Review: Final Fantasy VII: On The Way To A Smile

(This review was originally posted to The Fandom Post.)

I spent 100 hours leveling up to beat Sephiroth for this?

Creative Staff:
Story: Kazushige Nojima

Final Fantasy VII was the first JRPG I ever played, and only the second game I ever completed; to say that it holds a special place in my heart would be an understatement. I think there is actually entire chamber of my heart that is roped off and says “Reserved for Final Fantasy VII (and also VIII, sometimes).”

Sadly, I haven’t enjoyed any of the attempts that developer Square Enix has made to revisit that universe. I found Advent Children, the movie sequel, more irritating than anything else, and none of the prequel games that SE released seemed appealing. Maybe I just hold FFVII to too high a standard, but to me, the original game was like lightning in a bottle; a rare artistic achievement where the entire production came together to be more than the sum of its parts both as a video game and as a larger fantasy narrative.

So that leaves me in a weird place with On the Way to A Smile, basically a prequel to a movie that I didn’t like, but based in a world that I unquestionably love. This story collection bridges the gap between the end of the game and the beginning of Advent Children, a period of about four years. I tried to put aside my general dislike of all FFVII expansion material and approach this book with fresh eyes, but I’m not sure I succeeded. It seemed intent on reminding me of all the things I have never liked about attempts to continue the FFVII story beyond the final boss fight.

For one thing, this book is pretty dark; everyone is so despondent that you almost wonder if it wouldn’t have been kinder to let Sephiroth destroy the world and put everyone out of their misery. Now, it was always a dark world, and it’s not like I expected things to suddenly become happy and light-hearted after Sephiroth was defeated. I mean, it’s nice to think about Cloud and Tifa being married with 2.3 kids and a dog, Red XIII finding a girlfriend and having the best animal romance since The Lion King, or Cid starting the Gaia version of NASA, but I knew it would never be that easy for these characters. Still, this book goes too far in the other direction by making everybody utterly miserable. What makes it unforgivable to me is that this book requires the characters to forget the things they learned in the original game in order to be unhappy.

Remember how Barret’s character arc in the game had him realizing that while he’ll never be the father he thinks Marlene deserves because of his past, he’s nevertheless the father she has, and he needs to be there for her? Well, this book has him dump Marlene on Tifa early on so he can “settle his past,” which he should already know is a fool’s errand. When he ends up doing something useful, it’s more because he stumbles into it than anything else. Cloud and Tifa, who achieved a state of great intimacy by the end of the game- to the point where they even shared a consciousness at one point- treat each other like awkward strangers, and struggle to communicate. Yuffie goes on a useless quest that she knows has no chance of success, but does it anyway because she thinks her pluck will give people hope, or something. Wasn’t Yuffie the one who wanted results, not just idle talk? Cid is doing fine, so naturally, Cid isn’t in the book that much.

It’s certainly not all bad. It clarifies a lot of things about Advent Children that were always a bit hazy, and some of the individual stories are interesting. I particularly liked Red XIII’s story, because even though it was depressing as all hell, at least he seemed properly in character. But man, talk about going out of your way to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. Most of the characters don’t even seem conscious of the fact that they saved the entire planet, because that might give them something to feel good about. Yuffie at least acknowledges it, then is promptly told that no one wants to hear about it and she should shut up.

And yet, for all my complaints, there’s something here. We’re dealing with a society that both regrets nearly destroying nature, yet fears the raw destructive power of nature; a worldwide slump brought about by extreme corporate mismanagement; an epidemic with no cure, without enough medicine or health providers to go around; A rapid increase in technology, while at the same time, a desperate need for a new energy source that doesn’t seem forthcoming. Even though this book doesn’t do right by the cast of the game, I would be lying if I said it didn’t feel relevant. It’s almost too relevant, if such a thing is even possible; I mean, I just ostensibly read a Final Fantasy book, and here I am thinking about health care and diminishing fossil fuel supplies instead of Chocobo Racing. Is that okay?

In fairness, most fans of FFVII are probably less picky and will find more to like here. If you liked Advent Children (and a lot of fans did), you’ll probably like this. And it’s always nice to see interaction between beloved characters that didn’t get much one-on-one time in the original game, like Yuffie and Red XIII. With all this sequel material though, I’m always left wondering if SE perhaps doesn’t understand the story of the original game they made, or if maybe I’m the one who doesn’t understand. It’s not a good feeling, either way.

In Summary:
A short story collection that succeeds as a supplement to the Advent Children film, but may leave series fans wondering if Final Fantasy VII was always this macabre and joyless.

Review: An Invitation from a Crab

(This review was originally posted on The Fandom Post.)

Never turn down an invitation from a sassy crustacean, especially if you haven’t decided what’s for dinner yet.

