Tag Archives: Japan

Sword of the Stranger (Movie)

Title: Sword of the Stranger

Content warning: There’s a ton of blood, but not really any gore. Also a few brief scenes of someone under torture.

Kotaro is a young boy on the run. With only his faithful canine companion, Tobimaru, he struggles to avoid the soldiers after him. Then a chance encounter with a nameless samurai offers him hope of returning to a place of safety.

I watched this streaming, and liked it so much I immediately ordered a copy. This isn’t a particularly deep movie, but it’s a lot of fun. Kotaro is stubborn and a bit high and mighty, but he’s also frightened of the soldiers and loves his dog very deeply. Tobimaru alternates between being cute and rising up to defend his master however the situation requires (the scene of him riding in a sling was just adorable). And the nameless man is an excellent swordsman who struggles with the memories of the war he left behind. The journey changes all of them.

On the enemy side, we have the native Japanese who are suspicious (but supportive, for now) of a group of Chinese who are building some grand project. Of particular note is a blond-haired, blue-eyed man the Chinese brought with them, who hungers to fight a worthy opponent. (The comments about him being a barbarian and a demon are perhaps not intended to be jokes, but I found them very funny. No assumption of blond-haired, blue-eyed innocence here.)

Also the hostage situation is one of my favorite parts of the film.  I love when these kinds of things go sideways since so many stories play it straight.

Because the Funimation stream doesn’t offer the Japanese, I can only comment on the English dub, which was very good. Aside from one secondary character whose introductory lines were a weird monotone, everyone had top-notch voice acting. I was especially impressed with Kotaro and the nameless samurai. Kids in anime can sometimes sound a bit weird, but Aiden Drummond really nailed Kotaro. And Michael Adamthwaite did a great job breathing life into No-Name. I also really liked that the dub kept the Chinese portions intact (Funimation’s stream, at least, shows subtitles on these parts). Since the Japanese don’t understand what the Chinese are muttering to themselves, it’s nice to have the foreign language to reinforce that.

Overall this is perhaps a bit too eager to throw around lots of blood splatters, but is otherwise a movie I plan to show my friends. I rate this Recommended.

Twelve Kingdoms (Anime)

Title: Twelve Kingdoms

Episodes: 1-45
Rewatch

Youko has a quiet, ordinary life–except for her monster-filled nightmares. But when a strange man shows up at her school and whisks her and two of her friends to another world, her life changes forever. She didn’t want this. She’s not ready for this. Going home is not an option. If she’s going to survive, she’ll have to confront murderous monsters and a jealous king, and in the process discover her destiny . . .

It’s hard to put into words everything about this that makes it my favorite series. The first time I saw it was like the first time I read Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones—the kind of story that just makes your soul resonate. This had everything I liked in stories: fantastic creatures (bonus points for being intelligent and able to talk!), magic, swords, shapeshifters, getting taken to another world . . . and also the core of deep character building, where Youko is forced to confront herself and rise above, to become a queen in actuality and not just role. Also a huge plus for me personally was the lack of romance. With the exception of Youko’s initial crush on Asano (which he doesn’t return), the story ignores romance in favor of action and intrigue.

Youko wasn’t my favorite character initially: that was always Sugimoto, the fantasy lover, whose utter delight at finding herself in a world like her books contrasts sharply with Youko’s tendency to cry over every setback. But Youko grows up, facing herself as well as her circumstances, and Sugimoto is again her dark mirror as she sinks ever deeper into jealousy and frustration. And the story doesn’t give Youko many breaks. I was shocked at the encounter with Taki the first time I saw this, and Taki is merely one of many who may help or hinder in ways not initially obvious.

