Anime Reaction: Sword Art Online

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Every now and then, a very special kind of anime is released. An anime that manages to attract even non-anime viewers due to how popular it became, regardless of its actual quality. In 2012, that anime was Sword Art Online (SAO from now on). While there were some anime with a similar concept released before, like Hack//Sign, SAO was what popularized the “stuck in a video game” sub-genre. Everyone liked the concept, how high the stakes were, how cool the characters in it seemed, and most important of all, how badass the main character was. Heck, the way people talked about it made me watch it even though I was, at the time, stuck with the big three anime and refused to watch anything else. Unfortunately, other than the novelty that it presented at the time, as well as the cool-sounding premise, SAO ended up not delivering anything it promised. Nowadays it’s treated mostly as a joke in the anime community, and for a good reason: the attention it got, despite its mediocre quality, created a huge wave of anti-hype with the people that watched it after it was done airing, which resulted in it becoming one of the black sheep of the medium in the eyes of veteran anime fans. In this review, I will attempt to explain why SAO failed, as well as what could have been improved.

As I mentioned previously, the premise is pretty cool: in the near future, virtual reality became a thing and, of course, the MMO genre was extremely popular, going by the name VRMMO now. Sword Art Online was a very popular game at this time, and the favorite game of our main character, Kirito. After trying the game out a bit, the people who were playing SAO realize that they cannot log out. Soon the game creator appears and basically tells them that they need to complete the game, that is to clear all 100 floors of Aincraid, the game’s world, if they wish to escape. He also tells them that if they die in the game, the Nervegear, which is the equipment they use to dive into the game, would fry their brain, resulting in dying in real life as well. So the epic adventure begins with the players forming guilds, parties, and attempting to adapt to the life in the game as, at the same time, they try to fight their way through all the floors. To beat a floor, one must defeat its boss and only then can they go up. Doesn’t this sound extremely promising? I mean, the stakes are really high, you have to avoid dying at all costs since you won’t get a second chance, and the superb potential of the world building is out of this world! Of course, that’s just some wishful thinking right there, as the premise is where the praise for this anime ends.

Let’s start with the main character, Kirito. He’s a beta-tester of the game, and the author uses that to excuse how overpowered he is compared to other players. Heck he can take damage from a party of like 5 people at the same time and not even get a scratch.He got to play the game before the others, so it’s justified. Unfortunately that excuse is not only really bad in the context of the anime, as we’re never shown other beta testers who should be as strong as him, as it is really lazy since we’re never shown Kirito’s growth in power, so we just know his overpowered persona. In most anime the protagonist starts weak and they have to train to learn new things, and we as the audience grow attached to the character as we see them struggle. Heck even Naruto does that right. In SAO, however, the author prioritizes making Kirito look cool rather than making him a good character. This is evident when he makes all the girls automatically fall for him, when he makes him defeat huge groups of people without taking damage, and when he shows how over confident he is right in the second episode. And that’s the problem: there’s too much emphasis on how cool he is and none on his personality, flaws, development or even a good background. Since the anime skips 2 years into the future right away, all we get is a background from when Kirito joined a guild and ended up having his friends dying in front of him, which made him not want to join any other guilds, as he was afraid of losing more people. However that event that supposedly traumatized him so much doesn’t seem to affect him at all, throughout the anime, it just feels like the author is forcing it in the story to try and get sympathy for Kirito, but it just comes off as almost filler since realistically, it doesn’t add anything to his present-time character. At first it appears like the author is giving him a flaw, that he is anti-social like the whole “gamer stereotype”, but that flaw never makes him look bad in front of the audience or the rest of the cast. The fact that he is shown to the audience and to the characters of the anime as a perfect guy who can do anything only makes him a worse character in my eyes, as he becomes less interesting as you realize he will never struggle with anything. He is shown to be a victim of PTSD later on in the second season, but it just feels like an asspull because it wasn’t foreshadowed at all, and he spent a lot of time outside of SAO even in Season 1 where he displayed no signs of being traumatized for killing people in that game, so instead of adding to his character, it ends up being a pretty cheap way to make you care for him, once again. However there WAS an instance where the author could have developed his character a lot, and that was with the introduction of Asuna in his life. She’s the female main character of the show, and is introduced as a badass swordswoman who can fight alongside Kirito. Unfortunately until episode 20 of Season 2, she gets no characterization other than that, so she’s as bland as the main character himself. He seems to respect her though, and by episode 10 they’re basically dating. Their relationship is built quite nicely, but unfortunately after they start dating, it never gets mentioned again. I do appreciate how Asuna saved Kirito several times, and how well they complement each other, but the problem is: there is nothing more going on there. If they really wanted to introduce romance in this kind of series, it’s a wasted opportunity not to study how real or fake love in a virtual game is. Or just explore more of their interactions, anything really. Their relationship seems so out of place that it doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Despite me being quite harsh on these two main characters, the side heroines are even worse than Kirito and Asuna. They all have one episode dedicated to each, and they are represented by an archetype and their love for Kirito. I’m not kidding when I say that you can describe them all with a one-liner, and that’s being generous. They exist to make Kirito look cool, to make him look like he attracts all the girls, which ends up making them useless for those who could care less about that. They are also mostly irrelevant to the story, so they only exist to stall out time. There really isn’t much else to say about the characters that aren’t Kirito or Asuna… or is there? Yeah… the antagonist is just as bad as the rest of the cast. Not only did he trap 10.000 people in a game where they can die, he also FORGOT the reason why he did it. What kind of demented reason is this? A good antagonist should have a reason for doing what they do. Heck even saying that he was bored would be a better excuse, or just spend some time writing a backstory about how he’s studying something related to the human psyche. By saying that he forgot about what’s going on, it makes me think of all the sacrifices thus far as useless. It’s just, once again, a lazy excuse given by the author. The last notorious character is Yui which Kirito and Asuna adopt, and she’s just… there. I guess she was supposed to make them look more sympathetic by giving them the role of parents but at that point, it didn’t matter anyway. The cast in general is forgettable and uninteresting, which means the character aspect of the show is rendered completely useless.

Granted, the same can be said about Shinsekai Yori, and that one made up for it with its amazing world. Surely SAO is one of these plot-focused works that disregard the characters but have an amazing world that will make us question everything we think we know… yeah, right. The world, just like the characters, is a complete mess. First of all, the mechanics are so broken that it seems like they are always turned in favor of whoever the author wants them to. Author needs to make Kirito seem special? He gives him an ability that doesn’t exist in the game and only he can possess (of course it’s never explained why only he has it). He wants the antagonist to stand a chance against this Jesus character? He gives him immunity to all damage since he’s the creator! Not only that, but the mechanics of the game in terms of how well it functions as a MMO are never really explored, so the game feels really bland as well. They skip so many floors that we never get to see much of Aincraid in the end, and we only get to see 4 or 5 boss battles when there are 100 friggin’ floors. It just doesn’t feel anything like this huge world I’d love to be in, because I barely know anything about it. They try to insert some memorable places in the world like the wooden house where Kirito and Asuna live, but it just ends up backfiring because you’d like to see more about those places and the kind of lives people lead in them, but then it just skips to the next cool scene, giving you no time to get attached to anything. And then we have the epic final battle! Kirito battles the antagonist and if he wins, everyone who is still alive gets to leave. Of course Kirito and Asuna supposedly die but then end up being alive somehow, and Kirito manages to stab the antagonist just before he succumbs to his own lack of HP. Now as a player of MMOs myself, this final battle, and heck even the rest of the battles that were going on before, made NO sense whatsoever, and the fact that they died but then were alive at the end is just the cherry on top of the cake since it never got a decent explanation. I also want to quickly talk about the action scenes, which are all really lacking. They look good (as the production values are the one thing SAO does consistently right), but there’s little strategy involved, as the final battles always involve admin authority and aren’t written to be balanced at all. Even the regular boss battles don’t feel that good because most of the time it just feels like they are overpowering the bosses, and not even with numbers; but with Kirito’s and Asuna’s sheer force. In general terms, they are enjoyable, but not really up to par with the battles in other anime like Fullmetal Alchemist or Fate/Zero. That concludes the first half of the anime, extremely flawed throughout but rather enjoyable if you can tolerate its problems… and then comes the dreaded second part.

I’m not going to spend much time with this part since it basically has the same problems as the first part, except it’s not even enjoyable in the least, not to me anyway. The fact that this part exists, with a new world to explore instead of developing more of Aincraid, which as I mentioned was left really bland, is proof of how the author just doesn’t care about his own fictional world at all. Kirito wakes up, as well as everyone else that survived, except for Asuna who is still stuck in the virtual world. Kirito learns that he needs to go save her in the new game called ALO and thus goes to the rescue. This time the main heroine is Kirito’s cousin, who holds incestuous feelings towards him (of course). Asuna is shoved into the position of a damsel in distress that they need to save. Of course the same character that was portrayed as a badass woman who can fend for herself is now a reward for the main character to save. The new female heroine, Leafa (as is her in-game name), has nothing going on for her other than loving her own cousin. What, were you expecting a reason for that? This isn’t Chivalry of a Failed Knight, so you are looking in the wrong place. This time the goal is more straightforward: climb the giant tree that no one has been able to before, and rescue the damsel in distress. Of course Kirito is the one who accomplishes this feat, and the one who eventually reaches Asuna. Everything that comes before has no relevance on the characters other than slowly showing Leafa’s feelings for Kirito, and then the whole drama with her finding out the avatar she met in the game is actually the cousin she loves (how she didn’t recognize him or vice versa due to their personalities being similar to their real world counterparts is beyond me). This drama isn’t too interesting, though it IS healthy for Leafa’s character, since that’s the most characterization she’ll get. As for the new antagonist, he’s a guy who wants to marry Asuna, who can’t reject him because she’s asleep in the real world. Unlike the first part’s antagonist, who was composed at all times, this guy snaps every 5 seconds. He’s shown harassing Asuna by licking her or worse, and his facial expressions as well as  general behavior makes it impossible to take this guy seriously. Of course he gets zero characterization and is left undeveloped like the rest of the cast, but that’s obvious at this point. Other than the drop in enjoyment and the fact that the problems in part 1 increased tenfold, there’s also the fact that the fanservice was out of control. One time Asuna was about to get raped by tentacles. Is this a poor-quality hentai? Did they really need to include that? It just goes to show how much they respect their own characters. The world itself is more interesting than Aincraid and gets more development, and the mechanics are also better explored, but unfortunately that’s not saying much, as it’s still not anything to brag about. The final confrontation with the antagonist is even worse than in the first part, as this time Kirito is overpowered by him, who of course uses admin privileges (writing a real satisfying fight takes time, after all… hard work, what’s that?), that is until the first game’s antagonist arrives, overpowers this antagonist by having stronger privileges than him, and then he gets defeated easily. Then he gets into a fight with Kirito in the real world and gets arrested, and that’s the end of his character and the story of the second part. So as you can see, not only did every problem from the first part return, they were much worse this time around, and the cool factor also disappeared since this time everyone seems to be a fairy and also there’s no danger in this arc, since nobody can die, thus making it a lot more boring. The first part of the second season also doesn’t do much better, as it’s the same logic (new heroine with a new fetish, an antagonist that wants to rape her, a world with mechanics that cater to Kirito, extremely bland characters… you get the point), but if you can survive long enough to reach the last arc of that season, you will get the only decent portion of SAO: Mother’s Rosario, where you get a good female lead and Asuna gets some development, and best of all: KIRITO BARELY APPEARS!

In conclusion, Sword Art Online is a terribly flawed anime that attracted a lot of popularity due to being a novelty at the time, and also because it caters to gamers by having a self-insert protagonist in a virtual game where the stakes are extremely high. It never delivered what it promised, leaving its characters barely developed and its world extremely bland. It does have its decent moments when the story focused on the despair of being stuck in a world where you can die at any moment, but when it shifted towards the cool aspect of the main characters and chose to ignore any development for said characters, it completely ruined itself. Many anime with similar concepts came after SAO, like Log Horizon, which focused on the slice-of-life aspect of it, Overlord , which focused a lot on the mechanics of the world and No Game No Life which focused on the cool aspect (and does it a million times better than SAO due to not taking itself seriously). Almost every anime that came after improved SAO’s formula, though it’s still far from being a successful sub-genre, as lots of the same problems remain. At the end of the day, SAO is an enjoyable experience and a great way to get into the medium, like I did, but once you watch other anime you’ll realize how its problems really weight it down, and despite me being thankful to it for ridding me of the curse of the big three, it’s not an anime that I can ever call good, as it’s not even close to that.