Creative Staff:
Story and art: panpanya
Translator: Ko Ransom
Production: Nicole Dochych

Denpa, the new publisher on the block, specializes in publishing manga that are a little off the beaten path; either hard to categorize, or simply overlooked. This is a good thing, but I think we need to be careful not to let the company’s niche color our perception of their books too heavily. After all, if we assume that every book that comes out of Denpa is going to be some strange, art-house affair, we’re probably doing a disservice to much of what they publish; just because a book has been overlooked for English-language publication thus far doesn’t mean it’s necessarily strange.

All that said, make no mistake: An Invitation from a Crab is strange. A series of vignettes featuring the barest suggestion of a manga-style school girl traversing warped, sometimes muddy backgrounds, all the while experiencing bizarre encounters with fish and crustaceans, interspersed with essays from the author on topics like “what is that light produced by the inside of your eyeballs?” Yeah, that’s unusual, to say the least.

What’s compelling about Crab is the way it presents its own brand of surrealism. Concepts like a dolphin-powered calculator seem like they would be right at home in The Hitchhikers’ Guide to The Galaxy, but the mood is much more Günter Grass than Douglas Adams. Even the stories that deal with more mundane subject matter always give the sense that something sinister is afoot. Our sketchily rendered protagonist may be able to eat a crab hotpot for dinner, but she may not really be at the top of the food chain. The world here is one of endless consumption, where humans and animals alike are put through a symbolic meat grinder, and any attempt to reconnect with the natural world is doomed to end in failure. It sounds like I’m saying this manga is anti-capitalist, and that may very well be true, but I think that may be an oversimplification. Something else is going on here; I’m not exactly sure what, but I’m going to keep thinking about it until I figure it out. Hopefully.

Something else I need to figure out is how I feel about this book’s art. Some of the backgrounds are great, with an almost sculptural quality, like the environments have been chiseled out of the paper somehow. Other times, the art becomes more minimalist and blurry, and I’m not sure it works. Ironically, the detailed, clear backgrounds do a better job of communicating the surreal mood of the story than the more smudgy, suggestive panels. The art is always at least adequate to tell the story, but if were always as good as panpanya is clearly capable of, I think we’d have something incredible here.

Whether or not the art is up to the level of the writing (and I’m sure others would disagree with me there), this is an unusual, thought-provoking title that discerning adult readers should seek out. The book may be rated Teen, but I think it’s mature (in the best sense of the word), and likely to be of particular interest to people who have already been reading manga for many years. If any 14-year-olds want to read it, hey: knock yourself out. Don’t let me stop you! But I think part of the experience of An Invitation from a Crab is comparing it to the other manga you’ve read, and the deeper your personal catalogue is, the more you’ll get out of it.

In Summary:
A surreal collection of stories and short essays with a serious bite to them, despite the fact that they may seem nonsensical at first.

Grade: A

Age Rating: Teen (13+)
Released By: Denpa, LLC.
Release Date: December 19, 2018
MSRP: US $12.95 CAN $14.95

Review: Reborn as a Vending Machine, I Now Wander the Dungeon Vol. 3

(This review originally posted on The Fandom Post.)

A sentient snack vending machine continues to do a better job romancing the ladies than you might think.

Creative Staff:
Story: Hirokuma
Art: Ituwa Kato

This volume focuses less on the mechanics of Boxxo’s existence as a vending machine, and more on developing the supporting cast. On the face of it, this is good; how many times do we need to find out that Boxxo added a new kind of corn soup to his products? Do we really need to know how many points Boxxo has accumulated at any given moment? Probably not.

However, I think this series is meant for a particular type of reader, and we’re the kind who enjoy this kind of minutia. I’m the kind of person who actually enjoys organizing (and re-organizing) long lists of items in RPGs, and that’s part of the reason why the extremely detail-heavy nature of the first two books appealed to me. Several times during this volume I found myself asking “How many points did Boxxo just spend to do that?”, something I’ve never had to wonder with this series before. One of the things that made the series initially compelling is the fact that Boxxo’s point total is effectively his life; if he runs out of points, he stops operating, essentially death for a vending machine. I think you need to really care about how many points Boxxo has left in order to be fully invested in the story, and that’s something that doesn’t work as well when the narrative starts glossing over the numbers.

Regardless of whether other readers get hung up on the lack of detail (maybe it’s just me being obsessive compulsive?), this volume does benefit from the greatest strength of this series: the fact that, as a vending machine, Boxxo’s solutions to problems are never what you would expect from a more typical hero. His use of different vending machine functions is a little less creative here than earlier, but it’s still interesting to see him utilize the benefits of practically every single kind of vending machine created by humanity. This time around, he even starts functioning as a jukebox, which seems like a bit of a stretch to me– that’s a different kind of machine, right?– but I’ll allow it.

This volume does continue the narrative of Boxxo’s party’s struggle against the mysterious dungeon bosses, but most of it is spent on downtime with the ladies in Boxxo’s life: particularly Lammis, the mighty but surprisingly timid adventurer who carries Boxxo on her back, and Shui, an archer with a bottomless pit for a stomach and a heart of gold. The focus on Shui was somewhat surprising (in fact, I barely remembered that she existed before this volume), but not unwelcome, and an eating contest is certainly tailored toward the strengths of this series. I’m hoping we’ll eventually get more background on Director Bear, the trustworthy public servant who happens to be a grizzly bear, but I guess I’ll have to wait for another volume for that. There are some fanservice scenes (which illustrator Ituwa Kato appears to have some fun with), but they’re pretty mild altogether.