But when Youko does confront herself, and later the embedded corruption in her country, she doesn’t do it halfway. That meek little people-pleaser hid a backbone of steel. She’s constantly confronted with her own weaknesses, her own stupidity, her own limitations, but that isn’t going to stop her from pouring everything she has into the decisions she eventually makes. I love her second story arc (episodes 23-39) because they tackle a fascinating question I hardly ever see in secondary-world fantasy: having been given the throne, how does an outsider actually rule well? Youko isn’t just ignorant about government, she’s ignorant about geography, history, climate, inhabitants, everything. And that ignorance, through no fault of her own, costs her dearly.

As much as I enjoy Youko, she’s not the only excellent character. King En and Enki are two that never fail to amuse. I love Enki’s accusation that En enjoys playing the bad guy way too much–right after decking his own king in front of other people. I love that En’s introduction is “Kill monsters first, ask questions later.” He and Enki both are hands-on, stubborn, and full of surprises. En is so unconventional. It’s one thing to go down to hang out with the lay people in disguise—it’s another when your ministers are constantly needing to bust you out of jail for getting into bar brawls. En seems to exist to drive his ministers insane. (See: nicknames. En is a giant troll.) But behind that teasing, En is working out plans on a level no one expects. He and Youko are very similar in a lot of ways, but there’s also a profound gap between them. En is a leader born and raised, and he gets how people work.

And I love Taiki. One of the biggest frustrations I have is that the anime doesn’t finish adapting out Demon Child (Mashou no Ko), which gives at least a little closure to the horrible situation Taiki finds himself in. The intersection of past and present in the anime does lend an element of horror that isn’t really there in the books—because it’s obvious from the outset that something went drastically wrong if Taiki is now back in Japan with no memories of his time in the Twelve Kingdoms. (The blood on his face does provide a clue that it’s due to his horn being damaged, but the books are clearer on that point.) And I like the anime’s decision to use Sugimoto to pry into his history, because she’s a foil for him. Her venture into the Twelve Kingdoms taught her she couldn’t grab for a world that wasn’t hers, and she assumes Takasato is the same, although the situation isn’t supporting her assumptions. Taiki is also unusual in being the only kirin to really struggle with being a kirin. He’s too used to being human to really get most of what is supposed to be natural to him. And I like that Taiki unwittingly showcases Keiki as a gigantic stick-in-the-mud. Even other kirin think Keiki is too much, heh. (If you’re interested in reading Demon Child to see some additional scenes, the translation can be found here: https://tu-shu-guan.blogspot.com/2006/08/demon-child-prefacing-poem.html)

I’m less fond of Suzu and Shoukei, but I do like their character arcs. Both of them are extremely self-centered, but it plays out differently. Suzu is unconsiously addicted to being miserable, whereas Shoukei has a massive entitlement complex. Youko, compared to them, is starting from a much better place, but she’s still clawing herself out of the pit of pleasing others rather than forging her own way ahead. All three of them suffer from ignorance (though in Youko’s case, it’s at least excusable because she just hasn’t had time to get caught up on how this world, much less her kingdom, actually works). I love the challenge to Suzu about the different reasons why people cry–and that she’s stuck in a child’s mindset despite having been alive over 100 years. (This is a show very much not afraid to outright TELL its characters “Grow up.”)

And that’s just the characters. I also really like how the show approaches destiny and the will of the heavens. There is absolutely an element of choice for everyone involved—but those who challenge heaven find themselves in the way of heaven’s justice. And it raises some fascinating questions about Keiki’s first queen, and who she might have been if she hadn’t crumbled, and other questions along those lines. Destiny can be denied, thwarted, foiled at the individual level. But the heavens aren’t, long-term. Or take Youko’s struggle to figure out what makes a ruler a good one. Every time I watch this, I see some new facet that leads me to wonder about something else.

I get that this series may not be for everyone, but for myself it’s basically perfect. I only wish we had more. Even with Demon Child’s happier ending, Taiki’s situation remains grim (and what DID happen in Tai?). Whether the stories would be about Youko or someone else, I’m always happy to visit this world. I rate this series Highly Recommended.