Thanks for reading!

 

Anime Reaction: Akame ga Kill

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Over the course of the four years I’ve spent watching anime, I’ve seen some terrible shows like Sword Art Online, the second season of OreImo and the infamous School Days. Shows that disgusted me due to how bad they were, how much I hated the characters or how I disagree with the direction the author took them. While those and many others are indeed extremely faulty, none reaches the level of Akame ga Kill in terms of how much I despise it (I will call it AGK from now on). What makes AGK stand out so much in my hate list, you might ask? A combination of a horrible character cast, themes that are contradicted by the way they’re handled and a ton of problems with the setting. But let’s begin with a short description of how the anime starts.

Tatsumi (we don’t even get a surname for him), who wishes to join the military and help the people from his poor village, had arrived in the country’s capital city and crosses paths with a seemingly rich girl who wants to help him. She takes him to her home and seduces him, of course. Turns out that girl was just a sadistic individual who wanted to kill him like she did with his friends, and all of a sudden the rebellious army known as “Night Raid” arrives, saves Tatsumi and kills the evil girl. Tatsumi then learns of the corruption of the government and decides to join Night Raid, and so begins this story full of potential with the good guys being the rebels and the government being the evil force they need to defeat. It has a cool setting, it’s not afraid of killing off characters, it seemingly has a lot of room for character progression… nothing can go wrong here… right…?

So the first problem with AGK is really easy to figure out since it’s present in the first episode and continues to haunt the series throughout the rest of the show: the mood changes. In one scene you’ll get a gory mess full of corpses, blood and human remains, and in the next one you’ll have half-naked girls laughing as if nothing is wrong with the world. The way this anime switches between a seemingly serious scene and an all-out fanservice scene is just horrible, there is no real transition that feels smooth or anything, and many times it’s just flat out instant. This happens a lot throughout the anime, and unfortunately makes you unable to feel anything the author wants you to feel because you always fear that in the next scene everything will be all happy-go-lucky. It’s a problem that was also present in Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso, but here it’s much worse because at least in Shigatsu it only happened sometimes, whereas in Akame ga Kill it’s everywhere. Another thing that quickly becomes obvious is how the morals in this anime are completely black and white. Every time the Prime Minister shows up, you just hate the Government more and more because there’s literally no argument in their favor. They introduced an inside faction of the Government lead by Esdeath, with a character similar to Tatsumi called Wave who was supposed to show a guy fighting for the Government without knowing of the corruption going on, but the evilness of the Prime Minister and the level of corruption going on is so evident that it’s very hard to believe that Wave and the other members of this faction just conveniently never noticed anything, nor did they ever question it. Compare that to Legend of the Galactic Heroes, where there’s also an Empire that did horrible things, and yet it’s not treated in this one-dimensional way, instead showing how it also has its advantages over the Rebels, and showing a human side to its characters. In AGK, the rebels are the good guys and the author never really shows any downside to this faction, other than basically having the characters sometimes claim they dislike taking lives. The lack of a grey morality in this conflict is very problematic because it makes said conflict lack depth, and it’s very hard to take it seriously because of that.

This might lead you to think that Akame ga Kill teaches you how taking lives is always wrong and how life should be respected, and at first it seems the work will explore those themes, but the author contradicts those very themes every single time he can, since death is treated as a joke by the anime. When a comrade in arms dies, it never affects any other member of the rebel army in the long term at all, instead it’s only good for advancing the plot or giving someone a new power-up. Other times it’s even worse and ends up being used as pure shock factor, like Chelsea having her head cut off and displayed for all to see, which serves no real purpose at all. A lot of times people complain how in shounen nobody ever dies, and the fact that AGK killed people like the flu is what made it so popular, but unfortunately its execution is so bad that it doesn’t make it any better than Fairy Tail, which never kills anyone (not even the enemies). Death being treated as a joke, however, is just the beginning of how terrible the characters are. Every villain in the first half seems to suffer from a problem with insanity. Everyone goes crazy once their evil nature is revealed and none of them get any real development, exposition or anything. Heck they’re lucky if they can get a short backstory in the 3 minutes before they die. It’s incredibly difficult to take these characters seriously when they are made to be so cartoon-ish and one dimensional.  The example of this is Justice Girl, and yes she does have a name but she’s better known by this nickname of hers. Justice Girl has a twisted set of morals that make her go crazy whenever someone breaks them, and of course there is no reasoning behind those morals existing. It’s moral absolutism at its worst because there is no exploration of said morals, nor is there a good background supporting her developing these ideals. And of course she dies a dog’s death without any sort of characterization, despite having had enough screen time to be something more than a one dimensional villain.

I also find the way the author explores the past of the characters, especially the rebel ones, to be laughable, because he essentially inserts a sad backstory to them 3 or 4 minutes before they bite the dust, which means that you’ll start noticing a pattern and you’ll be able to predict who dies next quite easily, killing all the tension. He repeats this formula over and over again, it’s not even funny. The interactions between the characters are also very shallow and lack any real meaning, other than maybe one or two exchanges between Akame and Tatsumi in the earlier episodes. These interactions never give me the idea that the characters are good friends or comrades in arms, and their reactions to each others’ deaths also don’t help too much with this. Having meaningful dialogues is something that, especially in this kind of anime, would have helped a lot, because we’d get to see the characters from different perspectives, and it’s also a way to add exposition to them. Instead we just got a bland cast of characters that can all be described with a one liner. There’s also no real development to anyone in the series, as most of them die before they even get a chance to change their mindsets or the way they do things, and those that do last enough aren’t much better either, as the time that should have been spent developing them was instead used to show half naked women and needlessly gory scenes, as well as the waste of time that were the “enemy of the week” antagonists in the first half of the series. Unfortunately, even the most important aspect of a character for me, their personalities, was insignificant, as the characters in Akame ga Kill are defined by their boobs in the case of women or by their coolness in the case of men. They all have their own personal quirks to them and whatnot, but that’s about it. You’ll just be left wishing the author explored more of their personalities through some interactions with other characters or through some sort of inner monologue. While every problem I pointed out about the characters is a small flaw on its own, together they just create a horrible and forgettable cast of characters that don’t complement each other nicely nor do they bring anything unique to the table. Being that characters are so important in these types of stories where morals seem to be debated, it’s really a shame that they couldn’t even get that right. Unlike Death Note the thrills aren’t enough to make up for the lack of good characters, and heck at least DN’s characters weren’t sexualized every episode, and you felt the author actually respected them. In AGK the author does NOT respect its own characters, which only generates more and more problems as the story develops.

To add to the previous problems, there is also an inconsistency with the rules of the anime. It was stated at the start that when two users of the Teigu fight (which are powerful weapons that only a few people have), then one of them will surely die. However there were instances in the anime like the first confrontation between Tatsumi and Wave, where both of them had Teigus and yet none of them died, both of them managed to live. The system of the Teigu is also very poorly explained, as them selecting who wields them makes no sense, and is a classic example of superpowers done wrong, as there is no power limit so the weapons can be as strong as the plot demands. There is no limitation to the type of weapon it might be or what it can do. It reminds me of Harry Potter where magic can be anything and do everything, taking away all the tension of the work because they can just ass-pull some magical power at the end to save the day. If you take Fullmetal Alchemist for example, the limit is there clear as day: you have to sacrifice something of equal value, so the power creep is limited by that. In AGK, there is nothing like that. One thing that I hear people talk about all the time is how AGK has amazing battle scenes. As much as they’re the best thing the show has to offer, as they’re at least entertaining to watch, they’re FAR from being good. There is no choreography during those scenes like in Fate/Zero and the animation isn’t good enough to make them a selling point of the series, you’re basically watching them for the chaotic performance more than anything. So even those can’t save AGK from being the mess it ended up being.

Overall Akame ga Kill had amazing potential, as the setting clearly showed how the supposed good people, the Government, were actually corrupted and didn’t give a damn about the population, whereas the rebels were trying to defeat it and create a new country, one with a benevolent leader. Unfortunately despite the awesome-sounding premise, the show never delivers at all. If all you want to see is chaotic destruction, shock factor and fanservice, Akame ga Kill will be good for you, but if you’re in it for the characters, the consistency of the plot or the thematic exploration, you’re better off completely ignoring this one. The ending is also anime-original, or at least it was back when it aired. It’s not any better than the rest of the show though, as it’s just a kill-them-all ending which was done just to mess with the people who for some reason liked the characters, as literally almost everyone worthy of note died in the last episode, once again mocking death, and nothing really got resolved in the end. There’s no reason to watch it unless you want to see how bad it is for yourself or if you like the needlessly edgy nature of it. Alternatively you can read the manga which takes a different turn after episode 19, though I can’t tell you whether it’s any better or not, as I haven’t read it. Either way, that’s my take on this anime, and I hope I never have to sit through 8 hours of something similar to this ever again.

 

Thanks for reading!

What Makes a Good Fictional Character?

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I often see people on different forums explaining why they like a certain character, and I actually find that to be a really interesting topic, as different people like different characters for different reasons. So in the article that follows, I will attempt to explain what makes a good fictional character for me, and I will give some examples for each variable I mention. Take into account that I will NOT mention every single aspect that can improve a character, only the ones I deem to be the most important ones.

The first and most important factor for me to think a character is good is actually their personality. One might claim that personality isn’t the most important aspect of a character, as there are several other aspects that are more important to evaluate the writing of the character. While that is completely true, everything builds up from the character’s personality. When attempting to explain why a character did this or that, you need to have a decent grasp on their personality traits, because after all different characters would react differently in the same scenarios. By being aware of how a character’s personality is, you can start to understand them, which is a requirement for any character to be good. If the character’s actions seem random and poorly explained, without anything to back them up, it will feel like you’re just watching a robot move around. An example of this done wrong would be pretty much any character from School Days but Makoto in specific. Some may claim that Makoto “acts realistically and follows his lust like any other teenage boy, and thus he is a good character” but that’s not true at all; being realistic and being a well written character do not necessarily go hand-in-hand together. The problem with Makoto is that he has no personality at all and instead is mostly used as someone the audience is supposed to hate, as there is nothing to understand about his character before his lust takes over and he starts having sex with every female of the show. In the first episode he was a timid guy and all of a sudden he’s a player?! And there’s absolutely nothing to back up that change in his character.As for an example where the personality of the character does excuse their actions, just look at Shinji from Evangelion. He’s shown to think very little of himself and he’s also a bit of a coward, a ‘beta male’ as people describe his archetype, so even if you hate seeing him running away from a battle or from the conflict at hand, the fact that we have that insight on his personality so early on most definitely is able to excuse his actions. He might not be a likable character but he does have a personality that can back up the way he acts throughout the show. Knowing a character’s personality well can also make you grow closer to them, and thus see them as more likable characters, and it’s a great way of getting the audience interested in the character cast as different people will relate to different characters. Granted this last bit is extremely subjective and depends on each person but the point is: showing more of a character’s personality will always add something to them because you’re able to describe them with more than a one-liner.