My one big complaint about this volume (and this series in general) is the fact that the main character feels the need to remind the reader that he’s a vending machine waaaaaay too often. Dude, the premise of your series is unique, it’s not like any of us are going to forget anytime soon, you know?

In Summary:
A more character-driven installment that tones down on the “gamey-ness” of previous volumes, which can be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how much you liked the focus on vending machine stats earlier on. It still reads like a breath of fresh air compared to more formulaic series. Also, don’t read this book when you’re hungry: just don’t. You’ll probably end up demolishing an all-you-can-eat buffet, but if you planned on doing that anyway? Full speed ahead.

Status Update Part 2

I’ve been doing some thinking over the past few weeks. I haven’t been in the mood to blog anime; in fact, I have even been watching any, even the shows I really like, because the idea just doesn’t seem appealing. This will pass…it always does, eventually. But in all this time spent not watching anime, I’ve been trying to sort out how I want to spend my free time going forward.

I don’t think I’ll ever give up blogging entirely. Sometimes, I just get the urge to rant about a show or a game or whatever, and I need a place to do that. But I think I’m done trying to turn Otakusphere into any sort of larger anime site. As much as I enjoy episodic blogging, I don’t enjoy doing it all the time, and I have a lot of other interests that I’ve been neglecting. I think it would be better if I just went back to blogging when I felt like it, and leave things like seasonal coverage to the other sites.

So episodic blogging on SAO, That Time I Got Reincarnated As a Slime and any other shows is done for the season. Maybe I’ll do episodic blogging again at some point, if something really special comes along or if Food Wars! comes back, but I just can’t devote the time to it right now. Thanks go out to all of you who read my episode posts (and commented!), it was great to be able to make watching anime a kind of communal experience with you guys. But I’ve got to take care of myself, and my life’s ambition isn’t to be an aniblogger; it’s just something I kind of stumbled into. I have no plans of stumbling back out, but I’ve discovered that it’s probably not what I want to devote my entire life to either.

Thanks again, and I hope you’ll stick around for some sporadic (but maybe good?) otaku-centric posts.

 

Status Update

Hey guys. I know I kind of disappeared during Anime NYC, so I thought I’d take a few minutes just to let you know what’s up.

I knew the con was going to be difficult for me, since I haven’t been to such a big convention in quite a few years, and I struggle with crowds (among other things). Not only did I underestimate just how difficult it was going to be, but I also caught a cold, which made everything worse. I ended up leaving early, and haven’t really felt up to posting since then.

I’m disappointed I couldn’t do more at the con, but in some respects this isn’t such a terrible thing. I’ve always been torn in several directions terms of what I should try to cover on Otakusphere, and I think it’s safe to say I have now ruled out large cons as something I do. I may return to some of my smaller, comfortably-sized local cons, but in general I’m going to avoid con coverage; it’s just not my thing anymore.

Needless to say, getting sick +other problems knocked me off schedule with episodic blogging/podcasting etc., which I’d like to get back to ASAP. I’d still like to post my photos from the con, but for the most part I’m going to be focused on catching up on That Time I Was Reincarnated As A Slime and Sword Art Online. I will also catch up on My Sister My Writer, not because I’m covering it in any capacity, but because I hate myself and I deserve to suffer.

Thanks for your patience 🙂

 

That Time I Got Reincarnated As a Slime, Episode 6

This episode really surprised me. When last episode introduced the idea of Shizu as Rimuru’s “destined” person, I thought the show was probably going to take a roundabout route to get to her. Maybe Rimuru and Shizu would meet on different sides of a big conflict, multiple comical misunderstandings would ensue, and it would take about ten episode to clear everything up so they could have a proper heart to heart. Instead, the show skipped all of that tomfoolery and the two of them got to connect almost immediately, with no complications.

You would think that would be an example of boring writing, but in this case, I think they made it work. Especially since the show has already shown that Shizu is part of Rimuru’s destiny, why stall on what’s clearly already a foregone conclusion? If anything, I found it refreshing that the two characters were able to find each other and communicate so clearly without having to deal with arbitrary obstacles placed in their path.

“What fresh hell is this?” wonder the tired adventurers. Plot hell, my friends. You are joining the main plot.

But more on that later. First, the adventurers we met in episode 2 have apparently been having a rough time of it. Their job was to confirm the absence of Veldora, which means their showing up right when Rimuru was leaving the cave wasn’t a coincidence, which it seemed like at the time. Now they’d like to take a little rest from adventuring, but apparently the Adventurer’s Guild owns their asses for life, because they’ve been commanded to go back into the wild and…do what, exactly? It seems like they’re supposed to monitor the monster activity has changed in the post-Veldora landscape.

