommended by the same person), as both series share many of the same flaws. Whereas Arslan Senki managed to make something out of its story through political intrigue and clearly focusing on such, Drifters is more of an anarchist tribute to Mortal Kombat’s early years. Its story is established and little more, leading the way to boundless amounts of blood, gore, and profanity. This is not a series you’d want your kids to learn from.

Here lies the million-dollar question: What does it all mean? The blood shed, the slurs spouted, the input of historical figures parading the battlegrounds of another world. How does Drifters manage to turn this into a coherent and immersive experience for the viewer? By employing the most safe and inoffensive plot in all of anime. A fantasy world after death is in a power struggle between two people, and both are collecting recruits to fight for their side. One is the good side (despite the “non-good” people) and one is the bad side. The good side wins (with no effort) because they are the good guys. But alas, the season ends with an open ending, so that the second season can come through and leave people clamoring for more. How can I ever live without knowing if the good guys win or not? It’s almost like I haven’t seen this story approximately 258 times in the past few years.

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Obvious sarcasm aside, the way the story is presented and how its development is essentially abandoned due to the focus on the series’s characters leaves me to believe that it is something I like to call a “Placeholder setting.” A setting that is only there to justify why characters are there or why certain events happen so that everything else becomes free game. Think of old Super Mario games. Mario runs from left to right, dodging Goombas and Koopas to get to the castle at the end of the path. Why? Because he’s on a quest to save the Princess. Nothing more needs to be established. The rest is explored through Mario’s adventures. Placeholder setting. Drifters is the same way. Characters are transported to a fantasy world to fight for a cause they may not even believe in against an opposing force. Nothing more; the rest is established by their conquest. Placeholder setting. With this context, I can only assume that the story cannot be taken seriously or cannot hold a lot of weight toward the anime’s quality. That, in turn, leaves me with one thing to critique: characters.

The main stars here are incredibly famous figures in the world’s history—most notably people within wars or skirmishes. There’s Oda Nobunaga, because when is he ever not in one of these? Joan of Arc is in here, Rasputin is in here, Adolf Hitler is mentioned at one point, and so on. Adding all of these characters together is evident that this is going to be an all-out war of egos and power, and to some extent it is. What it also is is really boring, and at its lowest points, unbearable. No character really establishes themselves as more than a one-track minded pawn. Nobunaga is what you would expect him to be. The actual lead is a typical shounen lead except he kills a lot. And the archer is, well, not really important. None have the charisma to make one care nor do they interact well with one another consistently enough to make one crave more of it. The humor is on par with Bungou Stray Dogs—some may enjoy that, but to me it’s a death sentence, on top of being incredibly distracting.

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One of the most prominent things about Drifters, at least to me, is its attitude. Its vulgar, in-your-face attitude like a prick with a ten-inch dick, flaunting his girth like it gives him worth. It rubbed me the wrong way, and I had to plead with myself not to drop this after episode three. The gall this anime has to essentially praise how little story it has and how blatantly insipid its cast of characters are for the sake of decapitating every unimportant background cast member made me borderline sick. It’s one of those rare cases when an anime actually offends me with how proud of its emptiness it is. It certainly didn’t help with enjoyment, and should it even try to make a case for why I should care for anything, I wouldn’t complain about it. But at the end of the day, Drifters is an empty husk of a product that prioritizes yelling and violence over anything else.

Art is the only thing worth praising here, as it’s crisp, clean, and uniquely within its own that it can at least hold over as eye candy. My one personal nitpick is that I loathe the way these characters over-smile. It looks dumb, and evokes that same “Lookie here! Ten-inch dick!” attitude that makes me want to break this series’s teeth. Characters all look very distinguishable and the amount of variety shows off the animator’s touch for detail. After all, who would expect a dark anime like this one to have an emboldened transgender leading an army towards the final battle? That’s certainly not something one sees everyday in anime.

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Without the obvious disdain I hold for Drifters‘s cockiness, I can praise its attempt at broadcasting something a little different. Historical figures duking it out with one another in a parallel world full of elves and dwarves in an ultra-violent exhibition of total conquest? On its own, it sounds awesome. The first episode left me intrigued enough, so I can’t say definitively that this series couldn’t be saved. However, the way it ultimately ended up leaves me without hope for the second season, which I wholeheartedly plan to skip. It’s a love of blood and gore that, stripped of that distinction, is a below-average fantasy adventure with little to care about in the end. Won’t stop people from handing it good scores for cool action scenes, regardless!

Personal Score: D-

Critical Score: C-

The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.