Toukiden 2 (PS4/PC)

Monsters known as Oni are invading the real world from the Otherworld. Ten years ago in Yokohama, the Oni broke through—and threw you through a gate ten years in the future. Now you are tasked with defending the village of Mahoroba from the Oni as a Slayer.

There isn’t much to talk about plot-wise for this game. It proceeds mostly as you might expect (although I was pleasantly surprised by both Benizuki and Kuyo). I like that there is a story mode, though, which helps add some variety and meaning to otherwise randomly going out and killing monsters. The Professor was easily my favorite character, for her snarky attitude and rather dangerous inventions.

Toukiden 2 boasts a world map in addition to missions that can be taken through the base town. I would’ve liked the world map a LOT better if you could warp to any of the portal stones (you can use any stone to go back to HQ, but you can only transfer from HQ to your bases, which makes getting to certain points on the map a trek every time). Also, I was frustrated by the fact that you get a grappling claw that lets you vault over cliffs…. but you still often need to walk around relatively minor barriers, which made some maps (Age of Grace in particular) more like mazes. I am also not fond of the “miasma exposure limit” still being a thing even after you purify an area. It feels like a way to artificially limit how much you can explore without going back to some kind of base.

That said, it was still nice to have actual environments to explore. The game provides both shiny object pickups, various crests, and wooden markers with some backstory as an incentive to poke around every corner.

Your teammates are good at dispatching the Oni, so picking companions for me usually involved picking whomever I needed to max out relationships with. You don’t get any control over their skills, and you have limited ability to direct them in battle (which I never used because I forgot the button combination).

I didn’t play too much with all the weapon types, but there is a good amount of variety. I mostly stuck with knives because I like fast-hitting weapons, although a major downside is that they offer no defensive capabilities. Tutorials are available for every weapon type, and every skill type, and these can be repeated as desired, so it’s easy to sample the various weapons and choose a favorite.

Skills are handled through Mitama, which are spirits that choose to help you. They range from historical figures to literary figures to a few gods and goddesses. Each one gets a nice portrait and a little voice clip, and has a number of skills that can be learned and equipped. These can be earned through the story, sidequests, or by slaying Oni. It can be a big job to collect them all, but just going through the story and doing a little extra will get plenty for a more casual run.

I didn’t care for most of the Oni designs, sadly, with Drakwing (a more traditional western dragon) being a major exception. They do offer a good challenge, though, and fighting them feels more interesting because of a tendency to transform at about half health, which can completely change attack patterns. If KO’d, you get a limited amount of time to be revived, and if KO’d again, your revival time picks up where the last time left off, so whether or not you can even come back depends on how quickly your teammates can get to you, even the first time. This likely isn’t as much a problem for more skilled players but I die enough to find it annoying, especially when certain fights include multiple Oni and it’s easy to get slammed by the one you weren’t attacking.

On the plus side, the auto save functionality, plus the ability to manually save anywhere except inside a fight, means you probably won’t lose too much progress if wiped out, even if you were exploring the Otherworld at the time.

Overall, I had fun with this, although God Eater is definitely my hunter game of choice due to several different mechanics (ranged and defensive included on all weapons, a less arbitrary revival system, the ability to earn unlimited tickets for material crafting, more colorful monsters which are more visually interesting, better story, epic music). That said, I’m still poking around in postgame trying to collect more Mitama, craft a better weapon, finish collecting crests, and so on. I have no idea what my hour count was because the save files only indicate the last time you saved, not the total hour count, and it’s been pretty fun for the most part. I rate this game Recommended.

Noragami Aragoto (Anime)

Title: Noragami Aragoto

Episodes 1-13 (13-25 overall; it’s season 2 of Noragami)

Yato’s trouble as a stray god of calamity are only getting worse. Bishamon, the war goddess with a huge grudge against him, has finally pushed him too far. And beyond that, Yato’s shadowed past is coming back to haunt him . . .