Now to be able to create a good character, personality is obviously not the only requirement. Another thing that’s extremely important when building up a character is their role in the story. After all, if you feel like the character had a low impact on the overall story/conflict, they will feel inconsequential and thus less interesting. This is why protagonists and antagonists get much more attention than side characters even if those are sometimes the characters with better personalities and the most developed ones. If we think back to the so-called “big three”, you’ll see how the main protagonists of all three anime have the most favorites, and yet many side characters are much better explored in terms of their personalities and backgrounds, and they even tend to have more development. However the simple fact that they are the protagonists makes people like them more. That’s also explained by thinking that these characters are the ones with the most screen time, and thus it makes the character more likable for the people watching those shows, however it doesn’t make them better from a writing point of view because you can just show them fighting different opponents all the time and not learning much from each fight at all. And no, learning a new move or getting a new ability is NOT necessarily good for the character’s writing, I’m talking about a change in their mindsets. And that’s the next important aspect of a character: their development. Development in a character comes from them interacting with the people or environment around them, which causes certain changes in their mindsets/ways of acting/etc. A character that doesn’t change at all throughout the course of the work is simply uninteresting and lazily written. Just look at Kirito from Sword Art Online for instance, can you really see any change between him at the beginning of the anime and at the end? Sure that in Season 2 the author ass pulled an inner conflict but that was only after at least 30 episodes and something that wasn’t even foreshadowed. Up until then there’s nothing more to his character, and you can describe him by just saying: “He’s a so-called anti-social OP gamer who goes around stealing girls’ hearts” as there’s nothing else to add to his character. Even his relationship with Asuna doesn’t really change his character in any meaningful way, which was a wasted opportunity. If you take a character like Kazuki from HakoMari, he’s the total opposite. he starts out as this generic guy who just wants to protect his everyday life and by the end he’s this insane individual who has an unhealthy obsession for Maria, who completely changed his way of looking at reality, and you get to see the change in his character in every volume. Sure that Kazuki had much more time to shine but Kirito in 25 episodes didn’t show any progress whatsoever, and that’s just sad.

Next is the background. Nowadays people complain about a character having a flashback of their past, showing what they went through that made them become who they are in the present, they call it a “waste of time”. However that “waste of time” is exactly what produces a great character. If we don’t know why the character is, say, anti-social, it will just feel like a random personality trait and while in real life that IS how it works, writing-wise it feels really cheap to leave it at that. A good character has to have some sort of background, with the exception being when they cannot have a background due to their nature/identity. If they’re a robot or an A.I that was built recently obviously they can’t have a good background because there is none. Now the character that I present as evidence for how much the lack of a backstory ruins them is Yagami Light. While I love the core concept behind Light’s character, as I agree with him on some aspects of society and most definitely think it makes him a really interesting character, that interest fades away when I see he has no reason to hate the world so much. We are never shown how or why he became like that, and justifying it as “he’s a genius so he got bored of the world” doesn’t cut it because it wasn’t mentioned once in the anime and even if it was, it still feels incomplete. That makes him a character that can only be described by his ideals, which is no better than those Sword Art Online heroines who can only be described by their archetype or the thousands of characters in comedies that are described by their quirks alone. Just look at Daiya from, once again, HakoMari. His core character is very similar to Light’s and yet we get a full backstory about where his hatred for the world came from, and it involves someone else, it involves a personal relationship of his. That won’t necessarily justify the sins he committed but it shows the author wasn’t lazy when writing Daiya, and instead took his time to show how and why he became completely twisted. Granted, and this is the same with development, subtlety does play a part in all of this. If you just randomly insert a flashback in the middle of the episode, it feels extremely artificial. If on the other hand you start the episode with those flashbacks, or if you make the character find, say, something that reminds them of their past first before going into the flashback, it feels way smoother and doesn’t break the immersion as much, if at all.

The last aspect of a character that is crucial when it comes to their writing is their interactions with other characters. I’ve talked about how a character interacting with another or with their environment helps develop their mindsets, but other than that, there’s also the fact that having good interactions creates good character dynamics and relationships, which is extremely important for a character cast. Take White Album 2 for example. In that anime, the three main characters have tons of interactions between themselves before the actual drama kicks off, in which their friendship and the seeds that will eventually become romantic feelings, and it does properly explain why each girl likes the main character (in Setsuna’s case it’s because he was the only one who treated her as a normal girl and in Kazusa’s it was because he was the one person who seemed to care about her at all despite her anti-social personality). So when you think of the main conflict that eventually unfolds, why/how it happened, you can always explain it through what you saw of the character interactions between them in the earlier episodes, so it won’t feel like the author brought the conflict from nowhere, and you do feel like they learned something with each other, specifically Setsuna and Kazusa who became each other’s first best friends. Now think back to Sword Art Online for a moment, when do any of Kirito’s interactions with the random heroines or even with Asuna result in a positive change when it comes to how you look at their relationships? Literally, all their interactions have is the girl basically realizing she likes Kirito and that’s it, it never adds anything positive to their characters or to the conflict nor does it change the way Kirito faces the fact that he’s stuck in a game (unless you consider settling down with Asuna in a wooden house to be a positive change, which I don’t because there was no time to even feel that change). And the heroines barely interact between themselves too which makes it even shallower. I love it when I think that the relationship between two characters, whether it’s rivalry (Kougami and Makishima from Psycho-Pass), love (Takayuki and Mitsuki from KimiNozu) or friendship (Albert and Franz from Gankutsuou), is really good and I feel I would be able to write paragraphs about them if I so wished to, it adds a lot to the overall experience of watching or reading an fictional work. When they inspire each other, when they react to the death of a dear friend, when they help each other grow, that’s when I know I’m in love with the characters of a work. And just like humans, characters should grow from interacting with each other, and watching their relationships bloom is part of what makes fiction so interesting to me.

Now, after all is said and done, a character can be extremely well written but not likable at all. Such is the case with Shinji from Evangelion: he basically aces every single category I described before and yet it’s really difficult for me to like him because of his poor decision making (which is very much justified) and just the way he acts. And that’s why I want to add one last thing that although is not entirely related to good writing, it IS important to have: likability. A character who is likable but has nothing else going for them is usually pretty boring (just think of every earnest childhood friend character in most romcoms that have nothing else going for them other than acting nice) so it’s important that the author is capable of creating a balance. With Evangelion it’s impossible to do that because the characters are the object of the exploration of the themes, which are very dark to begin with and most people don’t even want to admit to certain things it has to say, due to the sugar coating that we like to cover our real nature with. However when it comes to an anime without such a limitation, there really is no excuse not to make a character likable at all for the sake of being well written because there are many examples of characters that are both well written and likable, the main one being Yang Wenli from Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Yang not only has a really likable personality, mindset and methods of dealing with different situations, he always cracks some jokes here and there (recall his alcohol is humanity’s best friend speech) and yet he can have great serious dialogues with other characters and even inspire them thanks to his charisma. His characters feels really nice and easy to “fall in love with”, and yet he’s also an example of one of, if not the single best written character there is in anime. I simply refuse to add a character to my favorites list if I don’t consider them likable, no matter how good their writing is, because if I don’t feel a connection with them, I just can’t think of them as favorites of mine.

At the end of the day, the character part of a fictional work is, to me, the most important aspect of that work. Sure that some anime like Shinsekai Yori work really well despite not having a good character cast (instead they’re just used to explore the twisted world they live in) because they get carried by the amazing thematic exploration and world building they usually have, however they will never feel as “good” to me as I tend to favor character studies over philosophical anime. A good drama that cares about its own characters will most likely be higher in my list than a psychological thriller that focuses more on other aspects, despite me loving that genre all the same. The character cast usually makes or breaks a work for me, and that is why I consider them to ultimately be paramount when analyzing a work. Granted, people prioritize different things when watching fiction, some prefer pure action, others prefer having their dose of plot twists… when it comes down to it, it depends on the individual watching it. To me, however, there’s nothing like watching characters I like and deem to be good interacting with each other, which is a big reason of why I like works like HakoMari so much:because their main focus is those characters and their relationships with each other. Long live authors who care about their characters, and may ruin come to those who disrespect their own character cast… yes, I’m looking at you Akame ga Kill’s author!

Thanks for reading!

Top 10 Danganronpa Characters

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The Danganronpa franchise is known for how thrilling it is, and for how amazing and unpredictable its plot twists can be. However underneath all of that, the characters are what makes it the really enjoyable experience it ends up being. Indeed, the Danganronpa character cast is one of my favorite casts in fiction due to the sheer variety and unique personalities that you can find in this franchise. Today I’ll talk a bit about my top 10 characters from these amazing games, explaining exactly why I like them so much. Take into account at this point in time the Danganronpa 3 animes are still airing, so I won’t include unique characters from those, and I haven’t read or played any spin-off game.

#10 – Hinata Hajime, the Reserve Course Student

Hajime is the protagonist of the second game, and a great one at that. What makes Hajime so interesting is the fact that he has no talent whatsoever and that he entered the Hope’s Peak Academy via the Reserve Course, which means he had to pay a lot of money to get in, but it was his dream to graduate there even without a talent. Now this lack of a talent made him develop an inferiority complex that eventually led him to choose to submit himself to experiments which resulted in the near destruction of his Hajime persona and turned him into an ultra-talented individual: Kamakura Izuru. This version of him is ruthless and can analyze other people just by looking at them, besides having many other talents. He’s also the opposite of Hajime since he despises all those without talent and calls them inferior. Hajime’s struggle with this other self at the end of game is amazing and does wonders to his character, which is how I justify his character being in his list and not Naegi, the first game’s protagonist. His relationship with Chiaki, which starts to become apparent in Chapter 4, also adds a lot to his character since a lot of hints were given that he was romantically interested in her, and it seemed mutual. A very interesting protagonist to play as, he’s one of the factors that made the second game so amazing, and a worthy character to kick off this list.

#9 – Togami Byakuya, the Ultimate Affluent Progeny

Byakuya is definitely one of those characters that’s bound to being hated due to his arrogance towards the other characters and overall behavior during the first game. However I see him as one of the very few arrogant fictional characters who I think has EVERY single right of being arrogant. Having read his free-time events, I could see just how much he went through to get all of his wealth and power, and he didn’t rely on his family’s name at all to accomplish all of that, instead using his own talent. He gets extremely angry when someone says he was “born to be successful” since that implies he didn’t have to work hard for his accomplishments, something he most definitely did. He looks down on everyone else which in turn makes nearly everyone hate him, however he does show human emotions like fear and anger, and despite of his tsun-like behavior he did end up getting quite close to the rest of the survivors of the first game, which is shown by his dialogues with Kyouko and Naegi in the second game’s epilogue. He constantly feels a need to prove himself, so much so that he was the only one who seemed to be enjoying the killing game despite his life also being at stake. He’s used to that kind of battlefield where he puts everything on the line, and that’s how he managed to become the heir of the Togami family: by defeating all of his siblings on what he considers to be a battlefield. He’s also very observant and as far as his detective work goes, he seems to be second only to Kyouko, which is rightfully so since she’s the Ultimate Detective. A very easy to hate yet humane character, he takes his rightful place on my list.

#8 – Tanaka Gundham, the Ultimate Breeder

I love animals in real life, and Gundham is the Ultimate Breeder… well that most certainly has something to do with why he’s on the list, but other than that, it’s just how enjoyable he was during his comic relief scenes, specifically when they involved his rivalry with Souda for Sonia’s attention. His chuunibyou behavior might be annoying to some people, but it only makes him more lovable for others, like for me. Other than his really likable personality, his actions in the second game are what really makes me love him as a character. Unlike most other characters who did murder someone, his motive was actually quite selfless. Gundham thinks its nonsense to just wait to die, and claims that living is constantly moving forward. The situation in Chapter 4 was everything that went against this ideal of his, since everyone was just waiting to die, not wanting to kill anyone else, but Gundham realized someone had to do it, and eventually he ended up killing Nidai, who was no longer human by then. He did it so that everyone else could move on, and that’s why he didn’t resist too much once Hajime and the others concluded that he was the only one who could have been the murderer. He seems to also be romantically interested in Sonia, a feeling that’s obviously mutual as Sonia gives a lot of her attention to him, probably because she loves anime and the occult and Gundham kinda looks like some sort of shounen character who also loves the occult. An animal lover who murdered for such a selfless reason and has a really likable personality, Gundham most certainly deserves his spot on my list.

#7 – Enoshima Junko,the Ultimate Fashionista/Despair

I love antagonists in fiction, and Junko is not an exception. She’s not as well written as some of the antagonists I really came to love, like Kotomine Kirei from the Fate franchise, however the few times that she did appear on screen, she was AMAZING. For starters while her motivation seems a bit bland at first, once she starts talking about herself and how despair is basically everything to her, you start understanding that she’s someone who has no hope at all, and can only live for despair. She’s not someone who’s unfair towards the people she puts in killing games, as she subjects herself to her own rules as well. She believes in giving people hope before sending them into despair, as that produces the most pure form of despair. One would think she just likes inflicting despair to others but she actually loves to inflict it upon herself the most, which is shown when she explains how she murdered her own sister and that put her in a state of despair, which for Junko seems to be similar to… actually mourning her sister, in a really twisted way. She also had no qualms with executing herself once Naegi and the others defeated her, heck she even seemed excited to experience her own execution, as that would bring her despair. Her personality, or lack thereof, is another one of the characteristics I love about her. She gets bored of the same personality very quickly so she constantly changes between a handful of pre-established personalities, like a melancholic one, an arrogant one and a smart-ass one. Her personality changes being explained and so random make her the most fun antagonist I’ve seen for sure and she fits the half serious half goofy mood of the franchise SO well. Without her the franchise wouldn’t be what it is, that’s for sure. An individual obsessed with despair, she’s most fitting for my list.