So they’re assignment is basically “Keep track of how many monsters try to eat you, then report back.” I would not want to be a member of this particular guild; something tells me the benefits are not that great.

Shizu, who we first met waaaaaaay back in the opening scene during the WWII flashback, finally shows up. It’s about time! We still don’t really know what she’s after, but she’s willing to team up with the info-gathering party temporarily, so at least she’s more than just a face in the shadows now.

Total Badass has joined your party.

Meanwhile, Rimuru is testing out his new powers. He uses his imitation skill to turn into a giant Tempest Wolf, then uses his Black Lightning skill. Apparently, when he’s in Tempest Wolf form, the effect of the lightning is amplified, thus it’s super-powerful. Do all of Rimuru’s skills become several times more powerful when he’s in Tempest Wolf form? Because if so, that seems a little broken, even for him. At this rate, a Water Blade from Giant Wolf Rimuru will be able to decapitate entire enemy armies.

Some time has passed in Goblin village, and I’m so glad the show decided to gloss over it to keep things moving. The dwarves are doing their thing, and the village is expanding, and that’s all good but I really don’t need any more details. More interesting is the arrival of 500 Goblins from surrounding villages, who heard about the Goblin Naming ritual and are hoping for their own power-up. I like the common sense characters display in this world. “Wait, you mean the guys in the next village over got to become super hot just by pledging allegiance to some slime? How do we get in on that action?”

Yaaay, more cute Goblin kiddies!…oh, wait. Fuck.

Unfortunately Rimuru grants their request and goes on another Naming spree (wisely not shown), which kind of sucks for me; I was hoping we’d have more cute little-kid type Goblins running around. Now they’re all adults with killer bods and my maternal instinct is left with nothing to hang onto! Well, except for Rimuru himself, I guess; that little motion he does before he transforms is adorable.

Back to our human friends, they’re running for their lives from giant insects because…reasons? Well they give a stupid reason, but the real reason is that the show needs to give Shizu some monsters to beat up so we can all see what a total badass she is. A pretty cool fight scene follows– not quite up to the level of Kirito vs. Head Goblin Dude in Sword Art Online Alicization 4, but still, pretty well-animated. Shizu both viciously stabs things and lights them on fire, which shows a kind of thoroughness that I appreciate. Upon seeing Shizu’s face, Rimiru recognizes her as the girl from the crystal ball and muses that he wasn’t expecting to meet her this soon; you and me both, pal.

Shizu in Action: A Story in Two Parts. Part One.

~fin~

Back in Goblin Town, Rimuru makes a Dragon Quest reference that Shizu laughs at, confirming his suspicions that she’s from his world. At first I thought that was illogical, since Shizu is supposed to come from a time decades before Dragon Quest existed, but they clear up later that she heard about it from another Japanese person, so that’s okay. I can buy that Shizu would have glommed on to any other Japanese immigrants to SlimeWorld that she found and got as much info out of them about her home country as possible.

Then there’s a truly magical scene, where Rimuru shows Shizu how Japan recovered after World War II after she was summoned out of the world in the midst of the Tokyo firebombing. When people talk about “wish fulfillment” in anime, it’s always said in a very dismissive way, like it’s immature and shameful to use media to fulfill wishes. This scene features a very mature kind of wish fulfillment: the desire to somehow connect with people who suffered the worst of the brutalities of history, and show them that the world really did get better after they died. To show them that even if they weren’t lucky enough to experience it, their friends, relatives, and countrymen got to see a much better tomorrow. That the world didn’t end in fire and pain and darkness, because that’s not all there is to life.

I really didn’t expect something this beautiful from this show, and I’m still processing it. I think there’s maybe a broader point here about the isekai genre not necessarily being as escapist as a lot of people think it is, but I have to ruminate on that.

Anyway, just when we thought we had gotten all the info on Shizu we were going to get for one episode, the show gives us her “origin” so to speak. There’s several interesting things going on here: for one, Veldora told us that summons take groups of mages, yet as far as we can see, Shizu was summoned by one guy. Were the other 30 mages just hiding in the shadows, or is this one guy simply that powerful?

Secondly, Powerful Mage Guy gives Shizu to an Ifrit, saying she might “have an affinity to fire.” At first I thought the dude had a screw loose, because look, the poor girl has had part of her skin burned off from the summoning. If she’s flame-resistant, she’s sure chose an odd way of showing it. I thought about it later though and came up with this: Mage Guy was trying to summon a host for a fire being, and Shizu just happened to be completely surrounded by flames. Considering there seems to be a computer-like intelligence running this world (see: Great Sage), maybe the Computer thought. “Human +fire= host with fire affinity,” when in reality, Shizu just had the bad luck to be in the middle of a burning city when the summoning was going down. It makes sense if the intelligence behind the summoning was ticking boxes and didn’t understand the broader context.

This was…surprisingly terrifying. I think the Final Fantasy games have given me warm and fuzzy feelings toward Ifrits that are quite frankly dangerous. Ifrits are NOT your friend.