This season focuses on two major arcs, which was great for me since I prefer longer stories. I particularly liked what happens with Yukine this season.

Last season, Yato went far above and beyond to give Yukine every chance he could, and Yukine is determined to repay the favor. He’s too new to really know what’s expected of him, so he’s determined to learn how to fulfill his role to the best of his ability (and his abilities are considerable). The methods he chooses surprise those around him, and although he succeeds in many things, it’s still an open-ended question whether or not he can grant Yato’s dearest wish. That part will likely hinge on Yato himself.

It’s also interesting to see Yukine’s building rivalry with Nora, the other major Regalia in Yato’s life, but one Yato doesn’t seem to want—perhaps because she has multiple names from multiple masters. Yukine wants to be dependable enough that Yato can abandon Nora for good. Nora, however, has her own plans for Yato.

Some parts of these arcs felt a bit rehashed, as Hiyori loses her memories multiple times, although one of those times was a good reminder to her that she’s not specially immune from the consequences of forgetfulness. But Hiyori in general is still a great character. She knows she’s important to Yato, but he can still be really annoying to her since he has no concept of how to relate to people as friends. Still, when she does attempt to do something to make him happy, she never expects the kind of reaction she gets. She’s HUMAN (mostly), and although that puts her under basically everyone who has powers, she’s got her own strengths that none of them can duplicate.

And I liked the direction Yato took here, where his troubles are more evident and his hyper personality comes off more like a desperate wish for how he wants to be. He’s hardly mentioned his own history. Yukine and Hiyori are stuck asking the gods who knew him about a lot of the details, but even they only have fragments of the full story. Yato still has his really aggravating moments, but overall I’ve come to appreciate him more as a character, and I hope he and Yukine will be able to work out a new direction for his life.

Overall I think this is a stronger season than the first, with Yukine’s big moment and subsequent development my favorite parts. But I also liked the deepening relational dynamics, the high level of action, and the rising stakes. There’s a bit at the very end that hints at further complications to come, so I hope a third season will be announced at some point. Until then, I’ll be reading the manga to figure out what happens next. I rate this series Recommended.

Noragami (Anime)

Title: Noragami

Episodes 1-12

Yato is a minor deity so desperate for recognition he’ll do any odd jobs that come his way. But while chasing a stray cat he encounters a girl whose attempt to save him causes her to leave her body. Add to that his attempts to gain a new weapon have landed him with a middle-school boy with a troubled personality . . .

I actually found this show because I stumbled across the second opening on Youtube. When I first looked Noragami up the summary made me discount it as some slice-of-life with a bit of supernatural thrown in, but I kept wondering why they’d pick such a rock-heavy song for an opening if the show was really like that. (For the curious, the song is Hey Kids! by The Oral Cigarettes, and has quickly become one of my favorites. Although it is the opening to the SECOND half, so it’s not actually on these eps at all.)

Fortunately, even the first few minutes of the first episode was enough to disabuse me of that notion. We begin with Yato hunting down a Phantom, a monster invisible to ordinary people, in the middle of the city in broad daylight—although after he vanquishes it, his life starts to go downhill, as much of his power as a god is tied up in the Regalia he uses as his weapon, and his weapon has decided she’s had enough and quits.

I never really liked Yato that much. Most of the drama in this first season results from his insensitivity and careless treatment of Yukine, and it’s hard not to get frustrated when some of the biggest moments could have been avoided or reduced dramatically if they’d just sat down and talked a few things out. But Hiyori helps keep things balanced, as she’s sensible in ways Yato isn’t. Although both Hiyori and Yukine don’t know anything about the supernatural world, they have different ties to it, and different roles.

The humor was also a bit hit or miss for me. I did enjoy some of the gags, but I’m not fond of Yato’s over the top hysterics.