#6 – Oogami Sakura, the Ultimate Martial Artist

This must be one of the most selfless characters I’ve ever seen in fiction. Sakura’s overwhelming and overly muscular build might give you the impression that she snaps easily and can endanger other people, but that’s not at all how she works. Right from the bat, her death is what really makes me like her. She committed suicide because she knew that, as the one cooperating with the mastermind (despite being forced to) she was the root of the distrust going on in the group, and that distrust was starting to endanger her friend, Asahina, who got into fights with other people to defend Sakura’s honor. Her death was completely selfless and really meaningful, and was what gave hope to the group after so many disasters happening at once. She did it all to atone for her sin of letting herself be forced to cooperate with the mastermind, as she decided to resist her by all means when she started knowing her classmates better, making her incapable of working for her. By committing suicide she avoided murdering anyone else, like the mastermind wanted, and at the same time she DID murder someone – herself – like the mastermind demanded which means the dojo wouldn’t be endangered and she wouldn’t have to kill her friends. Her death is also what unites the group in the end, as Byakuya and Toko, who were previously  antagonistic towards the others, finally came to terms with them in order to defeat the mastermind. Even after she died, she left a present to Kirigiri in the form of breaking the lock to a really important room, which provided a lot of relevant answers necessary to solve the mystery. Other than this amazing display of courage, her personality is also very appealing, as it’s the opposite of what her physical looks suggest. She’s actually quite gentle and caring for others, and always puts her friends before herself. She’s especially fond of Asahina, as they are both athletes and train together, and their friendship is so deep that it leads Asahina to discard her life and everyone else’s when she reads the fake suicide note that makes her think that Sakura committed suicide in despair, when in reality hope was all there was to it. The effect she had on Asahina was long-lasting, as she asked for Sakura’s strength several several times even after her death, and is what allowed her to face reality in the end. A character that defies the stereotype that her looks might bring, she’s most deserving of being in my list.

#5 – Celestia Ludenberg, the Ultimate Gambler

Adaptation is what defines the living beings who survive in the end… that’s an ironclad rule of nature. Celeste (I like this name better for her) knows this better than anyone else, as everything she says and does seems to be based on that single creed. Celeste is seen as a bit of a bitch due to how she essentially causes the death of two people for the sake of money… to buy an European-style castle where she can live as a princess and have a lot of butlers dressed as vampires… yeah she’s a bit crazy. And guess what: that craziness is part of why I like her so much. As the Ultimate Gambler, she knows exactly how and when to lie perfectly, and her poker face is very difficult to break, even when she’s harshly insulting someone. She seems to smile a lot but her smiles are very rarely honest, and most of the time are nothing but a facade to hide her true emotions. She seems like a very calm individual… until she snaps. Once she does snap, oh boy. Her voice, style of speech and face immediately change and she seems like a completely different individual. Usually it happens when she’s cornered, like during the third trial, or really displeased, like when Yamada failed to make the tea that she liked. Celeste is the one who constantly says that they need to settle down and learn how to live in that school because they’re most likely not going to leave, but in reality she’s the one who wants to leave the most, due to her dream that I described earlier, since she can’t exactly fight for her dream while stuck in there. The fact that her behavior towards the school life of mutual killing is fake is hinted at in one of her free time events once she snaps at Naegi for saying he wants to leave, as her snapping always means that there’s more to her emotions than what she’s letting out, and that’s most certainly one of those cases. She rose from the ground to become a really wealthy person and she always staked her life for it, much like Byakuya, as most of the games she participated in involved life-or-death situations, like the Russian roulette, and that’s what makes her value luck so much, considering it a necessary tool for survival. I really like how subtle of a character she can be (and how straightforward she is when she snaps), how manipulative and determined she can be to accomplish her goals, and just how well she planned out her crime in the third chapter. Had it not been for the incompetence of the one she chose as an accomplice, she might have succeeded. While not as important as her personality and mentality, I have to say that her character design appeals to me A LOT and she has my favorite design from the franchise without any sort of competition. As the Queen of Liars, a title well earned, Celeste and her bitchiness definitely belong in my list.

#4 – Kuzuryu Fuyuhiko, the Ultimate Yakuza

Have you ever had a 180º change on a fictional character before? When you hate a character so much you just want to see them die but then after a certain event you start loving that character more and more until you finally think of them as amazingly well written? Well, Fuyuhiko is that character for me. He starts off as this arrogant asshole who refuses to be part of the group and wanders all alone, constantly insulting everyone he sees and being really annoying. That is, until the second trial. Once that happens and his relationship with Peko is revealed, he changes completely in terms of his behavior towards others (though fortunately his personality stays the same, since otherwise it would have felt unrealistic). Losing Peko, who he loved despite her considering herself just a tool for Fuyuhiko to use and then discard, made him reconsider his attitudes, to the point where, to apologize for playing a part in Mahiru’s murder, he re-opened his own stomach wound in front of Hiyoko to show how sorry he was, almost bleeding out in the process. It shows both determination and pride, two characteristics I love to see in characters. From there on out, his character keeps getting better and better as the story goes on, and he references Peko a lot, and it was her memory that allowed him to recover hope when Junko sent him into despair in the last chapter. He feels this need of showing toughness like nobody else due to his baby face and how short he is, which makes people judge him as weak. Granted he exaggerates that toughness to the point where it becomes pure arrogance and he does act like an asshole at first, but at least there’s a reason – a good one at that – for all of that to happen. To maintain this facade, he even states that he’s willing to kill someone in order to escape, even though he dislikes killing a lot. When this facade is lifted, it shows a guy who is very adamant in enforcing rules, like not drinking due to being a minor, and he does have quite the pure heart in the end, especially for a Yakuza since those are used to committing crimes and getting away with them, which sometimes makes him question his ability to succeed as one. After Chapter 2 he becomes a really dear character and each chapter after that only made my impression of him better. His development is the main selling point of his character, as well as his relationship with Peko and how much that affected his behavior after she was gone. As one of the few characters that managed to get a 180º change for the better in my book, Fuyuhiko takes his rightful place in the high tier of my list.

#3 – Komaeda Nagito, the Ultimate Lucky Student

Insanity is a trait used for shock factor in many fiction works, and Danganronpa is no exception. However Nagito’s insanity… is a bit different in that regard. His character is the result of taking all the obsession with hope of the first game’s protagonist, Naegi, and giving it a darker twist. Heck their talents are even the same (luck) and if you rearrange Nagito’s entire name, it becomes “Makoto Naegi da”, meaning “I’m Naegi Makoto”. Nagito at first seems like the best friend type of character, someone who seems to befriend Hajime really easily and keeps calling him similar to himself… until the first he is suspected of murder in the first trial. That’s when he completely snaps and reveals his true nature, that of someone who sees hope as the absolute good and everything that defies it as evil, but acknowledges the necessity of despair existing because without despair, hope can’t shine. To him, sacrificing people as simple stepping stones is fine as long as it leads to hope, and he does it without a second thought. He’s willing to murder, deceive and even collaborate with the mastermind as long as that results in hope shining brighter, and this mentality of his is explored in a really neat and deep way. It’s not just some insane guy spouting out nonsense, but someone who truly does believe every single word he says, and even sees it as something mundane. Due to him thinking that people with talent are the ones who can bring hope to the world, he sees all of the people without any talents as inferior, including himself since his talent is just luck. He develops this weird inferiority complex, much like Hajime, and calls himself trash many times to prove how little he thinks of himself. To further show this, in the despair arc anime, he’s even willing to blow up the school in order to delay the exams, as the class is still depressed due to what happened during the Twilight Syndrome Murder. His obsession with hope and disregard for human life has led everyone else to hate him and see him as a dangerous threat in the school trip of mutual killing. and it’s precisely because of this obsession with hope that, when he finds out he and all the others, except the ‘traitor’ (Chiaki), are actually the Remnants of Despair, he starts treating them all coldly and no longer calls himself trash nor praises them like he used to, instead insulting them very harshly as he has nothing to praise about people who are actually the representation of despair. His final plan was so ingenious that I was completely stunned when I actually saw it. A murder that could not be solved and took full advantage of his talent – luck – to pull it off. He trusts that luck above everything else and it always works to his advantage, even though he seems to experience some bad luck before the actual good results happen. This man killed himself in quite the brutal fashion and tried to get rid of everyone but Chiaki once he realized they were all the Remnants of Despair. If that’s not determination to uphold his ultimate ideal about hope, I don’t know what is. His extremely well developed mentality is what keeps the players from hating him despite his very questionable actions throughout the game, and the fact that he adds a lot of thrill to the experience, as you constantly wonder what the heck he’s going to do next, is undeniable. He’s a rare example of insanity done well, and I like how he has this comparison going on with Naegi, even Monokuma references that similarity quite a few times. A very easy character to hate, but just as easy to love, Nagito made the experience of the second game really thrilling, and is a crucial part of my list.

#2 – Kirigiri Kyouko, the Ultimate Detective

This is an example of a character that seems like a complete Mary Sue at the start and eventually becomes much, much more than that. Kyouko is the only student who doesn’t remember her talent at the start of the game, which makes her the target of suspicion sometimes. At first she seems like she’s a nearly perfect, though emotionless, girl. That’s right, she never shows her emotions and claims that showing them can get her into trouble, and seems to be speaking from experience. Her whole character is surrounded in mysteries and other than revealing more about her mentality, her choice of not showing emotions and foreshadowing her detective capabilities, her free-time events don’t shed any light on her character. From the start we see that she has amazing observation and analytical capabilities, which are justified by her talent, and is not afraid of touching a dead body at all. The first time we see some sort of emotion in her character is actually anger, when Naegi refuses to tell her what he saw the day before, as she trusted him with extremely important information and he was refusing to do the same. Her whole emotionless facade is shown to be just that – a facade – once she shows how much her father actually meant to her. She came to Hope’s Peak Academy in order to meet him and “cut all of her ties with him in order to be free”, though she seems a little insecure about that, and fully admits that she might even thank him, as not taking her with him allowed her to become a detective. Yes, her father did leave her with the rest of her family from a young age, but she still meant a lot to him in the end, as evidenced by using her name as a password and having a picture of her as a little girl in his office, which made her reveal her emotions for the first time when she found out, even asking Naegi to leave her alone for a while in that room, something she never asked before: the first and only display of her true emotions. While she is determined enough to sacrifice even Naegi, someone she trusts, if the situation demands for it, she doesn’t do it without a second thought, and fully understand how evil of an act it is regardless of the reasoning used, not even asking to be forgiven for what she did because she knows she has no right of asking for forgiveness. She’s actually as insecure as all the other people stuck in that school, but she’s used to hiding her emotions so that nobody can catch on, much like Celeste, only Kyouko never really snaps. She’s very proud of being a detective, one from a long line of detectives at that, and does her work in a very professional way. In the end, what really sells her character for me is how determined and insightful she is. Everything she does, she does for a reason, she can always justify her behaviors in a logical manner, and yet she’s most certainly not devoid of emotions at all, in fact she does get very emotional at times but it can be hard to see through her facade. As an overall very well rounded character, Kyouko is the well deserving of being the runner-up of my list.

#1 – Nanami Chiaki, the Ultimate Gamer

Like many people say, Chiaki is a character that was written to be likable: she’s a gamer, she’s nice to people once she gets to know them, she’s cute, she’s smart… one could argue she seems like the perfect girl. That + the fact that she’s an AI is what’s used to criticize her character, however I strongly disagree with that criticism because that’s not all that she has going on her character. While all of the above is true, what really makes me like Chiaki is actually her development. Look at her in chapter 1: she’s extremely anti-social and barely speaks to people, preferring to focus on gaming for the most part, but never really acting against the group either. However as time goes by and she gets to know and talk with the other characters, she starts opening up to them, and her impact on everyone else in the second game is undeniable in Chapter 5 when you see the reactions on everyone’s face, especially Hajime’s who was closer to her than anyone else, when they find out that she’s the ‘traitor’ and will be executed for being set-up to murder Nagito. Chiaki being an AI means nothing in the Danganronpa universe because as Alter Ego proved in the first game, AIs do have emotions, feelings and motivations, and Chiaki is no different, she acts like a human being would despite not being one, and the fact that she chose to sacrifice herself, as she felt like her friends were priceless (which went against her programming) clearly shows how much she changed. Her relationship with Hajime, as I have previously mentioned, also plays a huge role on her character, as he’s the one she chooses to get really close to, becoming his partner in the later investigations and trusting him a lot. She’s also the one that seems to get the most upset whenever a murder happens, as she sees everyone else as friends and doesn’t want to suspect them, which is why she admits to being the ‘traitor’ in chapter 5 – so that everyone can succeed not by doubting her, but by believing in her. I really like characters that rarely show their emotions because when they actually do, it feels extremely satisfying to see, and you can feel they are real. Chiaki’s constant references to games are also pretty sweet and if you can understand them well, you might get a laugh or two out of them. Overall while Chiaki’s core character was written as a likable character from the start, that’s most definitely NOT everything she has going for her, as her development, relationships with the other characters (especially Hajime) and role in the story are far more relevant, and she doesn’t feel like just another “dream girl” once you actually get to know her well, and reading her free time events can most definitely improve your perception on her since she shows how bad she is at interacting with other living beings, whether it’s animals or humans. A very well-written and important character, Chiaki lives on as my favorite Danganronpa character and my favorite female character in fiction.

Thanks for reading!

Novel Reaction: Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria

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While on vacations this year, I had the pleasure of reading this amazing light novel called Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria, or HakoMari (which is what I’ll be using from now on). I actually was meant to have read it much earlier on, but unfortunately due to my problems with reading fiction without any audio or visual support I only gathered the motivation to start it recently. Now, I most certainly did NOT expect it to become my new favorite work of fiction, nor did I expect it to impress me in so many different ways. But the fact is, it did. I’ll proceed to explain why I find this novel to be amazing, as well as the change in my thoughts regarding the main selling point of the novel, then discussing the main characters a bit and wrapping it up with and an overall impression of the work.

Let’s start with my first impressions. Now HakoMari does one thing really well from the very start: it’s very easy to get hooked to the story. Why? Because it starts off with a really good volume that serves not only as build-up for future volumes, but also manages to be incredibly good as a standalone. Right from the start I thought that it had a lot of potential to be an incredible mystery series, because it managed to thrill me so much in the first 100 pages, in a similar fashion to how Death Note’s first episodes impressed me so much in that same regard. Granted, at that point I thought that HakoMari’s main selling point was its ability to thrill its readers and constantly keep them guessing about what’s happening. While those thoughts perished from volume 3 on (as the main selling point of the novel is completely different), it was what kept me reading the first two volumes, and it’s the reason why I never even thought of dropping it at any point. Yes, it does a great job with building up the events that will happen from volume 3 on, as well as setting up the characters, introducing their personalities and giving a bit of exposition, but what made me not want to put it down at the time was just how much I kept getting impressed with… well, almost with every page. After all, the build-up only paid off later, and I had no way of knowing how important it was at the time. The fact that the boxes had a drawback, since they could only grant a single wish and that wish will almost always be distorted in some way due to humans inherently not being able to believe in magic so easily, added to the depth of the situations, and I liked how it wasn’t so convenient as to grant any wish for free. I love seeing drawbacks in the magic systems of fiction works and I feel like many of them could use some limits, otherwise it will feel like the author can just ass-pull something at any time. The first volume alone was enough to convince me that HakoMari was, in fact, a book I could read despite the lack of anything except for the text (and the few illustrations at the beginning of each volume), and also that, unfortunately, an anime adaptation would easily butcher the source material due to the nature of the story, and the many iterations the characters went through. It’s something that fully utilizes the novel medium’s advantage in comparison with visual mediums, and the author was quite smart to have written it like that. Then the second volume, while definitely a decent addition to the novel, felt more like a side-story, and it’s the first of the two “downs” that this novel has. I found it to be a bit less thrilling than the first one, but having the knowledge I have today of what follows, I can safely say that this volume plays a pivotal role in the main story, despite feeling almost like filler at first. This is because of how it sets up the relationship between Kazu and Maria. How they start to get close to each other, how they perceive each other, how the events inside the Rejecting Classroom affected that relationship, as well as showing that Kazu does depend on Maria a lot.

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All of this knowledge started to pay off immediately when the third volume hit the scene. Unlike the other ones, where the box was explained as the volume went on, in this one the nature of the box, as well as its reason for existing, are explained right away. The reason why I think this makes the most sense is because the Game of Idleness arc is where my thoughts on HakoMari took a sharp turn. Instead of looking at HakoMari as a Death Note type of work, I started to look at it as a character study, so there was no need to keep the entire mystery going, instead just hiding who the true owner of the box was, while giving hints here and there. This arc features several instances that made me change my mind regarding the main selling point of HakoMari, in specific Kazu’s past being revealed, his reasoning for defending the everyday life he keeps preaching about, Kazu realizing how he depends too much on Maria, as well as Maria’s insecurities regarding her relationship with Kazu, as she tries to convince herself that she’s only with him so she can meet O, with Kazu thinking that’s also her goal. This arc is also the first where we see Daiya’s ‘real self’, someone who despises those he calls “thoughtless people” who can only follow others’ opinions and don’t think for themselves. Daiya and Kazu start their confrontation in the Game of Idleness and this battle of wits would only end much later on, so there was a lot of time to explore both characters, as well as their goals, in between. This arc established the change in Kazu that would haunt him until the end of the story, as he finally understood that his wish to protect his everyday life is just a convenient excuse to forget about his first love, whom he had ‘betrayed’. Once he fully realized that, he also understood that he wanted to be with Maria, and that he would do anything to achieve that goal, including going against Maria’s own wish if it came to that. So not only was the Game of Idleness arc extremely interesting to read through, it’s where Kazu and Maria, as well as their relationship, truly start to shine.

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Now, I remember giving a truly high score to the Game of Idleness arc, and even now I don’t regret it, but if only I knew that the best was still to come… that’s when the Shadow of Sin and Punishment arc started. This arc MADE the novel the amazing work that it is. This is where it suddenly takes a sharp turn and starts exploring themes that you’d see in a work like Death Note, except that here the characters are being developed at the same time. It’s a brilliant example of a work that can take plot and characters and deal with both in a stunning way that will leave few indifferent. The antagonist in this arc is none other than Daiya, who finally used his own box to get rid of the “thoughtless people”. Daiya’s ideology might seem like the usual ‘edgy teenager syndrome’ at first, until you start to piece things together about his mentality, the reasoning behind that mentality existing in the first place, and the reason why he chooses to act in the way he does. I’ll go much more in depth about this in a later paragraph. This is also where the side characters became incredibly relevant, specifically Haruaki and Kokone, and that’s another great point about HakoMari: not a single character can be described with a one-liner regardless of how irrelevant they might seem at first glance. The main theme being discussed involves criminals, and the people who don’t think about their actions, preferring instead to remain ignorant. Are these people really worth saving? Should they live in this world despite the obvious problem that their existence raises? Shouldn’t we be better off if we got rid of them, or at least made society shun all of these people by creating a phenomenon that transforms people into a sub-human species without intelligence and making people fear transforming into these if they commit crimes? Wouldn’t the world be a better place that way, much more gentle and just if that happened? This is where the main confrontation between Kazu’s ideology and those who follow Daiya, specifically Iroha, starts, as Kazu thinks that even though those people are scum, killing them is not right, whereas Daiya and his subordinates think that the world is better off without them. Kazu’s discussion with Iroha regarding this matter made me realize just how great these two points are explained, as they’re actually exposed in a way that even if you have a clear opinion on the matter, it WILL make you reconsider everything, due to listening to arguments from both sides. It didn’t change my opinion that the criminal scum should be killed, but it made me think about the other side’s arguments as well, which is something that Death Note could have done much better. The build-up for the confrontation between Daiya and Kazu that started in Volume 3 finally pays off REALLY well once they finally meet each other inside the cinema. It’s extremely thrilling to finally see those two face-to-face after all that happened since the start of this arc, considering how it was all about the battle of wits between them, and who could stay one step ahead of their opponent. With really interesting themes being explored in a neat way, the characters’ mentalities, relationships and backgrounds fully explored and a thrilling conclusion, the Shadow of Sin and Punishment is the best arc of the novel, and it’s what made me consider HakoMari as my #1 fictional work.

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Finally, every story needs a conclusion to its main plot, and HakoMari is no exception. The final volume is where the second and final “down” of the novel happens, as 200 pages were spent on showing Kazu’s resolve transformed into pure insanity in order to be with Maria, which by that point was a need that needed to be fulfilled as much as hunger or thirst for a normal person. Now I liked the content a lot, I thought that it was a very good way of making them reunite with each other, showing Maria finally realize the truth about her sister, as well as both Kazu and Maria realizing how important they truly are to each other. But I do think that it should have been done in WAY less pages and it would still have the same effect, as a lot of time was spent on showing Kazu killing himself or others in different ways. It could have been half the length easily and still worked out as well, or maybe even better. Fortunately that feeling only lasted for half of its duration, as the second half of the final volume per se (excluding the epilogue) with Maria as the ‘main character’ was much, much better. The author essentially promised that Maria would have to get rid of the Flawed Bliss by herself, and that’s exactly what happened, I’m glad that Kazu didn’t just destroy it against Maria’s will, but that his tireless efforts resulted in Maria changing her views on her own life, as well as on her sister, which led her to finally get rid of that accursed box that was binding her to a wish that wasn’t even her own, and thus Kazu’s wish to save the zeroth (original) Maria, the one before she knew about the boxes, was finally realized, at great cost though. Finally the epilogue happens, and THAT’S the main reason why the seventh volume was so good. It was written so that it shows what happens to EVERY single character without exception, and it was written in a way where it presents Maria’s announcement of marrying with Kazu, even though he’s completely broken, as well as her apologizing for everything that happened. This announcement of her, plus her words to each character in particular, was what saved many of the characters from breaking at the end, specifically Haruaki, who had lost all of his friends to the events of the previous arc, as well as Kokone, who began having suicidal thoughts due to thinking that Daiya would not wake up. The epilogue shows all the characters finally obtaining their peace of mind after everything they went through, and looking towards a bright future, all while showing Kazu’s process of recovery from his pitiful state that he was left in after facing the Flawed Bliss. It was a masterful epilogue that is very hard to put into words, as someone who was as invested into the work and its characters as I was, can fully appreciate seeing the characters finally in a peaceful environment, instead of constantly being thrown into despair, finding their own happiness. And that finally takes us to the main message of HakoMari. Now, granted it’s subject to interpretation, like everything, but to me, that message is: “Live for your own happiness, not for someone else’s. Living for a happiness that isn’t your own is fake and undesirable”. This was especially shown with Maria and Daiya’s characters, and their mentalities of putting the world above them, not caring about their happiness of even about their own lives. But at the very end, both of them finally embraced their own happiness. Maria taking care of Kazu for her own happiness, and not for his, and Daiya being with Kokone, not with the mentality of “I’d do everything for her sake, even killing myself” but with the mentality of simply loving her. And with that message, the work finally ended, and one of the biggest voids I’ve gone through started.

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Now that I hopefully made clear why I think so highly about the work itself, I want to go a bit in depth about three characters in particular, the characters that made the novel so much better, and that most readers probably got invested into.

Starting off with the protagonist Kazuki, he starts off as this generic protagonist who just wants to keep his everyday life safe, reaching the conclusion that to do that, he needs to destroy the boxes that threat that everyday life with their supernatural, unpredictable powers. At first that’s all there is to it, until he eventually realizes that what truly matters to him… is none other than Maria. It’s then that the big change in Kazu occurs, when he starts to view Maria not as just someone he loves, but as someone he needs. His feelings towards her are clearly abnormal, and the author had no qualms in explaining that either, since she became a necessity to him just like food is to a regular living being. At first all that Kazu showed was resolve, saying the generic “I will kill everyone if it allows me to be with you, even sacrifice my own humanity” lines over and over again… until you realize that he’s DEAD serious. Indeed, from the sixth volume on, he acts on those words. He is willing to go insane and sacrifice his friends’ relationships if it means rescuing Maria, and he even admits that when he asks for their help. I remember him saying that he would always put Maria first before the rest of them quite directly, which shows just how true his resolve was. Heck, he even went as far as to crush Maria’s own wish due to knowing it was a fake from the start, so he was essentially opposing the person he wanted to rescue in the first place. The change in Kazu is very noticeable and the best thing about it is that you get to see every step of the day, due to it being really gradual. At the end of the day he lost his sanity, ability to speak and even think, but his goal was fulfilled and the zeroth Maria saved. Fortunately for him, his feelings reached Maria who dedicated the following years of her life to help Kazu regain his humanity, which gradually happened, and by the end he’s at least able to form enough words to tell Maria that they’re getting married, as well as seeming to have recovered most of his ability to form rational thoughts. Kazu’s relationship with Maria, as well as his abnormal ‘obsession’ for her is, in my opinion, the best aspect that the novel has to offer, as well as its main selling point. It’s what the author spent pages and pages developing from the very start, and the culmination of that build-up was splendid. What I also like about that relationship is that the author didn’t try to sell the idea that the kind of obsession that Kazu had for Maria was normal, or even desirable, but actually he clearly stated that it was undesirable because living for the sake of another means denying your own happiness, something most of the characters in HakoMari were doing to some extent. Kazu put himself through a ton of suffering, especially in the final volume, where you gradually see what’s left of his sanity fade away. He did admit in the previous volume that he maybe was already insane, and considering the methods he used to defeat Daiya, one can most definitely agree with that statement. His amazing tenacity was what made him such a great character, and he complemented Maria really well, making him one of those really good protagonists in fiction that you don’t run into that often.

Next up is Daiya, who you can call the antagonist of the fifth and sixth volumes, though his confrontations with Kazuki started before of those. Right from the bat I saw a lot of potential on his character because of how he comes off as someone who is too much of a realist and is not afraid to speak his mind even if he gets looked at with bad eyes. In the second volume his relationship with Kokone is heavily foreshadowed when the fake Kazuki confesses to Kokone, which results in Daiya beating him up. When the Game of Idleness arc starts, he reveals he’s an owner, and calls Kazuki someone who can only destroy other people’s wishes, even if he himself, at the time, wasn’t aware of just how true that statement was. He also sees Kazuki as someone who looks at situations as if he were a higher being, which is why he says he seems to be ‘floating’. Daiya regards him as an enemy that would threaten his ultimate goal and has no qualms with making that clear either. He ends up revealing his desire to get rid of the ‘thoughtless people’ who he considers to be scum not deserving of their lives, and used the knowledge he got from Kamiuchi’s box to make a wish that would allow him to master the box even if he is a realist, which makes use of asking for a means to accomplish the wish instead of just wishing directly for it to happen. Daiya eventually shows just how much he’s willing to sacrifice for this goal when he kills Kamiuchi, an event that actually represents his biggest sin, and that would haunt him for the rest of the novel. For the sake of his ideal, he messed up many people’s lives by torturing them with their sins and making them submit to him, constantly suffering as he has to experience the pain of his target’s sins before being able to control them, and we get to see first-hand just how this pain affected him, both physically and psychologically. However, much to my surprise, Daiya was NOT defined by this ideal, by this hatred for what’s probably the majority of people. Instead, even that distorted ideal… was created all for the sake of his loved one, Kokone. And that’s what separates Daiya from the likes of Light. The human elements that Daiya possesses, and define him much better than his ideal. It’s through the events of his past that he developed what could be called almost a hatred towards the world, for what Kokone went through, and how it messed their perfect relationship, as Kokone became a shell of her former self, “completely broken” like Haruaki described, and Daiya even started using piercings, which he despises, almost as a way to mutilate his body, as he keeps mentioning he needs to “open more holes in his body”, suggesting he is torturing himself for what he thinks he was unable to do: saving Kokone. His self-hatred goes as far as him saying that he doesn’t mind if he dies hated by everyone and considered to be scum, as long as someone exists that can carry on his wish. However Daiya had to deny all of his feelings for Kokone and the rest of his past, he had to deny that Kokone was always at the core of his wish and ideal, because otherwise he would not have been able to resist the sins that he absorbed, he’d have been eaten alive by them, so he chose to blind himself, almost as if it was a self-defense mechanism, and threw Kokone to the back of his mind. However that self-deception ended when Kazuki brought both Kokone and Haruaki, the two people who represent his accursed past, and he was forced to sit through not only several of the most tragic and painful scenes from his past, but also through Haruaki and Kokone’s speeches that appealed to his emotions, and since we got to see what was on his mind all the way, thanks to the amazing use of monologues, we could see just how much they were affecting him. After all, Daiya’s real happiness lies with them, not with making the world a better place. After it was all done with and Daiya confronted his true feelings, he felt the need to atone for his sins, which led him to being stabbed and put in a comma that lasted a lot of time. Interestingly, the fact that he was in a comma was what made him and Kokone to regain what they had lost: their ability to be together. At the end we see that he managed to wake up and plans on regaining his normal life, this time being together with Kokone, which is an amazing way of wrapping up his character. Some can say that he deserved to die for all of what he did, but I strongly disagree because his motives weren’t selfish, nor do I consider them to be necessarily wrong. It was all for Kokone’s sake, even if he acknowledged that his relationship with her was already a lost case, he didn’t want what happened to her to happen to other people, hence the drive that managed to take him so far. I could spend hours writing about Daiya because he’s such an interesting and compelling character to read about, and he’s definitely my new favorite fictional character. I tend to love characters I can write entire essays about and never run out of things to mention, and Daiya definitely falls in that category. He’s my dream character come true: a character with an ideology similar to Light Yagami but with a background, tons of development, human elements and true emotional relationships.

Finally we have Maria. Now Maria is introduced as a generic light novel main heroine: she has a mysterious aura surrounding her, she’s quite anti-social, and she’s not what she appears to be at first glance. But the thought that she’s just a generic heroine is destroyed as soon as her relationship with Kazuki starts getting interesting, and a lot of her personality, flaws and ideals are revealed. Maria is similar to Daiya in that she also wants to give up her happiness for other people’s happiness, and she does not even consider herself to be a human anymore, instead referring to her as a box, showing her lack of love for herself. It’s obvious that she loves Kazu from very early on but she will do anything in her power to deny it, instead choosing to rationalize the whole situation by claiming she’s only with Kazu so that she is able to find O, which Kazu also seems to agree with at first, until the change in him that I mentioned before happens. Maria despises killing and considers it to be the ultimate evil, arguing that when someone kills, whatever their reason is, they are in the wrong. She goes as far as cursing herself for letting Kazu die on purpose, without any sort of interference by her part, when she thought that he was the owner for being in despair about not being able to leave the Rejecting Classroom. That’s what leads her to cut her ties with Kazu at the end of the fifth volume, when he attempts to kill Iroha after she threaten to have Maria raped, only to reveal it was Daiya’s plan all along to show Kazu’s treason to Maria. It was really convenient for Maria that it happened like that, since her fake wish of granting wishes, which one could call her Aya Otonashi personality, could be accomplished if Kazu wasn’t there with her, so she ‘gladly’ ended her relationship with him using that as an excuse in order to focus on her wish, once again rationalizing the whole thing.What’s so good about Maria is that everything she is in the present, it’s all well explained in her background, which the author dedicates quite a bit of time to. In reality Maria had a sister called… Aya Otonashi, someone who was as human as her but that she felt the need to deify due to not being able to accept her loss. She mistook Aya’s desire to prove that she deserved to be born for god-like powers, and Aya’s desire to see Maria also prove that she’s more than what her family makes her out to be, as they consider her to have accomplished her goal already just because she was born. Due to thinking that Aya set everything up so that Maria would become her after her death, she embraced this fake desire of granting people’s wishes and abandoned her original self, the zeroth Maria. It was, once again, a convenient way of denying the reality that Aya had died a normal death. That way she can claim Aya lives through her, and that, as she says, “she’s just using her body now”. Eventually after Kazuki’s struggles inside the Flawed Bliss and confronting her own feelings for Aya, Maria realizes that her true wish has nothing to do with other people, but with herself: she just wants to be with Kazuki. It took her a long time but she finally acknowledged that, and embraced her zeroth self after promising to keep smiling when she’s happy, crying when she’s sad, and overall living for her own happiness, which she does. One could claim her choice to take care of a broken Kazuki was for his sake, but that’s not true at all, Maria did it for her own happiness this time, and that’s the change in her character that I wanted to see. Her relationship with Kazuki was so strong that she believed without a doubt that he’d regain his sanity eventually, and her strong belief was a source of inspiration for Kokone, who had lost all hope of Daiya ever waking up from his comma. Maria is an inspirational character, and an example of a character that distorted her own memories of the past in order to deny the reality that the sister she loved so much was gone, and at the end she got what she truly wanted, along with Kazuki: for them to be together.

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Overall, HakoMari is a thrilling, thought-provoking and very well written story. It manages to handle the consistency in quality of the story, never failing to surprise its readers with a new revelation, while at the same time give all the characters their time to shine. It’s very rare to see a work of fiction that manages to do both at the same time, and they usually sacrifice one for the other, but HakoMari doesn’t. Usually when I read or watch a fiction work I am left wondering what the author was thinking when writing it, and fortunately with this one, thanks to the notes the author left at the end of each volume, we always knew what was going on his mind when writing it, and he never failed to come off as a really cheerful guy in those notes. It’s something that adds to the overall experience, and it’s those little details that separate amazing works from masterpieces, and HakoMari sure has a lot of those. It does have its downs, like I mentioned before, those parts of the story that aren’t consistent with the amazing ups that it managed to achieve, but nevertheless my immersion was never broken at all by those, nor do I find them to be bad enough to deduct points from my final score, which is a clear 10/10. Whether it’s how it manages to keep you at the edge of your seat, how it presents the flaws of its character, how it explores their relationships, or how it develops its themes, I think anyone can find something to love about this work, as it’s very easy to pick up and read as long as you like stories that focus more on the characters than on anything else. And it’s sad to see that despite it being very appreciated in the West, from what its MAL score suggests anyway, it seems to be really obscure in Japan. While that’s good, since that way we will never get an anime that would most likely butcher the work, I find it sad that people prefer certain works with no depth to these kinds of character studies, which I appreciate way more, since I can write long-ass essays about them any day and not feel tired or run out of stuff to talk about. I think that the chance of me re-reading some, if not all of the volumes of HakoMari in the future is very high, as it does seem to have a high re-readability value since you might always realize something you didn’t before. In the end, I am very glad that I gave this work a shot; otherwise I’d have missed out big time.

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Thanks for reading!

The Way of Criticism

Note: I might write a second part if I feel like there’s a need to cover more things, as well as if I come up with enough content to justify it.

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I’ve been a part of the anime community for a while now and one thing that I never understood is the mentality behind the common criticisms I hear. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t criticize anything, in fact those who know me well are very aware that I’m an advocate for criticism. It’s good for us to be able to explain why we dislike something, what we’d improve in it, why it failed, etc. However, every single day I see someone essentially spitting on criticism and giving it a bad name. I’ll attempt to explain exactly what criticism is for me and how I personally criticize fiction, giving guidelines for people who are interested in it.

The first thing we have to do is being able to tell hate apart from criticism. While I’m a relativist when it comes to fiction, meaning I believe there are as many perspectives on a fiction work as there are people, mindless hate and criticism are actually very different in my eyes. Criticism is when you’re pointing out what you perceive to be flaws and giving examples to complement your argument. So when you claim that something is badly written, you’re going to explain exactly what you mean by that, and not leave it at that, because that’s just too vague. And that vagueness is exactly what people who are hating on a work love. Since most of the time they can’t explain exactly what’s wrong with the work, they resort to cheap tricks and end up making a fool out of themselves by making their argument as vague as possible. I see this a lot of time, especially with certain kinds of people who love to hate on everything they watch (I don’t think I need to explain what kind of people these are). These vague arguments are made possible thanks to the infamous ‘buzzwords’ that float around in the anime community, and they are also used in other communities, though not as much from my experience. One of these buzzwords is one you might be very familiar with, ‘overrated’. Now, this one is straight up laughable when you’re attempting to criticize something. I myself use this word a lot when talking on skype with friends or something casual but when I’m actually trying to explain why I dislike something, I never use that word. The reason why that word just doesn’t do it for me is precisely because the worth of a a fiction work depends on what aspects we value the most. If I’m someone who cannot like a fiction work without the characters being great, then something like Shinsekai Yori, despite having amazing world-bulding and lore, just won’t do it for me. However, that doesn’t mean SSY is bad just because its characters are mostly used for world exploration and left mostly undeveloped and bland. We have to look at the message that Shinsekai Yori tries to transmite, and what it’s trying to do. Obviously it’s not a character exploration work, nor is it trying to be one in the first place. From the very start it’s exploring this utopian society that the characters live in, and attempting to transmit a message about what’s wrong with it. So if someone calls Shinsekai Yori overrated because its characters suck, that individual just missed what the show was trying to do. Different works have different formulas, and we can’t just stick to the old “story and characters” formula with certain pieces. One prime example of this formula being useless is Millennium Actress. If we’re judging it by using that formula, you’re going to be very disappointed because the characters aren’t well written at all and the story feels inconsistent due to it changing between the present time, the main character’s memories and the films she participated in. However what is it that makes Millennium Actress so loved by so many people? It’s its presentation, its way of telling a story and coveying the amazing themes about pursuing our dreams even if they are illusions made up by us. It’s a thematic piece that should be looked at as such, and not using a standard formula. So calling it overrated and then applying that formula to explain it just doesn’t work.

The ‘overrated’ word is the worst in my book, however there are more buzzwords that I think are just lazy excuses. One of them is “otaku-pandering bullshit”. Let’s think about this one for a moment: it’s true that fanservice in anime is primarily directed at the people who will buy it, the otakus, and therefore they include some jokes or scenes with boobs shaking or something similar. Someone who has seen a good amount of anime should be familiar with this trope. Now, I’m as annoyed as the next person regarding this trope, due to how overused it became, however it doesn’t work as criticism by itself, especially if you just use the term and don’t even give examples. Sometimes the fanservice doesn’t get in the way of the story progression and it doesn’t hinder the development of the characters. Can you really blame the staff for adding fanservice to try and improve the sales? Don’t forget that anime don’t sell well enough to make the people in the industry rich, it’s actually the opposite. I’m personally fine with fanservice as long as it’s not too much and it doesn’t interfere with what the show is about. Of course some shows are all about it, and they are announced as such in the first place, so what you see is what you get. That’s why I never understood people complaining about ecchi anime having too much fanservice. Why are you complaining about something that is inherent to the genre itself? It makes no sense whatsoever. At most you can criticize the anime industry for having an oversaturation of these types of shows, to which I would absolutely agree, but it doesn’t work for individual shows, I’m afraid. Additionally, why don’t people complain about western shows doing the same? The most popular shows like Game of Thrones do the exact same and have tons and tons of pointless sex scenes and nobody complains as much as they do with anime. Is it because in anime we only get a ‘tease’, and rarely do we ever get actual sex (outside of hentai)? Fair enough, but unless the sex scenes are actually relevant to what the show is trying to accomplish, they are much more annoying than the fanservice in anime, and usually they go on for much longer too. Another lazy excuse that most people will recognize is ‘good/bad writing’. Now I use this one a lot but never as a standalone argument because it doesn’t fly. It’s important to explain what you consider to be good or bad writing and giving examples about it, otherwise nobody will understand your point. To me bad writing is when the situation doesn’t feel natural because the author didn’t do a good job at setting it up, or when a character isn’t written to be a character but just a walking archetype or a member of a harem. I always try my best to explain why I think something is not well written because that way I’m both avoiding being vague and also giving whoever reads my argument the ability to argue back by disagreeing with what I said. If you leave it at “it’s badly written”, the argument stops there: who can argue against something like that when they don’t even know what that means?

The last buzzword I want to cover in this article (there are many more but if I went over each one, we’d be here for months) is ‘pretentious’. Now, this word just reeks with hate. It has no worth at all when criticizing something and very rarely will you come by someone who uses it and is able to explain exactly why the work is pretentious. The reason why this word is popular is mainly because of the anime series that have something to say, and it’s usually something to be taken seriously. Now let’s use my personal example to explain why this criticism doesn’t roll. I am a fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion and its sequel movie, and I love discussing the themes that it presented with other fans, and while I do admit that Eva does have a lot of problems, it does what it sets out to do perfectly, which is to study the mentality of the characters and how their trauma makes them seek isolation and human warmth at the same time. That’s fine and all, but what about the religious symbolism and abstract concepts that it uses? Those are what make some people call it pretentious after all. Well, calling something pretentious because of symbolism is a pathetic and lazy excuse to explain why you didn’t like it. The word ‘pretentious’ implies that the show is trying to be more than it is, however Evangelion uses that symbolism from the start, even if it’s way more subtle in its earlier episodes, and it DOES have a reason to be there, it’s not random. On the other hand, I hate Serial Experiments Lain because I felt like its themes weren’t at all well portrayed, that it wasted too much time being abstract and that it lacks substance. In general I like the idea behind it, which was the fear of the internet making people lose their individuality back in the 90s, but its execution is really poor and most of the time I didn’t understand anything that was on screen, whereas with the End of Evangelion movie I always managed to follow what it was showing, even if it went completely abstract, which it did, because it still maintained its substance and message. However, I won’t call Lain pretentious because I didn’t fully understand it or because I thought the execution was terribly flawed, instead I’m going to explain exactly what makes me think that Lain could have been much better and why I’m not too big on its core theme. Disregarding something as “pretentious” is just a lazy way of explaining that you didn’t understand what the anime was trying to tell you, or that you just didn’t like its themes or thought the execution of said themes was problematic.

Now that I’ve talked about what not to do when criticizing fiction, I’m going to give some short guidelines about how I personally go at it. The first thing is that you should watch the whole anime before writing a review or criticizing it. The reason for this is because as much as you might want to say that you can identify shit after one episode due to how many years you’ve been in the community, it’s simply not possible. Let’s look at Chivalry of a Failed Knight for instance. It has the most overused setting in the medium at the moment, and that’s all you get to see in the first episode. However when you actually give it time, it shows that it’s not at all like the others, because this time you have a main character that struggles a lot due to his shortcomings, a main heroine who is looked at as a genius and her hard work disregarded due to that, and a little sister who is in love with her brother not because of incest-pandering like some people would call it, but because she grew up watching everyone insulting him, and she felt sorry for the guy, which she eventually mistook as love. Would you be able to tell the characters could be described with more than a one-liner after just one episode? Of course not, nobody would. The exception to this rule is when it’s a comedy. I personally don’t write reviews or criticize comedies at all because there’s usually little I can say about them, but usually the style of comedy used will be the same throughout the anime, so chances are, nothing is going to happen that changes your opinion on it. Another important thing to do when criticizing is avoiding generalizations and instead using comparisons. One thing I hear some people say is “Ping Pong the Animation is bad because it’s a sports anime”, and I can’t even begin to tell you just how wrong this is. You can’t use the genre itself as a means to criticize something, that’s as bad as saying that an ecchi anime has too much fan-service. Instead of generalizing genres or settings or the fact that it’s a LN adaptation, I always seek to compare it with other works that are similar to it. With the previous example of Chivalry of a Failed Knight, we can compare it to, say, Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei which has essentially the same setting but instead of the focus being on the characters, it’s all about how cool a power is and it uses several info-dumps to explain a single action that the main character does. Chivalry wins precisely because its characters are so superior to the ones in Mahouka, the incest references has a reasoning behind it in Chivalry and the main character actually struggles to get through situations and the hatred that other people have for him due to his lack of ability, whereas the one in Mahouka is made so people self-insert in an overpowered character that all girls love for no reason, which shows laziness when writing the character. The popularity of a work should also be avoided as criticism towards that work because it has no bearing on its quality, and the same can be said when praising it (so no “many people like it so it has to be good” mentality, that’s just a sheepling’s mentality). Additionally, and on the same line of logic, avoid using other people’s opinions or reviews as a way of saying that something is bad. I’ve seen many “my friend says it’s terrible so it’s terrible” comments on forums and that’s just being really lazy. To this end, avoid being blinded by hype, whether in an ultra-positive or ultra-negative aspect, since hype just produces backlash, and the more hype there is, the more backlash there will be, and it’s best to stay out of that hype if you want to be serious about criticizing something. Extremism is never good.

Another thing that is very important to understand is that the production values should not be the main source of criticism. The reason for that is because regardless of the show, its core is in its themes, story, characters, presentation, etc. The artwork, animation and soundtracks are there to complement that core, but they are just the seasoning and never the main dish. I do mention them in almost all of my reviews but more as a side thing than anything else. Praising or criticizing an anime for its production values is pointless because you’re just praising or criticizing whoever funded the anime. This means that when you want to explain why, say, Fate/Zero is great, you won’t start by saying it has god-like Ufotable animation and instead that should be reserved for later in the review. It’s also important that you don’t look solely on the positive/negative aspects of something, but both. One of the main examples I have about this aspect in particular is Clannad. Now, it’s easy to criticize Clannad regarding the ending, since despite it not being an asspull like many people said, it does hurt the structure of the story a bit, and it’s never a positive aspect in a story. However, to disregard everything that it accomplished before of that is just insane, and not the right way to criticize something. That’s where the difference between the critic and the elitist lies (which I already talked about in a previous article): the critic knows what he’s talking about so he’ll mention both the good and the bad and what should have been improved, whereas the elitist will hate on it by using buzzwords and vague criticism. Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that other people will have different opinions from your own, and that your opinion is NOT objective by any means, though it can have more or less value than someone else’s depending on how informed both parties are (not everyone deserves to have an opinion but everyone deserves to have an informed opinon). This one is extremely common in political science and it can be applied really easily to fiction, because of all the ‘ad hominem’ arguments that float around, like when someone says “you’re a fan of Urobuchi so your opinion has no value” or “my opinion is objective and yours sucks because you haven’t seen as many anime as I have”. I wish I was joking but I’ve actually seen those kinds of criticisms before, and they weren’t a satire. Attacking the other party is NOT acceptable under any means since what’s being discussed is an anime, not the quality of the taste of the parties discussing it, so avoid that at all costs.

Now there’s many more things I would want to talk about regarding this matter but due to lack of time, I’ll leave it at that. The important lesson to take from all of this is that we all should look at fiction as ‘critics’, because it helps us develop our brains and our ability to argue, which will help us a lot in real life, plus I personally find it very fun to analyze the shows I love or despise, since I like to know exactly what I like or dislike about them, and then compare it with other similar shows to see whether or not there’s a correlation. At the end of the day fiction is all about enjoying ourselves so each person should be free to look at it however they want, but keep in mind that if you want to be taken seriously when criticizing something, you should follow certain guidelines and avoid making a fool out of yourself.

Anime Reaction: Card Captor Sakura

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The first time I watched Cardcaptor Sakura (CCS) was during my childhood years, around 12 years ago, when I was still a kid. While I never marathoned the anime per se, I remember eagerly looking forward to it every time I had time and I remembered the schedules of our cartoon channel. I didn’t recall exactly what I loved so much about it though, for many years, and I’ve always ignored it in favor of other anime ever since I started ‘marathoning’ anime back in 2012. For the longest time, I was afraid it was gonna turn out to be another Doraemon, which I loved watching back when I was a child, but nowadays I couldn’t sit through a whole episode of that. Fortunately, Cardcaptor Sakura ended up being a very different and pleasant experience, in many ways.

Starting off with my reasoning towards picking it up after so many years, it was random, like pretty much everything I do. One day, which was the 13th of April, I just randomly decided to watch the first episode, and so I opened my usual streaming website and… went for it. What I didn’t expect was falling in love with the anime as soon as I finished episode one. There were many factors why the first episode appealed to me so much, the first being obviously nostalgia, which is a powerful emotion. The second was the mood, the atmosphere of the anime. This one is hard to explain, but I loved how carefree, cheerful and innocent it was. And that’s the first strength I found in this series: it manages to keep a consistent mood throughout its 70 episode duration, where it’s never too serious to the point you become bored, nor too comedic to the point where you can’t take anything seriously. This balanced mix between comedy and seriousness is something that a lot of anime, specifically more modern anime, struggle to achieve, and it’s one of Cardcaptor’s biggest assets. I found myself changing my emotions depending on what the story was showing, from feeling lonely whenever Sakura’s mother was brought up, to feeling happy whenever Sakura was having fun.

Still, it struggles with the fact that the first couple of episodes are slower and less eventful than the later ones. The reason for this is because they are the introduction episodes, and with such a large main character cast, plus explaining how the mechanics of magic work, it’s to be expected that the first 10 episodes would be slower. If you can “survive” these episodes though, you’re good to go, and I am of the opinion that one should NOT skip these episodes because Cardcaptor relies on character attachment a lot, which these episodes help a lot with, and it truly shines in this regard (I will come back to this later). One thing I did not recall was that Cardcaptor is indeed episodic, for the most part. I tend to dislike episodic shows in any medium because they usually get repetitive really easily, and it’s hard to come up with stuff to fill 70 episodes of content in an episodic-style anime. While there were many moments when Cardcaptor might feel repetitive, specifically with the whole “Daily life first half, card appears and ruins the day second half”, the creativity employed to make each episode was astonished to me. They managed to cover many different themes and explore all the different characters that make up the main character cast thanks to this episodic system, which is the best I can honestly ask for.

The core theme of Cardcaptor Sakura is ‘emotions’, specifically love. While this, combined with the fact that it IS a show that targets children, might seem like nothing will come of this theme, and that it won’t be explored to its full potential, it’s exactly the opposite: it does explore romance from many different perspectives, and in many different ways. It’s also extremely liberal when it does this, which honestly surprised me, considering it was 1998. For instance, there are homosexual feelings between two male main characters, Sakura’s best friend is in love with her (it was strongly hinted but never said), one of Sakura’s classmates is in love with her teacher who is much older than her, among some other ‘taboo’ situations. What impressed me about the exploration of romance in this anime is that it wasn’t taken to the extreme. Someone who is educated will know that most homosexual people don’t act as girlish as some of the stereotypes make it seem, and that is indeed the case with the homosexual characters in Cardcaptor: they act like regular people. It’s not used to shock the audience by shouting “LOOK THESE GUYS ARE GAY AND THEY WILL ACT AS GAY AS POSSIBLE TO PROVE IT!!!”, instead presenting many subtle hints about it in several episodes, being easy to deduce by episode 30. The feeling of being in love is treated in an innocent way, because after all, most of the characters are 10 year olds. It makes sense for them to blush when they see their love interests, or for them to look at love in a rather innocent way. Tomoyo, Sakura’s best friend, is indeed in love with her, but she has some dialogues with other characters where she says that loving someone is not only about wanting to be in an official relationship with them, but it’s about making sure they are happy with whoever they are with, even if that person is not themselves. Tomoyo goes as far as helping Shaoran, who loves Sakura as well, to confess to her his feelings, making his life quite easier. Not only does this display incredible selflessness by Tomoyo’s part, but it makes sense considering how she views love. There is also not a single time where Cardcaptor tries to make a moral judgment of the characters’ love interests or sexual orientation, instead choosing to keep itself neutral, which is something I appreciated a lot, because it lets the audience think for themselves, something a lot of fiction works fail to do. To complete this small reflection on how Cardcaptor deals with love, there’s the way it explains how there are many different kinds of love. While Sakura loves Shaoran without a doubt, she also loves Yukito, and she also loves her father, but all of them are in different manners. In Shaoran she sees her “number one”, as she describes him, the one person she develops true feelings of love towards, whereas with Yukito, while there is some of that love in the way she feels about him, it’s also partly due to her seeing him as a kind guy who she considers to be almost family, though it was strongly implied there was at least some true love in the way Sakura felt about him. At the end of the day, Cardcaptor moves to show that emotions are a very powerful force, which can make people do stuff they usually wouldn’t. In that sense, it feels like an extremely humane work, one that takes itself seriously in this regard, even if it does so in an innocent way, which might not be entirely relatable, and can come off as cheesy depending on the individual watching it.

But what about the relationship everyone is wondering about, the main one: Sakura x Shaoran? This relationship takes its time to develop, as Shaoran first appears as an antagonist to Sakura, despising her for thinking she does not deserve to be the successor of Clow, instead thinking he himself should hold the cards, as he had training in magic and is a descendant of Clow. Eventually, and after many experiences together, they become close friends, to the point where Sakura actively asks for his help during many situations, the same way as Shaoran trusts Sakura in a lot of rough situations. And then there’s a time where Shaoran starts looking at Sakura with different eyes, as more than a friend: as someone he truly cares about. And it’s when this happens that he starts blushing pretty much every time he sees her, but rejecting the fact that he loves her for a good portion of the show, until he ultimately is forced to accept it. But even when he does accept it, only at the very end of the series does he say the ‘magical words’ to Sakura, and only in the sequel movie does the romance plot get resolved, which is by no means bad because it means the characters had time to develop their feelings for each other. There are many people that help Shaoran and Sakura be together, like Tomoyo as I mentioned previously, and even Eriol, the final season’s antagonist, who creates a certain situation that changes the way they address each other, bringing them even closer. It’s a very cute and innocent romance, as it should be, and it feels extremely rewarding when they do get together, leaving an open ending with endless possibilities for the future with both of them, which only contributes to the ‘void’ the series left me with.

This is a character-driven show, and as such the character cast is where it truly shines, and the characters are, of course, what allows the themes I covered above to be explored. The first thing to get out of the way is that no character that appears in this anime is evil in any way. While they might sometimes go overboard with what they do, their intentions are never to necessarily hurt anyone, but to help Sakura grow as an individual, as well as to help her magic powers develop. So you won’t have to worry about an antagonist being the “I WILL RULE THE WORLD!!!!” type, which is already a great start. The character dynamics in Cardcaptor are among the best I’ve ever seen, both in how realistic they feel, and in how naturally they are shown. From simple “let me cover the daily duties for you” to “I will stay by your side no matter what”, it always feels like the characters are always willing to help each other with all kinds of things. Even the characters that have no magical powers can prove to be resourceful in the right situations, like Meilin’s martial arts or Tomoyo’s singing voice. One thing I appreciated a lot in this show was how even characters that seem to be background characters for most of the time end up getting more exposition than you would expect them to. One example of this is Sakura’s father, who in most situations seems like a character that’s there for background purposes, but then you get entire episodes exploring his motivation to be an archaeologist or focusing on his relationship with his now deceased wife and on how he promised never to cry again while talking about her because she would be sad if he did. Through him, Sakura learns a lot about her late mother, which in turn helps her grow having a “role model” even if she has already passed on. This is true for Sakura’s father, as it is for her brother, for Yukito, and for most characters that appear in almost every single episode, no main character feels bland or left behind because of how well Cardcaptor paced itself, creating several opportunities for you to get attached to the characters, which is a requirement in this anime because in the later episodes, specifically the last ten of them, when the revelations are made, it will help you feel empathy for them, as well as understanding their thought process. I could go on and on about each individual case, because there’s a lot to talk about, but there’s no realistic need to do so, as I feel I got the point across with a single example.

The characters that have the most screen time, besides obviously Sakura, would be Keroberos, Shaoran and Tomoyo, as they are the ones that are almost always with Sakura, whether it’s at school, home or in dangerous situtions. Not only will you feel they grew with the passage of time, you will also notice how much you learn about them. Whether it’s about their quirks, their emotions, their past, their thought process or even small things as the food they like to eat, the smallest details can improve the way you look at them. Many people will look at Shaoran with judging eyes because of the way his character is introduced, where the only things he has to say is how bad Sakura is at doing her job and how he is more deserving of being the cardcaptor. However as you see Shaoran’s opinion change about many things, so will your own opinion on him. His exposition will help you care for him a lot, and that’s true for the rest of the cast as well. Cardcaptor shows its character progress in a slow yet effective manner, in which you cannot exactly point to an X moment in time where the change actually happened, but instead feeling natural, like they grew up because of the time they spent together. There’s also the need to talk about Clow and his relationship with Yue and Keroberos, his two creations. At first it seems like Clow just created them to protect the cards, but as you learn more about their stories, you will see that Clow truly did love them as if they were his family. And you can see how much emotion Yue and Keroberos use when they describe him, whenever Sakura asks what kind of person Clow was. Yue has a more conservative approach, as he could never really get over Clow’s death, believing no one other than him could be his master, eventually growing to accept Sakura, while Keroberos thinks Clow is the past, and therefore it’s best to look towards the future, which is Sakura, though there are many instances where he does show that Clow was someone who meant a lot to him. Clow being the way he is gives birth to one of Sakura’s main struggles: she does not believe she is worthy of being the new master of his creations because, as she says, “as much as she tries, she can never become Clow himself”. Eventually she experiences several dialogues and events that lead to her accepting that Sakura is Sakura, Clow is Clow, and that they are two different people. These kinds of struggles are what make Cardcaptor such an endearing show, because you will see the insecurities of the characters when dealing with something new, and then you will see them overcoming said shortcomings through character interaction. It’s beautiful in how natural and smooth it feels.

I did have some problems with Cardcaptor Sakura, and most of them are related to the climax scenes. In specific, the action feels lackluster, which is fine because after all, as mentioned previously, it’s more about the characters than it is about flashy visuals or epic battles, but one of the ‘battles’ in specific was foreshadowed since episode 1 and had quite the anticlimactic end, not to the point where it broke my immersion of the series, which never happened fortunately, but to the point where I reflected a bit about it afterwards. When it comes to these last battles, it seems Cardcaptor succeeds in presenting amazing foreshadowing and the character growth that leads to them, but they always feel like they could have been better in some way. The best way to watch this anime is to expect unimpressive battles, in terms of action anyway. What I do like about these battle scenes though, is how Sakura never bruteforces her way through them. Instead of using ‘OP’ cards to destroy everything that stands in her path, she thinks about what card can counter the card she is trying to get, and then uses it in creative ways to capture said card. This way, most of the cards get to shine, and it doesn’t feel like Sakura is abusing the magic system, making it feel much more balanced. Sakura’s way of fighting is childish, in the sense that her ideals do not let her injure anyone she fights, whether it’s a card or an individual, however not only does this make sense, it’s also consistent throughout the show. Never in the entire show will you see Sakura forsaking this style of battle, and it’s understandable that she doesn’t want to injure the cards, as she sees them as friends, even the ones who caused trouble in her life, plus being the kind of person she is (cheerful and harmless), it’s easy to see why she’s so passive when it comes to battling cards. As such, she almost always prefers using utility cards instead of aggressive ones precisely because of that.

As a whole, Cardcaptor Sakura left behind a huge void. It’s an anime I loved back when I was a kid, and it’s an anime I still love today as a 21 year old grown-ass adult. While it did have very noticeable problems, especially when it came to the rough start and to the climax scenes, it’s one of those cases where the characters and themes, as well as their exploration, easily overshadows its shortcomings by a mile. It progresses with a slow pacing, having several episodes that might feel pointless at first, but end up helping tremendously in the long run when it comes to making you attached to the characters, and this partly happens because Sakura does not actively seek the cards, instead choosing to capture them as she finds them during her daily life. Cardcaptor WILL make you attached to the characters; it WILL make you feel for them when it wants to; it WILL prove to be a most rewarding experience if you give it time. It’s also a great anime to watch in family or to show your kids (or future kids) because it teaches you a lot of good moral values like tolerance and any age group can genuinely enjoy it. Using the last dialogue from the anime as reference, where Sakura says to the audience she won’t forget about us, I can most certainly say I won’t forget about Cardcaptor Sakura and its characters either. It was a most surprising experience and proved that I had been looking for good shows in the wrong places, instead of going back to my roots out of fear that it wouldn’t pay off and would ruin my memories of them, like it did happen in the past with so many shows from my childhood.