If assigning Ifrit to her was basically a mistake, that would explain the health problems she seems to have in this episode; maybe she isn’t better suited to being a host for Ifrit than anyone else, and it’s taking a toll on her body. Or maybe hosting Ifrit is just that arduous, I don’t know. In any case, I’m interested in finding out if my guess about the mechanics of Shizu’s summoning is correct.

So, wow, that was some episode. This show would have to jump the shark pretty darn hard to lose my allegiance after that Rebuilding After The War scene, but I once said that kind of thing about another show, which then proceeded to jump the shark exactly that hard. (It was Amanchu, by the way.) So there are no guarantees, but for now at least, I’m impressed.

Sword Art Online Alicization: Episode 5

Karen:

Since this episode focuses on Asuna, this seems like a good time to take a step back and look at what a cool character she’s become. During the Aincrad arc, she was an immature kid– which was totally understandable, since she was a sheltered teenager drawn into something huge that she couldn’t have anticipated. Nevertheless, she did seem a little whiny and self-centered to begin with. But she’s grown to the point where, by the time of Mother’s Rosario, she not only felt like an adult, but she essentially became co-protagonists with Kirito. That set-up pays dividends here, where the whole episode can be Kirito-free and it never really feels like we’re missing out on the “main” character.

She also functions similar to Kirito now, using the same kind of hands-on approach to problem solving. Part of that is because she hasn’t been his girlfriend for years without learning anything, and part of that just goes to show why they work so well as a couple to begin with. They aren’t together for only superficial reasons; they both have an almost pathological need to right injustices. On a more basic note, we now get Hero! Asuna rescuing Damsel! Kirito, and that’s a nice change of pace.

In terms of the larger story with Rath, I’m wondering about Kirito’s overall significance to the Underworld project. Obviously Rath wants Kirito’s consciousness in there because they expect his presence will cause the AI to grow in a certain way, but does it necessarily have to be Kirito in that role? I think it’s less that Kirito has super-special soul juice or whatever, and more that he just happens to be the person who was integrated into the system first, so Eugeo and Alice have memories of him. If it turns out they need Kirito because he is just that special of a snowflake, I’m going to be a little disappointed.

It was nice to see everyone working together as a team; even something as simple as Klein driving Asuna around in his car shows that in the real world, they all have different roles and can contribute in different ways. Considering one of their team members is a nigh-omnipotent AI, things feel a little bit stacked in their favor, but I guess it’s a little bit late to be complaining about that? It just goes to show, if you ever find a down-on-her-luck orphan, be nice to her: she may turn out to be a Goddess AI who can hack government databases for you! Always a useful tool to have in one’s back pocket.

I may be the only one here who doesn’t care what happened to Kirito’s assailant. Until the show gives me reason to believe otherwise, I’m going to assume 1)Asuna called the police and 2)he’s in jail; the end.

Finally, I’m interested in the fact that Kayaba Akihito had a lover; they may have revealed that before, but this is the first time I remember it coming up. It would be easy to assume that Akihito was an angry loner who was lashing out at society, but the show has always portrayed him as more nuanced than that; granted, the dude straight-up murdered 4,000 people and viewers should always keep that in mind, but I appreciate what an interesting character he is regardless. It’s interesting how he, and his dream of an imaginary castle in the sky, continue to affect the world of SAO even years after his death.

My early reservations about this season have pretty much evaporated by now; now I’m interested to see how the Underworld plot is going to interface with Asuna’s plot. I don’t see any reason why Asuna couldn’t just visit Underworld in a dive, but in some ways, it might be more interesting if she remained separated from Kirito and had to fight her battle on a different front. We shall see.

LB:

Originally, I enjoyed this episode until the last five minutes or so– though, now that more has been explained to me, I’m finding myself coming around on it.

The big issue I had when I first watched this episode was that at the very end of the episode, Asuna was able to fool top-level security checks, multiple times mind you, simply by having Yui switch the database profile photo with hers. That seemed WAY too easy for me to buy at first, but since I’ve watched this episode I’ve been told by multiple people that this is a perfectly viable way of hacking the system and it’s made even more plausible due to the fact that Yui is like a God-level AI. So yeah, never mind I guess?

Other than that, I really liked that we’re getting a break from Underworld to see what everyone else is up to. The lingering question in my mind, however, is all about the initial attack from the Laughing Coffin member that put Kirito in a coma. Was that attack pre-meditated by RATH in order to get a great test subject? Or was it just one big happy coincidence? That’s an answer that I’d really like to have about now but I’m guessing that if we ever do find out the answer, it’s not going to be for quite a while. *sighs*

Lifesong:

Japanese military is not what I expected when I asked to see the outside world, but it makes enough sense to me. I don’t know how well known the idea of an AI arms race is for most people. If you’ve never heard that term, take a moment to google it. It fits Sword Art Online and might give you some interesting thoughts to chew on.