That said, the show as a whole was something I liked. It’s fast-paced, and the supernatural aspect allows for new and strange things to show up on a regular basis. Yato when he’s serious (usually when he’s fighting) is a lot of fun. Hiyori is a great counterbalance for him, as she’s sweet and personable (when she’s not trying to beat up monsters or knock some sense into him). And Yukine somehow manages to be an innocent deliquent.

Overall, this has a good balance of action and character, so if it sounds appealing give it an episode or three to see if it catches your interest. I rate this show Recommended.

The Shadow of Black Wings (The Year of the Dragon #1)

Title: The Shadow of Black Wings

Author: James Calbraith

Series: The Year of the Dragon #1

Bran is a young dragon rider eager to graduate from the Academy and go on with the rest of his life—even if he’s not too sure what he wants to do. A journey taken with his father on a ship bound for places he’s never heard of sounds like a good start. But destiny has some marked him for something else . . .

The land of Yamato is more isolated than the Qin behind their barrier. An island unreachable by most sailors, it nonetheless contains a civilization to rival the rest of the world. But strange divinations foretell great changes. A shrine maiden and her best friend, a female samurai, are more involved than they suspect in the turmoil to come.

I really liked this, but the book suffers greatly from a lack of cohesion. The worldbuilding is excellent, picturing an alternate-history where Bran, who is from either Scotland or Wales (I never looked up what the new names referred to), finds himself on a sea voyage that takes him all the way to China and Japan. Along the way we see various kinds of dragons and magic, and the ways different cultures approach them both. The majority of the beginning and middle is devoted to this, with the greater plot only picking up at the end.

The biggest flaw is that the narrative doesn’t flow well at all. The initial scenes put a great deal of emphasis on Bran’s time at school and the bully that torments him. Both of these things drop out of the story after he graduates (hopefully they’ll surface in a future book so the time spent developing them wasn’t wasted). Then the sea voyage is less of a journey and more of a series of vignettes about various places Bran sees along the way (and the frequent switches from Bran’s point of view to his father’s don’t help much). Then we switch to Yamato and spend a good amount of time setting things up there before the story ever circles back around and connects the two threads. And the story cuts off in the middle of rising action, with nothing resembling a climax, even a minor one.

The ending may be less of a problem if you read the bundle, since I presume the second book will pick up immediately after this one left off. But whether or not you enjoy the book is probably going to come down to how much you like exploring the world, as the rest of the story feels like it needed another draft. I would have preferred alternating chapters between Bran and the girls, as it would have allowed the moment their stories merge to come much closer to the event that caused it.

Overall, I suspect I’ll keep going with this, because I do like it, but you’re probably better off getting the first book while it’s free and sampling it that way. I rate this book Neutral.

Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate

Title: Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate

Author: Richard Parks

Series: Yamada Monogatari (technically there are more about the same character but I was unable to track down what order they are supposed to go)

Yamada no Goji is a minor nobleman with a keen mind and a tolerable blade, but he has little influence at court. So when the conspiracies of the nobility reach out to ensnare him again, he’s reluctant to get involved. But for the sake of an old friend, he agrees—and finds himself confronted by a silent killer who is leaving dead bodies around the city. If he can’t solve the mystery fast enough, he’s bound to lose more of the few people dear to him.

I’m reading these incredibly out of order, I suppose, but it didn’t make much difference as far as I could tell. The story is good about introducing characters, places, customs and so on as needed, without assuming too much knowledge beforehand. I liked the historical Japanese setting, and how naturally the supernatural intersects everyone’s lives. Yamada is smart but not impossible to follow, and the layers of mystery generally work well.

I wasn’t as fond of the alcoholism, or the way the story breaks between its first segment and everything that comes after (largely because Yamada spends four months drinking his life away). It’s a little harder to sympathize with his poverty when he’s wasting multiple opportunities to stay farther out of it.

All in all, though, it worked far more than it didn’t, and I would be interested to read more in this series. This story is fairly self-contained, so it doesn’t hurt to read out of order or as a standalone. I rate this book Recommended.