Alicization appears to be Japan’s answer to an AI arms race. It brings a dozen new questions to the table, like what does Japan’s military want to do with these AIs? I’ve been speculating that Underworld is some sort of immortality project. Now that I know the government is behind it, that’s only one of many possibilities. Immortality doesn’t seem to be the focus.

For now I have more questions than answers about Japan’s AI goals. I can’t speculate past the political and economic powers of developing an advanced AI. It’s an interesting topic. Its inclusion elevates my curiosity for more world building. How do the rules the AI in Underworld live by fit into the larger goal of this military project?

The military twist is cool, but the real MVP this week is Asuna. Not only did Asuna manage to hack a Japanese government database with the help of her own AI, she located and infiltrated the naval base holding Kirito faster than he figured out how to cut down a tree! Who’s the OP one now?

Episode 5’s portrayal of hacking was fantastic. Step 1: Change the picture in a database. Step 2: Walk in and pretend like you belong until you do your thing. I appreciate how down to earth that is. No fancy pseudo-science hacking magic, just some plain old BSing.

Speaking of BSing… Whatever happened to the guy who stabbed Kirito? The story hasn’t acknowledged his existence beyond what he did in episode one. Did Asuna go into berserker mode and beat him senseless? Did that stab wound from Kirito somehow take him out? Maybe a wild AR Pokemon hacked into his brain and put him into sleep mode until the plot remembers his relevance? I don’t need that explained now, but it feels odd that it wasn’t mentioned.

I felt like this episode did a great job of bridging Kirito’s stabbing and catching us up with Asuna and friends. I wonder if Asuna will be able to jump into Underworld? But I need more information to speculate the purpose of Underworld. Developing AI makes sense, but why is Kirito needed? Maybe that’s Kikuoka’s whim more so than anything else? The episode title for next week leads me to believe we will get some more answers ASAP. I can speculate more after that.

Otakusphere (not) Weekly Episode #31: The Asuna Infiltration

Another week, another episode spent talking about seasonal anime. LB and I actually had some other things to discuss; unfortunately, silly Lifesong is busy playing video games instead of stuffing his face with anime and LNs. What’s up with that? How dare he take care of his mental health at the expense of his otaku street cred? Newb.

Now that we’re getting used to using this new format, there are some things to be aware of. Some of you have already noticed, but the episodes sometimes go up on Youtube a little while before I have a chance to make a post for them. So if you want to listen to new episodes ASAP, you can subscribe on Youtube. However, they never go up more than maybe a day earlier, so it’s not really a big deal either way.

Got any questions for us? Feel free to let us know in the comments. If we get some good questions, maybe we’ll take a break from seasonal chatting one of these days and do a good old-fashioned listener questions episode. Actually, that sounds fun, so if you guys don’t give us any good questions, I’ll probably just make up some.

That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime, Episode 5

After last week’s lackluster episode, it was a nice surprise to see the show mix things up this week. Rimiru gets put into situations where his Godlike combat abilities don’t really help him, and it’s interesting to see him muddle his way through problems where there’s no easy win button.

Unfortunately, we start off the episode still inside the Elf Hostess Club, so there’s a little bit more about how boobs are just the greatest thing. Look, if you’ve read anything on this blog before, then you probably know I’m not against fan service on general principle; it has a role to play. If an entire scene is just fan service and has little else going on though, I start to get bored. This whole Elf bar is basically just Rimiru thinking to himself “OMG I really like boobs,” and it’s old already. There are seriously like 40 characters pictured in the OP who haven’t even been introduced yet, we don’t have time for this nonsense.

Anyway, finally we move on from cleavage when one of the Elves offers to tell Rimuru’s fortune, using a crystal ball, and shows him the one he’s “destined to be with.” I could complain that having a fortune teller introduce the female lead this way seems like lazy writing, but let’s see what happens; maybe not all is as it seems. It could be that Rimiru is “destined” to be with this girl in a different sense than the one he’s imagining. In any case, the girl we see is likely the girl who we saw in the first scene of the anime during World War II, so I’m glad the show has remembered that she exists. I really am curious what her deal is.

To quote Deadpool, “That’s just lazy writing.”

Then we meet evil minister Vesta, sworn enemy of Kaijin, Rimiru’s Dwarf blacksmith friend. Vesta is making a big show of being annoyed that Kaijin dared bring “a monster” into such a fine drinking establishment, then dumps his wine over Rimiru’s head as an insult. What’s worse is, he does it with no regard for the Elf girl who’s lap Rimiru is currently sitting on. It’s good to know that Vesta is the kind of guy who’s mean to people in the service industry for no reason, because that means I don’t need to have any sympathy for him whatsoever. Kaijin tries to argue later that Vesta actually isn’t such a bad guy, and Rimiru and I are both like “I’m going to stop you right there.”

Thankfully, Kaijin is even more offended by this behavior than I am and punches Vesta hard in the face, twice! Rimiru advises Kaijin “Not the face! Go for the body!,” which made me laugh out loud, because that’s exactly the kind of advice my Mom used to give me in case I ever needed to beat someone up in school. Look, there were bullies, okay? It was self-defense. Realizing he’s probably just ended his career in Dwarf Kingdom, Kaijin offers his services as a craftsman to Rimiru, who’s of course all for it. That’s awfully convenient for our favorite slime, but if it keeps the plot moving (and gets us out of the friggin’ Elf bar), I won’t complain.

The camera slows down just to make this punch extra satisfying. Thank you, Mr. Director.

Apparently you can’t just go around knocking out political officials in this world, or anywhere really, so Kaijin, Rimiru and co. all get thrown in jail. Kaijin exposits about Vesta’s dark history with the Magisoldier project, which looks like some incredibly messed up piece of quasi-demonic engineering. Seriously, this episode of That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime became Evangelion for about five seconds there, and I was confused, but pretty into it. Anyway, Vesta is still steamed that he failed in creating Eva Unit 01 and blames Kaijin for it, hence their beef. Interesting world building, although I’m not sure it entirely jibes with everything we’ve seen so far. For one thing, they have lab coats in this world? Seems kind of anachronistic.

Our heroes get thrown into a ridiculous kangaroo court, where even their representation has been bought off, and it looks like everybody is about to sentenced to decades of forced labor. I think the Dwarven Kingdom is supposed to be relatively advanced compared to the rest of the world in this anime, but damn, their justice system still needs some work. It doesn’t end up mattering though, because the Dwarf King, Gazel Dwargo, sees through all the nonsense and changes the sentence to simple exile, which allows Kaijin and co. to start a new life away from Dwarfland and their stupid shadow- military-industrial complex. Yaaaay monarchy! This may seem like proof that Dwargo is benevolent, but as we soon learn, Dwargo knows who Rimiru is; it may have been a defensive move. Because if he and his friends got unfairly sentenced like that, I really can’t think of anything that could stop Rimiru from Water Blading everyone in the room to death.

Gazel Dwargo is kind of like one of those grand kings from Game of Thrones, only– you know– competent.

I really like the fact that actions have consequences on this show, even seemingly small ones. Apparently Dwargo was clued into Rimiru’s significance by the fact this random slime just conjured a bunch of 100% effective healing potion effectively from nothing; people should take notice of that sort of thing. In most anime, I think creating that bucket of healing potion last episode would have been completely forgotten, but not here.

Minister Vesta gets his just desserts, since Dwargo is on to him and is pissed off that his relationship with Rimiru, Slime God, got off on a bad foot because of all this silliness. Maybe Vesta will learn to be nice to waiters now, but I doubt it. Anyway, since Kaijin’s friends are all coming along for the ride, Rimiru has accomplished his goal of acquiring Dwarven craftsmen, and is ready to head back to Goblin Village.

Damn, the first five minutes of next episode are probably going to be spent on the dwarves ogling the curvy female goblins, won’t they? I really hope not, but I think I know which show I’ve signed up for by now. I’ll have to steel myself to resist this shameless pro-boob propaganda.

Sword Art Online Alicization, Episode 4

LB:

Finally!

That’s all I could say to myself as I watched the latest episode of SAO. Finally we got the action sequences that fans have come to expect from this series, finally we saw the damn Demon Tree felled, and finally, we saw our heroes embark on what I’m certain will be an epic journey. At least it had better be, or else I’m going to be one unhappy puppy. I quite liked this episode since it moved the story along so strongly. Things actually happened in this episode which made me want to pay attention to all the things.

There are still a ton of questions that need to be answered (many of which were originally raised by the opening animation rather than the episodes themselves, which is strange). My prediction is that eventually, we’re going to get to the big city and learn that Alice isn’t dead but has actually been drafted into the Integrity Knights. I have no idea what is going to happen beyond that (and I don’t even know if I’m correct or not) but I know that for the first time in a couple of weeks, I’m genuinely excited to find out.

Karen:

Wow, this episode did everything but give you a mug of hot cocoa and a backrub after it was over. A cool fight, everyone now remembers the stuff from episode one, significant plot advancement, and the demise of The Tree That Could Not Be Cut? What more could you ask for?

I do have a bit of a problem with reminding myself that the violence is not “real”– that is, even though they’re in a very realistic virtual world and Kirito feels pain, they’re still not in reality. I kept thinking during the fight that Kirito shouldn’t be able to take as much punishment as he was taking and still be able to keep fighting at full strength, but when you remember that it’s a virtual world, it makes sense; in most games, as long as you have 1 HP, you can function as though you’re perfectly healthy. Kirito may have been down to about 250 HP out of 1128 or something, but he didn’t die, so he was still functional.

We know from Ordinal Scale that Kirito is limited in Augmented Reality compared to full VR, so it makes sense that his battle performance in this setting is that of his video game avatar, since this is a full-dive situation. However, the fact that he has such detailed sensory input makes it more akin to AR than his previous VR fighting experience, and I hope that’s something that the show explores in more depth.

On the subject of the battle, that was some quality fight choreography and animation. It’s easier to forgive the talkiness of the last two episodes knowing that the show had such an ambitious action scene coming. Now, after this season, I could do with never seeing any frickin’ goblins ever again, but if I have to see goblins get beat up, this is the kind of style I want to see it in.

One thing that I found interesting was that Eugeo remembered Kirito when he was on the brink of death. The implication is that Artificial Fluctlights have the same “life flashing before my eyes” experience that real people do when they’re approaching death. If Eugeo’s memories of the Kirito of his childhood were overwritten by the System (which appears to have been the case), this is another example of the human soul overpowering computer programming. We saw this as far back as Aincrad, when Asuna was able to shake off a status effect through sheer force of will to save Kirito, so this is something that’s always been part of the show, for better or for worse. In fact, I wonder if this arc is going to take that aspect of the original SAO story (which many viewers saw as a weakness), and fully develop it.

Of course, there’s a danger of an overly optimistic/Care Bears sort of message here, like “not even computer programming is powerful enough to overcome the will of the HUMAN SOUL!!!!!” but I trust Reki Kawahara (at least at this point in time) to be a little more nuanced than that with his writing. I think the struggle of the Artificial Fluctlights to gain control of their lives is going to end up being more complicated than “Believe in yourself,” or rather “Believe in the computer code that makes up your soul!”

Otherwise, it was interesting to see how the villagers reacted to the unexpected felling of the Demon Tree. I thought they’d be scared of change, but for them, the task of evaluating anything has been outsourced to the Taboo Index, so it doesn’t even occur to them to be scared of change. I mean, if cutting the Demon Tree down a few hundred years early was a bad thing, it would have said in the Taboo Index “don’t cut down the Demon Tree early,” right? I’m interested in seeing more about how judgement and morality works in this world where all their rules are put down in black and white.

Yes it is obviously similar to real-life religion, but different in the sense that there’s no possibility for dissent. Every text-based religion (that I’m aware of, anyway), has it’s own disagreements in regard to interpretation, but as far as we can tell, there are no Rabbis arguing over the true meaning of the Taboo Index; it’s simply taken completely at face value. I wonder what it says about me that in an episode devoted mostly to hacking the limbs off of goblins, my main takeaway is “Ooooh, it’s like the age of the Great Rabbis without Talmudic Commentary!”, but whatever; I’m enjoying myself.

Lifesong:

Episode four wrapped up the “leaving home” stage of Eugeo’s adventure in style. The goblin fight was fantastic. The ebb and flow of Kirito crossing swords with the goblin leader and his hoard made every hit exciting. And hey, Eugeo is actually important after all. He may have almost died, but in the scheme of tragic Sword Art Online moments? It felt good to see him make it through the fight.

The hook for Alicization is finally in full bloom, and now that it is I’m excited to see where it goes. Sword Art Online has had moments in the past where it felt like an adventure, but never like this. It’s given supporting characters important roles, but again, not quite like this. Eugeo is the hero and Kirito is taking on the role of mentor.  It’s neat to see SAO breaking away from the new-heroine-of-the-week style if only in a small way.

The way Underworld is hyper realistic in tangible sensation, but still gamey at it’s core is interesting to me. Kirito’s injuries during the goblin fight are a new kind of problem for him because of the pain. Ultimately the injury isn’t such a big deal; same for Eugeo. He takes a hit that should kill him and some durability sharing fixes the issue. As realistic as it all feels, this world runs on numbers in the end.

Now that Kirito and Eugeo have launched their adventure, I want to see things from Asuna’s perspective. I hope we get to see more of what’s going on outside of this virtual world. The timing is appropriate; Kirito and Eugeo’s adventure is off to a strong start. Now please tell me why Kirito is stuck in Underworld. Asuna did promise to follow Kirito anywhere. She also knew a whole lot about the origins of Alice in Wonderland. Tragic tone setting or subtle foreshadowing? I’m not sure yet.

Perhaps the most satisfying element of this whole episode was the end of our dear friend, the Demon Tree. I didn’t realize how much I wanted that thing gone until I felt like standing up to cheer when Kirito finally landed a good hit on it. The story even gave Eugeo the role of finishing it off. It was his task, and he handled it.

I know it’s a popular thing to act like SAO’s storytelling hasn’t improved since the Fairy Dance arc. I disagree, but will admit Gun Gale Online and Mother’s Rosario were both far from the death game promised in Aincrad. I can argue till I’m blue in the face that even SAO’s worst arc still hits good emotional notes, but… that doesn’t and won’t make it what people wanted or expected from the series.

Alicization seems to be building on the themes it explored in Mother’s Rosario. Especially in the sense of finding ways to create a virtual reality fantasy that is more than a game. It’s what I want from SAO, but I wonder how other long time fans feel about this narrative focus? That’s become a more interesting question as the direction of this arc becomes clear.

If nothing else I feel good about the storytelling of Alicization. Episode four had a great fight and hit all the right emotional notes. I can’t wait to see where it goes next. I hope other fans are enjoying it as much as I am.

%d bloggers like this: