I’m Not a Good Writer

In December of last year, I decided to begin a blog on WordPress titled ‘Take Me to the Perfect World’. It was a project that I pursued as a means of relaying my thoughts and opinions of primarily animated media; as well as just about any work of fiction, to an audience who might be interested in reading them. Inspired by the works of multiple online reviewers and writers whose work I had been following for years beforehand. I have always admired analysis, and so when I decided to finally make my own blog for such content I was initially excited.

The first set of articles that I wrote on this blog was a retrospective of ‘Steven Universe’ in which I would write my own opinions on each individual episode of the series. Now, I do think that those articles did do a serviceable job in what they set out to do, so it is no wonder why they are probably what I am most proud of on this site so far. However, even when I began writing them, some of the issues that I have had in trying to maintain this blog began to arise. While I wrote them, I would often take long breaks in between after really getting into the process as I became a tad bit too energetic and began to lose my train of thought while writing. I imagine I’m certainly not the only person who feels the need to stand up and start pacing around the room right after writing a detailed paragraph or even a mere sentence.

Compared to what I would write however later, many of these “breaks” I would take in between writing which at most would only last a day were nothing compared to what would happen when I tried to diversify the content of the blog. When I had written up to four entries of this retrospective as well as reviews of the latest episodes that had aired, and they were the sole content of my blog, I decided that I needed to make something different so that I didn’t display limited range. The first attempt at this was a written playthrough of ‘Batman: Arkham Asylum’ which similarly remains unfinished at the time of this writing. It wasn’t exactly a difficult thing to write, as I just made notes of my playthrough and wrote about them in more detail. However, I planned to make an especially elaborate article that I had hoped would push my work over the edge was an analysis exploring the social politics of two anime which aired during the Winter season with comparatively similar themes of discrimination. Here’s a link to that article. As that article mentions, I had decided to write that the moment that I first noticed these particular similarities between the two shows, but it was with this article that I also began to experience troubles.

As you may notice from the dates of my articles, they have a nasty tendency of being weeks or sometimes even months apart. This is partly due to the fact that I was saddled with college work over the time that I wrote them, but it was mainly because, and in the case of this article in particular, I found myself increasingly losing my passion for the article. This was due to a combination of factors, once again college work and other stuff that I was watching distracted me from, but one of the main issues I had was that I didn’t really plan it out well. It was something that I had an idea of how I wanted it to go, to talk about how both Anime handled their similar themes and comparing the two, but as I wrote it, and failed to form a truly cohesive picture of how the two series handled the topic of discrimination.

It also didn’t help that I decided to try and write that article while the two series were still airing. I originally intended to try and publish it before the half-way point of the season to try and recommend them to people before they were finished, but that didn’t work out so well, not least because I was still new to the tools of wordpress and was not very adventurous when it came to the simple task of putting links or proper screenshots in my articles (something which I am actually using this article to try and rectify right now). Around the time that the finishing dates for both series were announced I ultimately decided that I needed to complete the article anyway, and so I rushed to complete it with very little passion for the project left in me. Of course by that point, the article was already fairly dated, as most  people were already watching ‘Kobayashi’ by that point that it had expanded on it’s themes. ‘Demi-chan’ meanwhile, unfortunately ended up declining in the second half due to an undermining of its core themes, as described in this excellent piece here. The fact that the comparison between the two series became more divided, and perhaps a topic for a more interesting article exploring how ‘Kobayashi’ succeeded where ‘Demi-Chan’ failed, only served to further make the article appear instantly dated.

The article in the end turned out to be something I wasn’t really proud of, and the stink of desperation for me only permeated when I decided to also publish two not-very-good articles I wrote as a homework assignment for college on my blog, pretty much entirely just because I felt that I needed something to expand my content. It wasn’t there that I really began to feel underwhelmed by my own work, though both of those articles are hardly stuff that I am particularly proud of, even if they did gain me a brief bit more attention on this site than I usually get. The moment that I really knew for sure how weak my analysis was, was when I watched The Art of Anime’s video ‘The Politics of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid’, which illustrated the themes which I attempted to tackle in my analysis with much more proficiency and depth (and the benefit of releasing that video after the series finished, allowing for the themes within the series to develop before making a judgement on them). I had already felt embarrassed about the article beforehand, but comparing it to this video especially illustrated it’s weakness. And it was with this that I  decided to write this personal piece to say, I am not a good writer.

Specifically, I am an amateur writer. One who tried to turn what should have simply been a fun hobby into some sort of business whenever I tried to force myself to write. At the time of writing this I haven’t released a new page for the blog for three months, and that was because I ultimately felt like there was nothing new for me to say; nothing interesting enough to compare to the works of other reviewers who write more frequently. A good writer would be able to know exactly what they are going to say before writing, and edit their work so that it can make for an enjoyable experience. My experience as a writer for this blog however has been marred largely through extreme procrastination and an ultimate feeling of forcefulness towards my work. It may not have produced the worst content imaginable, but it was still unsatisfying to me that I couldn’t reap much enjoyment from the activity.

I highly doubt I’m the first person to notice that the act of trying to maintain a blog is extremely difficult. Trying to keep up with self-set deadlines, trying to think of something new to write on a consistent and frequent basis while avoiding the distraction of our daily routines. At least I would like to say that was the reason for my lack of writing over the past few months but the real reason was more out of hesitance; since I did of course have plenty of opportunities to work on something easy and simple, like continuing either my ‘Steven Universe’ or ‘Arkham Asylum’ retrospectives. But I had lost the ambition.

Now, this isn’t some sort of farewell to the blog. I am going to continue writing for the blog, and I will likely continue both of those series at some point, rather I wished to express the difficulties of maintaining a blog when putting oneself under the pressure of commitment. It can often produce results that you didn’t quite desire, and when you wanted to write as an outlet but find the experience frustrating, it eats away at your creative energy.

I didn’t write this to make any sort of statement, or to reach an ultimate conclusion. Rather I wished to explain how my experience with this blog has been marred by my efforts to commit to it.

As for the future of this blog, well I am about to get to work on a particularly ambitious project which simultaneously should be easy enough for me to get through. It’s a list, which might not be the most intellectually stimulating form of presentation but to look to the future we’ve got to get back, back to the past. And with that shoehorned teaser for my next article at the end, I sign off!

Mamoru Hosoda’s Artistic Vision

The following is a narrative analysis I made for my schoolwork which I have decided to upload onto my Blog with minimal alteration

[720p] [THORA] The Girl Who Leapt Through Time [Bluray]

Ever since the 1950s, Japanese cinema has been defined by a two-way contrast between the influence of Mizoguchi’s passion and theatricality, and Ozu’s calmness and zen. Mamoru Hosoda seems to be firmly more on the side of the latter as his films tend to attain the sense of calmness that he explained in an interview that he came to adapt to when he left Toei Animation he grew a fondness for as he grew older and came to distance his artistic vision from the studio’s conformities. He is an auteur, a minimalist, a sentimentalist. Like most auteurs in film, his work is conveyed through his use of camera movements, blocking, lighting, and scene length, or mise-en-scene for short.

The still camera helps to focus the audience’s attention towards the actions of the characters.

Hosoda’s work lack any melodrama, favouring to present strong emotions in an understated scene lacking background music from a stationary camera perspective. Moreover, his works tend to be character pieces, hence the frequent usage of a shot which places a character in the centre. Even though, working within animation, he creates fantasy films, or stories with fantastical aspects to them. If one were to sum up the unifying theme of his works, it would be the discovery of the exciting aspects of mundanity through Fantasticism. “The Girl Who Leapt through time” for example uses Makoto’s time travel powers as a means for her to discover that trying to take full control of your own destiny only results in more devastating results, and that true happiness comes from taking every moment of life, the good and the bad.

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In Hosoda’s narratives, love is merely a cornerstone of life rather than a purpose, it isn’t needlessly exaggerated or ridden with clichés. Though it is still portrayed as an important aspect of life, forming its own inner narrative, such as in the early minutes of Wolf Children in which we see the soft beginning and tragic end of the relationship contrasted by similar shots taken far from the characters displays of emotion. Shots such as these with their lack of camera movement, helps to focus audience attention onto the actions of the characters, however small they might be.

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The most important theme in his films however, would be family. His films glorify being with family as the ultimate happiness, as the centre of life, whether that family is related to a person by blood or adopted. This theme is most apparent in “Summer Wars” in which the conflict which divides the family distracts them from a more important epoch which they only ultimately solve by coming together, as well as with Kenji, who is not related to the family but comes to establish a connection with them due to his lack of a meaningful family in his own life.

The unity of the family, and millions of other people through the internet also displays a generally positive view of overcoming adversity through unity as a whole. They additionally represent the viewpoint that family can help to fix things, such as in “Wolf Children” where the love and care that Hana gives to her children encourages her to repair an abandoned house so that they can live in it, or in “Boy and the Beast” where the connection of an adopted family can inspire individuals to better themselves.

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Going back to his use of camera, he often keeps the camera stationary, helping the times when he does move the camera to stand out more. He frequently enjoys the use of lateral tracking shots to represent a character’s personality, the climax of “The Girl Who Leapt through Time” features a shot of Makoto running quickly. The camera doesn’t focus specifically on her, but rather seems to challenge her to a race as she struggles against the wind, ultimately allowing her determination to keep her within the shot. A slower use of such a shot is used in “Summer Wars” to display the collective sadness of the family following a death, while in “Wolf Children” is a scene in which the shot goes back and forth between the corridors of the school to show Ame and Yuki growing up to represent the passage of time.

Image result for summer wars mourningInteresting to note how Eastern cinema pans these sorts of short from right to left, while Western cinema pans them from left to right, the same cultural distinction between writing formats.

Hosoda’s artistic vision is one which encompasses the beauty of ordinary life through an objective lens employed by his use of intricate camera movements and angles, and his focus on those aspects in terms of romance, friendship, and family.

Memento, and the Tragedy of the Comforting Lie

The following is a narrative analysis I made for my schoolwork which I have decided to upload onto my Blog with minimal alteration.

Image result for memento title“Do I lie to myself to be happy?” Is it better to live with a comforting lie than to face an unsettling truth. The answer in most of Christopher Nolan’s work is yes, when that truth justifies the existence of such a lie. This and revenge for the death of a loved one are two particularly prominent themes in his work, and both are particularly relevant to the story of Memento, his second feature film released in 2000, based on a short story written by his brother called Memento Mori. Nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing, this low budget psychological neo-noir thriller follows main character Leonard Shelby on his quest for vengeance for the murder of his wife.

A former insurance investigator, Leonard suffers from Anterograde Amnesia or short term memory loss in which he is unable to make new memories after suffering head trauma from trying to save his wife from being raped and murdered by two home invaders, leaving that as the last thing he remembers. Upon waking from the initial trauma, he deduces that one of the attacker’s names was John G. Determined to get revenge, this proves difficult for him however, as he loses his memory every 15 minutes. Because of this, he relies on written notes, polaroid pictures, and tattoos to help him keep track of his progress. He interacts with two other characters, Teddy, a former policeman who initially seems to be a friend helping him in his quest, and Natalie, a barmaid who is seeking her own revenge for the disappearance of her boyfriend. As the film progresses, we learn more about the ulterior motives of these people, since Leonard can never be truly sure what is real.

What sets the film apart from other works in its genre is the use of the non-linear narrative. The film takes place from Leonard’s point of view, and thus recreates that by splitting itself into two separate plotlines distinguished from each other through the use of colour, challenging the equilibrium, as Todorov would see it, of the film’s genre conventions. The main plotline, filmed in colour, begins with Leonard seemingly deducing while inside a warehouse that Teddy is his wife’s killer and proceeds to kill him as Teddy tries to explain to him that he doesn’t know the reality of what is going on, a subtle signal to the audience how to watch the film. This is chronologically the last scene in the film, as the sequences in colour are placed in reverse order to tell us how this incident came to be.

Each sequence is roughly fifteen minutes long at most, helping them to accurately portray how Leonard’s condition affects his perception, each sequence ending where the previous one began to keep it comprehensible to the audience. The subplot is filmed in black and white, taking place almost entirely in a single room and shown in linear order in between the sequences of the main plotline. These portray Leonard talking on the phone with an unseen individual, explaining his condition by comparing it with that of another person who had it, Sammy Jankis, an amnesiac he investigated during his career as an insurance investigator. What the story has to do with the main plotline becomes clear towards the end of the film, when the two sequences intersect with one another as Leonard leaves the room and the scene transitions into colour.

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This structure might be difficult for the audience to follow at first, but that is the point, to display the sequence of events through Lenny’s point of view, in which he is continually confused about his surroundings. He serves as an unreliable narrator in this regard, because of his memory condition he and the audience are required to pay attention to small details on screen through the use of close-up shots of the tools he uses to keep track of his actions, whether they be the opening shot of a photograph of a blooded room taken by Lenny, or the tattoos across his body which form an entire narrative by themselves, containing messages such as “Remember Sammy Jankis” and “never answer the phone”, the latter of which becomes the subject of suspense when he looks at it while talking on the phone and realises that he may be making a great mistake. Nolan often uses close-up shots to emphasise a story’s progression, bringing unity to events in the story which prior to that point seemed out of place.

This shot serves as a representation of the film in how Lenny is clueless at the mercy of those around him.

As a noir film, we see multiple tropes used throughout the film reminiscent of the genre, the black and white scenes being most faithful to the atmosphere of such a film from the 1940s. The main character’s status as a former investigator can place him into a semi-detective role which the anti-hero main character of such films would follow, the opening shot conveys this through the fact that such a role would put him in the position to hold such a graphic 1photograph. However, upon initial viewing the audience might interpret such a sight as one of a criminal. And that wouldn’t entirely be wrong considering his motive of revenge causes him to act outside the law, or that as we learn he has killed multiple people before. This presents a recurring theme throughout the narrative of characters not quite being what they initially appear. Many of them may seem to fit into Propp’s character archetypes reformatted for the noir genre, Natalie who initially seems to fit the bill of the femme fatale, but as the film progresses we see that she is manipulating Lenny herself. Teddy appears to be an ex-policeman who had worked on the case of Lenny’s wife’s rape and murder who agreed to help Lenny track down the culprit, though this doesn’t entirely add up when we discover what happened. The characters each seem to show a shade of Strauss’s binary opposites in terms of their personalities because nothing is truly known for certain from Lenny’s perspective. What he knows about them is only what they tell him, which could easily be lies.

This unknowing further attains to the narrative through the fact that in the end, not all details of the story are known to the audience, leaving many aspects still open to interpretation. When we learn that Teddy has been manipulating Lenny to kill people under the guise that they were the culprit, considering all the victims are drug dealers the motivation for this could be a form of vigilante justice or possibly to eliminate the competition for his own drug trade. We do not know how much Natalie could figure out regarding the fact that her boyfriend was one of his victims, or if she truly intended to lead him into a direction that would cause him to kill Teddy or if that was merely chance.

Barrel roll shots are employed to signify the loss of perspective of the main character.

That brings one’s mind to the flashbacks to the assault. Scenes which only exist briefly and outside the film’s established timeline, being shown in colour despite being before the subplot. They are presented as flashes, quickly edited to make them feel blurred, almost dreamlike, bringing to mind another Nolan film, Inception. This more mainstream entry into the cannon created a great worldwide debate on the subject of whether or not the whole film was a dream, the main character in that film choosing ultimately to settle for what he has right now. Memento is similar in this regard, as we learn that he is living a lie, the assault itself never happened, at least not in the way that Lenny remembers it. The story of Sammy Jankis, who killed his wife through her testing the reality of his amnesia by getting him to repeatedly give her a dose for her diabetes until it causes her to overdose, is significant because we learn that Lenny is in fact Sammy. That his wife actually died through this, and he subconsciously fabricated a story that would ease himself of the guilt is something which the fact that as he remembers it, he told the wife of Jankis that he believed the condition was fake to influence her decision represents that a smaller part of him still knows.

His own status of victimhood becomes something he can evidently no longer bear when he discovers how Teddy has been manipulating his condition, as he soon decides to set off the chain of events that would lead him to kill Teddy, although it will not help him or his condition, it will allow from to be free from the manipulations and pursue his happiness with the belief that he has succeeded in his revenge. Though the tragedy of the situation is that the full story is never truly given to us. We still don’t entirely know what people’s motivations for their actions were, and Lenny still doesn’t have quite a full grasp on his memories. The new equilibrium is in how he has found peace with his position through his escape.

The Tattoos are clearly already on his body at a point when they shouldn’t be, because the memory wasn’t real.

The film in the end questions people’s perceptions of morality based on their understanding of truth through the actions of its main character, leaving the audience in a similar place to him through its narrative structure.

 

Life is Kind in Interviews with Monster Girls and Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

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For the longest time Anime was noted by both fans and detractors of the medium for an unwillingness to venture into the real world. I’m referring specifically to Shoujo series which often take place in some sort of idealized, cute world with specific character archetypes and eccentricities and dialogues which don’t really match the real world, which is dirty and politically charged, and which is also heavily influenced today by the use of Social Media. Forgive me if I come across a tad bit pessimistic, but I chose those descriptions of the real world because they are the most relevant to the topic of this article.

It is no secret that the world today is especially divisive, what with populists exploiting people’s naïve fears and prejudices to gain power, terrorist attacks, and people disagreeing heavily on the solutions to these problems resulting in endless debates, which then deteriorate into petty shouting matches, with no definitive answers being found, and the rest of the population being left to suffer in a pit of ignorance, poverty, and prejudice. It is ugly world out there right now, and so most of us use escapism such as anime to turn away from that world. But sometimes that escapism can provide the answers in life that are sorely missing from the real world. Sometimes, writers and artists can paint a more accurate portrait of the real world than news presenters and politicians ever could.

Going back to the whole thing about Anime as escapism that exists in it’s own world, I have noticed however that more recently the medium has displayed more of a willingness to tap into the real world. Many series from last season used real life social media accounts such as Twitter to convey their narratives (previously fake websites were used in series), such as Girlish Number‘s use of the site to describe the reaction to the main character’s failing career. More importantly however, it has also brought more social issues to the forefront lately. Last year I remember seeing quite a few posts relating to how 2016 was “the gayest year in Anime history”, and series such as Sound! Euphonium and Flip Flappers certainly lived up to that reputation, but the most significant representation of social issues from the Fall 2016 season was Yuri on Ice, a show most of you have probably heard of before about a Japanese ice skater who becomes coached by his idol to rejuvenate his career and aim for the World Championship. The series initially seemed to be a typical sports anime with the typical yaoi fanservice, but as the series progressed it became evident that the gay elements were more than just that, as the title character Yuri and his coach Victor seemed to hold a deeper intimate connection between each other (it never became too explicit, but it was obvious). The series moreover, seemed to take place in a world where the idea of homosexuality was considered perfectly normal, even in countries which in the real world have a notoriously negative attitude towards gay people. It was also a heavily multi-ethnic series, as it’s setting in an International Ice Skating Championship gave it a diverse cast of characters, many of whom again come from countries which treat gay people like dirt. The series managed to break barriers regarding ethnicity and sexuality in this regard, and did so without feeling the need to draw attention to itself, and in turn managed to become an International hit which opened the door for Anime to more explicitly tackle social themes.

This brings us to Winter 2017, where there are two series in particular that I wanted to highlight which both tackle the idea of discrimination (albeit one being more explicit than the other as we will see) in a way which makes them both heavily important in today’s aggressive world. Both of them are uplifting reverse escapist Slice of Life series based on currently ongoing Manga about supernatural beings living in the human world, allowing for a perspective which can look at the nature of humanity as a whole from the outside. The first of these is Interviews with Monster Girls, a series set in a world where varieties of Mythical monsters known as Demi-humans, or just Demis, have historically been treated with fear and prejudice by humans but in recent years have, in theory, been granted equal rights. The series takes place from the perspective of Tetsuo Takahashi, a human biology teacher who, never having encountered a Demi in his life, suddenly discovers four Demis at the highschool he works at. Three students, a Vampire named Hikari Takanashi, a Dullahan named Kyouko Machi, and a Snowwoman named Yuki Kusakabe, as well as a fellow teacher, a succubus named Sakie Satou. Takahashi develops an interest in Demis upon encountering these four, and thus begins to interview each of them in order to gain an understanding of their experiences.

From this premise, we are able to learn about the experiences of the different girls, who each have experienced living as an outsider in society, even with the love and support they receive from their families. They are a stand in for many different types of real life minorities, the disabled, racial and sexual minorities etc. And through his interviews and interactions with them, Takahashi becomes something of an ally to each of them, helping them to find their footing through themselves and with each other, and helping them to grow. This is represented visually by a sequence in the opening, in which each individual Demi is shown against a background reflective of their personalities. The backgrounds have changed as the series progresses to represent their growth, most notably when Yuki defiantly changes the cold background behind her into a shinier one with a proud look on her face. Or the Ending, in which the characters are represented by drawings which become coloured in by crayons to represent how they are becoming content with themselves as the series goes on.

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Character development at it’s finest!

The series is reminiscent of the interpersonal emotions and the beauty of the mundane examined in KyoAni’s works. And that’s my lazily made Segway for the introduction to the other series I will talk about, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid. The latest series from Kyoto Animation tells the story of a computer programmer named Kobayashi, who after a night of drunkenly wandering into the forest and coming across a Dragon (which she initially assumes to be a drunken hallucination) whom she gets on extremely well with, and invites her to live at her place. The dragon, Tohru, becomes incredibly smitten with this human (she explicitly says in the first episode that her attraction to her is sexual) and agrees to become her personal maid for her. Miss Kobayashi, potentially trying to comprehend the fact that a dragon exists, agrees to let her stay. Along the way, a younger dragon named Kanna also stays with them, becoming something of an adopted daughter to the pair of them.

As the series goes on we are also introduced to Aztec Dragon Goddess Quetzalcoatl Lucoa whose character just like her mythical counterpart lost her divine status after causing a scandal, a personality she commits to through her hyper-sexualized actions, and Fafnir, another dragon and Black Butler cosplayer who initially holds a strong distrust of humans until he is introduced to geek culture through Kobayashi’s friend Takiya whom he grows a strong bond with and becomes roommates with. As a slice of life series, this one focuses more on character relationships than a consistent plot progression. The individual episodes are more split into separate comedic setpieces which serve to introduce more minor characters and display the dragon’s unique reactions to activities in everyday life that we ordinary humans find to be so mundane and seeing the incredibility of them, which is where the Reverse Escapist element of the series comes in.

This scene displays the affection which Kanna has developed early on, sacrificing personal desire for an object that would make her happy so that Kobayashi doesn’t have to pay more than she already has, which makes the scene later on where Kobayashi buys the keychain for her after she starts attending school more impactful.

I have chosen these two series for examination because they quite clearly share a lot in common, both of them being about supernatural beings interacting with the natural world, both of them being primarily comedies with a gentle and uplifting attitude, and because  most importantly they both examine important social themes of prejudice. We have already observed the background of the prejudice themes in Monster Girls, but Dragon Maid may seem less obvious about it at first. Apart from the stand-in lesbian parents of Kobayashi and Tohru, as well as the presence of other queer ships, one perhaps wouldn’t see anything particularly sociological. Where the two series intersected with one another however, and the reason I decided to write this comparison of the two, are rather serious scenes from episode 4 of both.

In the case of Dragon Maid, this occurred in a scene where Kobayashi and Tohru were shopping for a backpack for Kanna, who decided she wanted to go to school with human children, wishing to adapt to the new world she lives in. A conversation is brought up between the two in regards to school uniforms which Kobayashi notes are designed identically to each other regardless of the person wearing them, which causes her mind to casually linger towards discrimination and how society treats those who are different with cruelty, a fact which both she and Tohru agree is an unpleasant factor in the human world. This poignant little moment really resonates, helping to bring a sense of serenity to what is otherwise a fairly silly series, and affirming the dragon characters position in the series as outcasts or more specifically immigrant surrogates. Kanna, being a younger figure is more excited by the prospect of living in this society. The scene also displays some development for the backstory of Tohru, who has had bad experiences with humans in the past and prefers to keep a distance from normalising herself in this society but is still open to others, as seen later on in episode 7 when she feels welcomed at an otaku convention where her odd appearance is admired by tourists, giving her a lovely moment of lucidity.

This scene, with its reference to prejudice brings this series to the comparison with Monster Girls, which had a vaguely similar if less lucid moment also in episode 4 concluding a character arc involving Yuki. After the end of the previous episode in which a misunderstanding occurred following her overhearing two other girls talking about her behind her back. A conversation which implied she was “stuck up” and would never give the time of day to a boy due to her being a snowwoman (she is shown later on in the series to have a strong connection to Romance Manga, disproving this stereotype). The last part of that wasn’t said by the girls, but was the impression Yuki got due to her holding a long resentment towards her Demi identity. Hikari, whose defining characteristic is her openness, decides to confront these girls. Her intrusion, although seemingly disrupting her from being able to create a coherent response in the form of an angry rant instead, displays the character’s indignation and temerity, implying that she may feel an obligation to defend others against bullying due to some experience she had in the past though we have seen so far that she seems to have a rather comfortable home life with her supportive human family. monstergirlsep4-3aUltimately though, the conflict is resolved through each of the girls coming to a mutual understanding. The girls apologise for their arrogant behaviour, Yuki meanwhile apologises because she realises she is still bothered by her Demi nature, bringing to the foreground the series’ themes of how prejudice affects individuals psychological wellbeing.

Both of these scenes share an incredible amount in common, even with the latter taking a more pivotal role in the story. Both of them deliver monologues regarding how society treats people, both of them hold an unequivocal pathos in relation to the rest of the series, both of them provide hints to the deeper layers of the characters to the audience, and what struck me was the fact that these two scenes were broadcast within the same week.

Of course, beyond simply this scene, the two series also display their themes in different ways. In Dragon Maid for example the dragons are mostly unknown of by most of human society, and the humans we do see them interact with never really display any discrimination towards them, if anything they’re the source of the most support towards the dragon characters while serving as representations of discrimination themselves. This is most evident when we see Kobayashi in her workplace being singled out by her boss as a target for verbal harassment and unjust castigation, a scene which many women in the real world are all too familiar, and which we sympathise with Tohru’s disgust towards when she repeatedly trips him in response under a disguise of invisibility (since doing this with witnesses, no matter the context, tends to result in unjust backlash). It is apparent in this scene that Tohru represents a more vocal side to Kobayashi which allows her deep rooted frustrations to be handled with a magic fix she was sorely missing from her life before, helping her to gain more satisfaction in life while in turn helping Tohru to develop a sense of intimate connection with others which she was missing beforehand.

Of course, the supernatural elements in Interviews with Monster Girls are the source of the prejudice element, taking place in a world which though paralleling ours is very much different, whereas in Dragon Maid that element comes from another dimension into our world. There are hints of real prejudices in the society though these are miniscule, such as a standard Shoujo portrayal of perversion in male school students towards girls, specifically from Yusuke, a minor character who holds an extreme infatuation for Satou and becomes scolded for it by a detective at the school named Kurutsu (don’t ask). Or when the existence of gay men in society is acknowledged by another detective who brings it up in relation to Satou’s succubus powers and how it apparently doesn’t affect them. He refers to them as “the gays” which I don’t know, I just find to be a weird description. Also he says they’re the only men who aren’t affected, no acknowledgement of asexual men, I’m ashamed. Actually this also brings up another point, I haven’t read the manga this is based on, but I read somewhere that in that it was said that Satou’s powers affect men and women, but in this anime adaptation it only affects men which is certainly something I can see as a problem considering it erases what could have added a new dimension to the world portrayed on screen. Overall though, the portrayal we get on screen is of a world where people seem first and foremost concerned only with personal wellbeing without feeling the need to display prejudice towards others.

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Speaking of which, one thing I think both of these series convey is the surprising ability of the slice of life genre to develop incredibly subtle world building due to the moments of introspection which allow for exposition brilliantly hidden within moments of character building in how that character relates to the world around them. When we think of slice of life, we normally think of ordinary characters in ordinary settings, but here we have two series in that genre which provides fantasy characters whose existence makes it a fantasy setting. As such we require details on how society functions, particularly in Monster Girls, with the existence of such beings. We are explained in different ways, whether they be monologue or dialogue, how society functions. One detail we are given regarding Hikari’s vampirism is that she is provided with blood by the government, which is both a positive for the society in the series and a realistic display of what it would be like if such people existed. Or in one instance where her human sister Himari becomes distressed at what might happen if she tries to look in a mirror after hearing that Vampires don’t have reflections, but this turns out to be false as many of the attributes associated with these beings are shown as old myths in the series itself developed by the sordid history surrounding these people.

This is often used for visual comedy, such as with Kyouko’s headless appearance leading to instances of her body and her head becoming separated by accident such as the body walking onto a train, or when it needs desperately to go the bathroom and tries to relay that information on it’s own which also develops information on how the physiognomy of her species functions. While the nature of the Demis is generally used for comedic effect throughout the series it is never really in a way which denigrates them as characters, helping to stay consistent with the series’ themes.

Most of the world building in Dragon Maid has largely relied on exposition through dialogue so far, the fantasy dimension the dragons come from isn’t really a focus of the series, and the comedy is more intricately personality based in terms of its characters. One recurring joke being Lucoa’s ignorance in regards to standards in the human world leading to her putting herself in inappropriate situations involving her voluptuous body. Though this little joke does still displays how innocent the world in this series is. It’s a world filled with adorable kindergarteners, kind-hearted cosplayers, and very minimal drama which helps the world to feel kind, even if not all aspects of it are perfect. Just the type of escapism that many of us need in the world we have right now. The same can be said of the world in Monster Girls, where direct prejudice has never been shown and people are shown to be more or less ambivalent towards demis, with Takahashi willingly handing out hugs to each of the students in a totally adorable display of emotional support from an ally.

I don’t really have much else to say about either series that wouldn’t spoil too much about either of them. I will say that if you enjoy slice of life and fantasy based comedy these series might be to your taste. But the main point I wanted to highlight about these series in this article was how well they function as escapism. Both of them are largely cute and admirable in the world they present, and in the climate we live in right now such a possibility can certainly satisfy people who feel undervalued in society, portraying a type of society which is kinder and where people are nicer than what we see in the world today. Both of these are series that I’m incredibly happy to see right now, each week leaving me with a feeling of happiness and comfort, and I’m glad that these two also represent a move towards social consciousness in anime which I hope to see continue at a time when it truly is necessary.

Steven Universe S4 E15 Review

The New Crystal Gems

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So now we get to see what Connie, Peridot and Lapis, and Pumpkin were up to during the Out of this World arc. And no, we didn’t quite get anything particularly groundbreaking from the episode, there was no Lapis/Peridot fusion or any serious threats to Beach City while the team were gone, which should have been what we expected. But still, Steven Universe and “underwhelming” have never been two words that fit with each other, and The New Crystal Gems was far from underwhelming.

The episode still has to take place from Steven’s point of view in some way, so we still have it told us through Connie telling the story to Steven as soon as he returns. We get a very basic setup for the episode wherein Connie goes to Steven’s house and meets with Lapis and Peridot, and the Pumpkin dog making their second appearance. Although they have been briefly onscreen with each other before, this is the first real time that Connie has truly interacted with either of these characters before, meaning that the interaction between them is a little shaky at first but they do manage to come to an agreement when they decide to become the titular “New Crystal Gems”.

More specifically, they decide to completely recreate the individual Gems, with Peridot taking on the role of Garnet (because that’s the role everyone would want) by sporting sunglasses, Lapis becomes Amethyst, being the only one of them to truly get into character by imitating the voice and covering one of her eyes with her hair. Pumpkin is Pearl by wearing a cone nose, and Connie, being the human of the group, takes on the role of Steven, t-shirt and all. And from that premise, the episode becomes a part-parody of the series itself, with the respective characters almost mocking the other characters mannerisms while also satirising the fans of the series, which they are portrayed as here.

It’s a premise that does make sense, Peridot and Lapis being fans of that “Camp Pining Hearts” show, and Connie being an audience surrogate character who in her early appearances lived in awe of Steven. If any characters are going to serve as stand ins for the fans, it would be these characters. Ronaldo may have also been a fitting choice for a satire of the fandom, but the episode isn’t really intending to insult it’s fanbase like that.

Of course, within the episode itself, the problem arises shortly after they decide to save Beach City by taking Greg’s place at the car wash. Initially, this is successful when the two Gems use their powers to assist in washing the car (Peridot’s magnetic abilities which are growing stronger it seems, and Lapis’ water abilities) and Connie and Pumpkin uses a giant cloth to dry the car. The day after, when Connie wakes up from Steven’s bed, wearing his clothes, a larger line comes to the car wash just to experience their fantastical abilities. This time it’s less successful however, when Peridot and Lapis seem to take their respective roles a little too seriously, Lapis in particular takes the advice to “crack some jokes” like Amethyst would too far when she uses her water abilities to splash everyone, and then Peridot’s determination to get the job done causes her to pick up the cars by force.

After the situation escalates, and Lapis decides to take on Garnet’s role instead (her impersonation is hilarious) Connie tries to take on the Steven role of fixing the situation, once again making fun of the series formula by having her do a weak imitation of one of Steven’s speeches about love and stuff. “She didn’t even cry” responds Peridot. This moment actually does tie nicely to the message of the episode, Connie tries to fix the situation by copying Steven, but the group’s attempt to imitate the other Gems is what got them into this mess in the first place, and thus it doesn’t really work.

Peridot, being the one who has been put in charge this whole time, tries to place the blame on everyone else, critiquing the other’s performances. Again, Lapis was the only one who was actually putting any effort into imitation the other Gems, but Peridot points out that she lacks Amethyst’s sense of humour. The comparisons between characters in this episode lead to an all too accurate comparison between Peridot and Pearl, which I would is accurate to the extent that Peridot is a lot like a teenage version of Pearl (“I’m Leaving!”).

And inevitably, Connie is the one who has to fix everything. Peridot is right when she points out that she lacks Steven’s sentimentality, but what she does have is a sense of practicality which encourages her to tell them the truth, that they are not the Crystal Gems, instead they are their own individuals, and should thus act according to such. Yes, even in a silly little filler episode about the side characters taking a job at a car wash we still get deep character introspection, which does work equally as well as the satirical side of the episode. So Connie uses her intellect and pragmatism to come up with the plan, Lapis and Peridot use their creative skills to build a new sign for the car wash, and Pumpkin is small and cute.

The New Crystal Gems is a nice little episode, allowing the side characters to get some good development with each other, especially Connie who probably came out of this having learned the biggest lesson out of all of them. It works well as both an examination of the characters, how their longing to live up to the Crystal Gems distracts them from being able to focus on themselves, and it works well as a loving satire of the series, and the more positive side of it’s fandom. For what we got, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

If you were disappointed that this episode was too calm for your taste, next episode looks set to delve even deeper into the series than we are even now at this point.

Batman: Arkham Asylum Replay-Part 2

Medical Facility

As we use the explosive gel to enter the medical facility through the ceiling, we see that the interior of the building is significantly more drab and dreary than what one would expect a hospital to look, with those Gargoyles all across the wall, and cracks everywhere, which one of the henchmen even comments on, which is funny. The dialogue of the henchmen isn’t as advanced or interesting as it would be in City, and feels a bit bland in this first instalment, but I suppose it does convey their thuggish personalities well enough. We also see that the henchmen now have their faces painted to more closely resemble clowns, showing the increasing control Joker has over the Asylum. It doesn’t however change the distracting fact that our enemies have a very repetitive look, the same character design over and over again, a very muscular bald man, either black or white, sometimes with spiky hair but that’s it. Again, this game was probably made on a tight budget, so corners would have had to be cut, but it does take me out of the realism that the game was going for.

After we save a group of doctors being taken hostage, our next objective is to save three separate doctors, who are each locked up in different rooms which allow us to showcase different forms of rescue. Dr Kellerman is locked inside a room with Aaron Cash where there’s poisonous gas outside, meaning that we use our puzzle solving skills to throw a Batarang at the controls for the three fans to clean the air. Dr Chen is strapped to a table as bait for us to be attacked by multiple thugs to beat up, and Dr Young is inside a room filled with armed enemies that we take out by exploding the fragile walls around them while avoiding being seen. The player can choose which order to do these in, the only requirement is that they all need to be completed before we head back to the other room. Despite the dreary look of the facility, the textures of the walls and floors do feel especially lively, and the presence of physical plastic curtain in the hallways is a nice touch.

You know, this game’s attention to detail is really something to behold. I’m not just talking about the references to the outside universe in newspapers scattered across the building, or the fact that the doctors we encounter can be heard interviewing the villains in those tapes we find. Or the foreshadowing to later on in the game when we hear about something called the TITAN formula being spoken of on the screens in the corridors which we hear Dr Young mention in said interview tapes, alluding to the fact that it will play a bigger role in the story with when she mentions needing to return to her work after she is saved. No, I’m actually talking about the fact that after you have taken out those Joker teeth with your Batarang, it spits in half, left on the ground for you to kick if you walk on top of them. Seriously, I was impressed with that little feature when I replayed the game that such a little afterthought feature would be included, especially since the rest of the environment isn’t as interactive, with leaves on the ground outside staying unrealistically still.

Going back to the hostage mission, an impressive element I found in that was that each time we saved a hostage, there was a box which released those Joker teeth (they aren’t instantly in locations when we first see them). The final times we do this, we are introduced to a new enemy type, the knife attacker who is dressed in a red straight jacket wielding knives which help them to block our attacks. It adds some nice diversity to the combat, whose only issue so far has been that it can get a bit repetitive, so now that problem is solved too. As is the lack of diversity in the enemy’s appearance to an extent.

After a second Predator section for the Medical Facility, we are invited into the lift. The joker speaks to us over the screen, something about “facing our fears” as a vague, brown gas seeps into the lift, and Batman coughs. The way this is shown on screen is a lot more subtle than how I’m probably describing it, as the sound editing which highlights the sinister music to mask the coughs, does an excellent job of preparing us for what is about to happen. That being the highlight section of the game. In a quick cutscene, we see Batman sees people in another room seemingly succumbing to a gas which causes them to go crazy, with one individual in a hood with large teeth for some reason being emphasised, they come a little later but it’s basically a cannibal. Diehard Batman fans will know which character we’re encountering here form just the name “Crane” being mentioned.

We can tell that something isn’t right, as the camera has been titled, and the vision our movement becomes a little bit more blurry. We see Gordon getting attacked by that hooded figure in the distance, and then he seems to be dead when we reach him, but something clearly isn’t right still, as Batman’s eyes are glowing red and if we turn on Detective vision we see that the corpse has no skeleton. So we follow a sound into the corridor over to the morgue. The morgue is empty other than whispering background voices telling us to get out. When we comply, and go out the same door we came in, we see the Morgue yet again, the main difference this time around being that those riddles we usually see when we enter a new room are nowhere to be seen. Oh, and I suppose there are also body bags in the centre of the room. Regardless of which order we open them in, the first one we open we see a corpse of Batman’s father telling us how much of a disappointment we are. In the second, we see his mother asking how he could let them die. I swear the third one before I opened it seemed to have switched to more of a breathing motion than the previous twitching motion.

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And yes, when we open the third bag, we get a jump scare from my favourite Batman villain, the Scarecrow. Joker may be Batman’s opposite, but I’ve always thought of Scarecrow as being something of a mirror to Batman in how they both use fear to get what they want. In addition to that, Scarecrow is just creepy, and this section captures the character perfectly, taking Batman into a surreal nightmare where he has to run through a platform from a side-camera view while avoiding Scarecrow’s field of vision. The section helps to bring a nice change of pace to the gameplay, with the music complementing the frightening atmosphere. Every thing about this section, from Scarecrow’s character design to the brief glimpses where we see Batman transform into Scarecrow while we play as him, are so well done that they distract us from the fact that the cockroaches on the ground are just thick red dots with little attention paid to their rendering.

After the section is done, and Batman goes back on the trail for Gordon, who he can confirm is still alive, we don’t take long to get to him after an easy stealth section where we get around the armed inmates surrounding him and Harley Quinn. Along the way, we get the easiest access to the Riddler map for the Medical Facility, which exists to show us where the challenges are, but it isn’t entirely reliable as it doesn’t specify what the challenges are, meaning we may have a different type of challenge in mind. It only shows us a top-down view of the map, meaning we could be looking on the wrong floor, and while we do know the location of the challenges, we still don’t entirely know how to get to them. It’s impressive to me how the map for the game, while useful, isn’t something we’ll keep going back to because the environment is challenging enough for us to have to figure out where to go, but still easy  enough to understand where exactly.

So Batman smashes on top of Harley, and instead of capturing her there and then, which he should do, he leaves her on the floor for her to escape easily once he and Gordon leave (facepalm!). Drawn by the suspicious glass construction in the centre of the room, the two find an extremely skinny Bane, who has had all the chemicals drained from him. While the detail about the TITAN formula is meant to be part of Joker’s grand plan, the real reason Bane is here is to provide us with our first real Boss battle (since the Scarcrow section was more of a Stealth level). The Boss battles in the game are one of it’s main criticisms, this one in particular is somewhat similar to that brief encounter with the TITAN enhanced  creature from earlier as we find ourselves repeatedly dodging a series of charges from Bane. The trick is to throw a fast Batarang at him while he is charging, and then dodge, and then beat him while he is out of consciousness.

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The boss fight does get terribly repetitive after a while. I originally played this game in easy mode, where his crashes into the wall took an entire one of his three life bars. In the medium mode, it seems to take half a life bar from him instead, which does make it a little bit more challenging but on the whole, once we figure out how we are supposed to defeat Bane, the fight becomes frustratingly easy, and it never changes the pattern at any point in the fight, causing it to become terribly repetitive. Well, except for the waves of lesser enemies who come down to assist Bane, which is a cheap way to make the fight more challenging but on the whole doesn’t change anything.

I might as well also talk about the location of the fight, which looks like it’s meant to be some sort of boiler room, shaped uncharacteristically like an arena. The location we went to after Bane smashed into it through the wall, but it never appears again on the map, because it was only designed for this Boss battle. But the room itself simply feels out of place. And while it is cool to watch Batman pull out those pipes from Bane’s back, the fact that it doesn’t defeat him in the main story does cause the fight to feel somewhat inconsequential. The actual defeat occurs in a cutscene outside, when Bane grabs Batman before Batman remote controls the Batmobile to drive into Bane, pushing him into the water. Considering how strong Bane is, I question how effective this attack would really be, and how deep the water just next to the coast would be. Moreover, although Bane wasn’t exactly someone we could have an intelligent conversation with, the fact that he clearly knows a lot about what is going on does make it feel like Batman wasted some valuable information. I suppose the developers just wanted to have an exciting action setpiece to send the character away, but it instead feels like a bit of an anti-climax, and a waste of a perfectly good Batmobile.

After Batman sends Gordon off the island in a conveniently placed boat, he deduces from Bane’s words that Dr Young is involved in this somehow. In a conversation with Oracle, he decides to head to the Batcave, apparently there’s a Batcave on Arkham island that he built years ago. “It’s best to plan ahead for situations like this”, makes me wonder how many other Batcaves there must be in Gotham City. And the location of this Batcave is well hidden enough for me to believe that no one would notice it, as we travel through some abandoned catacombs which includes a well covered in human skulls. We then get yet another cinematic of the island, this time showing the edge of the island, with Gotham city off in the background, as Batman then glides off the edge of a cliff, into a cave near the bottom, where the secret entrance to the Batcave is located.

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The batcave itself is fairly small, and it’s presence in the game does sort of defeat the idea of Batman being trapped on the island all by himself. Still the details such as a door which scans his identification to allow only him access is nice (although the way that the computer casually refers to him as “Bruce” leads me to wonder what he would do if someone were to follow him into the cave), as well as the presence of a ridge he goes to the computer from by gliding from it, so that people without gliding capes can’t go there. So we discover that Dr Young apparently unknowingly worked with Joker on the TITAN formula, which Joker has been planning to use to create an army of super strong criminals, and so our next objective is to go to Arkham Manor, where Dr Young said she was going earlier.

While we are in the cave, we also obtain our latest gadget, and probably the most enjoyable one to use, the Batclaw. This is a device slightly similar to the grapple gun in how it grabs objects. We get to test it, first by pulling a bunch of miscellaneous boxes off the edge of the floor, apparently they only exist in the cave for that purpose as Batman has no problem letting them fall several feet below into the fog. Then we get to use to open vents which are too high up for us to use our hands on. Making our way into the sewer system and encountering a group of thugs, we also get to use this gadget in combat, using it to pull one of the enemies into our directions so that we can punch them when they get close, adding a new enjoyable feature to the combat.

While in this section, we can optionally go to a locked door which, if we try to open, will give us a nice jump scare featuring Killer Croc, who continues to threaten us with the possibility of eating us. Croc’s dangerous presence in the game is clearly being built up for an encounter later on, and we can only hope that it delivers. This section even has a few interview tapes specifically about Croc scattered to further tell us about his character. Out of this section, we see some underground ruins, which we are meant to climb up rather than grapple onto, as the buildings are apparently too fragile and slippery for that, which  does mean we are meant to change our exploration game. I myself like how many Riddler trophies there are in just this section. And inside here, we get messages from Oracle informing us of Dr Young’s past with the Joker’s alias, including a dark joke about a dead baby, because Joker.

Once we make our way outside, back into Arkham North, we see that the inmates have by this point attained a firm grip over the island, being armed with sniper rifles now, and standing on top of the observation points, thus encouraging the player to up their stealth game in order to quietly take out these particular enemies, while on the ground continue to be the regular fist fighters. The theme of how much control the inmates now have is further demonstrated when we see that they are also guarding the Manor, having apparently taken control of it. After we defeat all the available enemies in the East, we still can’t get though he front door of the Manor because of that electric fence blocking our way, something which the enemies on the other side boast to us about. Once we use the Batclaw to remove a ventilation shaft outside, which allows us to enter the building, we can hear them continuing to boast about their safety, thus making our sudden attack from above much more satisfying.

Batman: Arkham Asylum Replay-Part 1

Introduction

The following is a playthrough and review of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Originally released for the PlayStation 3, XBOX 360, and PC in Summer 2009, the game was developed by then unknown British studio Rocksteady as an adaptation of the popular superhero. Initially not thought to be anything more than another quick cash grab videogame tie-in, the game actually had quite a lot of people already experienced in the Batman universe working on it. It was written by Paul Dini, who had previously worked on the popular Animated series from the 90s, often considered one of the best incarnations of the character. It also provided voice actors from that series, getting Kevin Conroy to play the Dark Knight, and Mark Hamill to play his arch-nemesis the Joker. The game also shared quite a few other similarities with that TV series, as I will go into detail on through this playthrough.

The game soon managed to pick up anticipation when the trailers for it were released, confirming to fans that it was going to stay faithful to the dark source material, and offered an intriguing premise about Batman trying to reclaim Arkham Asylum, where a good number of his enemies would be held for him to fight. And indeed, when it was finally released, the game was considered an immense success, managing to obtain many Game of the Year titles which was something previously unheard of for a superhero tie-in. This genre was previously considered to be nothing more than shelf  filler. Quickly made products which existed primarily for game developers to make money off of a popular character, just like the majority of film tie-ins.

I myself remember having quite a few superhero games when I was, some of them still hold up fairly well such as X-Men Legends and Spiderman 2, but for the most part that would be an accurate estimation. Since I don’t really play fighting games, I can’t really judge that area where superheroes have been doing well apparently for a few years according to fans of those games, but right now it does seem that the success of the game, and it’s sequels, has inspired a new wave of Superhero games designed to step up their game. Most recently, Square Enix announced that it was planning to release multiple games about The Avengers, this coming after an unmade tie-in to the film a few years ago, which looks set to follow a deeper action-adventure oriented route. And a new version of Spiderman made by Insomniac was revealed at E3 last summer, showing that the future does seem bright for this genre.

This was largely what inspired me to replay this game, to take a deeper look into it than most of the simple reviews I’ve seen by recounting it step by step and analysing the specific aspects of it which helped this particular title to really “tick”. A such, be warned now that this series will contain full story spoilers for the game. And incidentally, I played the series on PC, which ended up being a major drawback in some places when I played the series, but that’s a whole other conversation.

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The game begins with an appropriately atmospheric shot of the Gotham City skyline, with the familiar bat signal in the sky. This is followed by a lowering shot of the gothic architecture of the city streets, displaying the organic textures of the graphics which although not quite up to date with modern technology, are still impressive to look at. The overall atmosphere of the scene is reminiscent of BioShock, a factor which immediately sets the game apart from other Superhero titles which normally have a bland atmosphere in order to place more attention onto the action. We then see the Batmobile rushing past, carrying Batman as the driver, and the Joker in handcuffs at his side, as they ride off towards Arkham Asylum. The game doesn’t really need to inform us who the characters are through exposition because they’re so popular that even people who have never read a comic book before will know who they are and their roles in relation to each other simply through looking at them, thus saving us from needless exposition.

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The fact that Batman has apparently already defeated the Joker at the start of the game naturally means that something is wrong. So we begin the game with a long and quiet sequence where we control Batman escorting the Joker to his prison cell. This is a very informative sequence, allowing the player to soak in the atmosphere of the game while walking through the Intensive Treatment facility, allowing us to see the environment we will travel through later in the game and listening to the humorous musings of the Joker, who is clearly planning something, occasionally basically spelling it out to Batman right in front of him in a way which really should have made him stop them there and then.

We hear the guards make casual remarks about the situation, informing the player of what has happened just before the events of the game about the specific mission in which the Joker was captured. The design of the Facility itself is realistically dirty and mechanical, displaying the gritty take on the mythos that this game has taken with swearing characters and an unnerving atmosphere punctuated by a repeating quiet alarm signal which we hear multiple times throughout the game. We get introduced  only to the zoom in feature during this section, which allows Batman to focus in on smaller details which may be obscured by regular vision. And we get to see Killer Croc being moved, which is there to build up to his appearance later on in the game.

When I first played the game on PC, it had a terribly lagging movement which caused it to run slowly, but now it seems to have been pleasantly upgraded, as the movement is a lot smoother. One last thing I’ll mention is the character design of Batman, who has a suit somewhat similar to that of the Animated Series, only with a more realistic look to it, with minute details animated in such as nails to keep his armour in place, and the woven texture of the fabric still showing it’s strength. This is possibly my favourite iteration of the batsuit due to it’s realistic design while still remaining organic enough for my liking.

After this introduction sequence is done, Joker (oh my god I’m so shocked, seriously no one could have possibly seen this coming) manages to break free, and has evidently been orchestrating this so that his goons, who have been moved there after a fire at Blackgate, can break free at the same time to fight Batman for him. It is here that we are introduced to one of the most acclaimed aspects of Arkham Asylum, the combat. This is built on a very simple button pressing technique which involves the player punching and kicking their opponents, who are automatically locked onto once we are close enough to them, allowing for a limitation to out ability to beat them, for which we are rewarded with a combo points system, serving as a motivation to not make any mistakes during the combat. We also have a dodge system for when assailants try to attack us during the combat, which is useful considering that multiple times throughout the game we will end up facing multiple enemies at once. The developers put a lot of effort into the combat system, and it paid off considerably well. The final cherry on top being that the camera shifts to put Batman into the centre of the screen, allowing the player to take in the visual wonder of the action.

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After this quick tutorial of the action, Joker invites Batman to follow him through the corridors, in what is clearly a trap to begin our exploration of the facility. Already the corridors are littered with dead guards, and inmates for us to fight to gotten out. Additionally, the Joker seems to have left some moving clockwork teeth on the floor, but are simply there for us to destroy with our batarangs as one of the many Riddler challenges, more on that later. The living guards we are able to communicate with, sometimes it’s part of the objective, other times it’s just a feature. The facial animations in the dialogue sequences leave more to be desired, as it is clear that some of the graphical fidelity was cut from these sequences to go into other areas of the game, as the faces of the characters often look emotionless, and unless it’s a named character Batman is talking to, most of them look distractingly similar to each other. For support we also have the voice of Oracle aka Barbara Gordon to help provide information to Batman throughout the game.

A sequence in which Batman has to rescue a guard taken hostage by Victor Zsasz is used to introduce the player to Predator mode, a form of stealth gameplay wherein Batman grapples onto Gargoyles in the room in order to hide from enemies, and is provided a multitude of what to do in order to defeat them. For this first part we are expected to perform a glide attack on Zsasz, wherein we automatically glide down to a targeted enemy and knock him down, not quite out though as we then have to quickly perform a takedown of the enemy while they are on the ground, which adds another layer of challenge to the gameplay, as later on when we enter Predator mode in more crowded sections of the Asylum we have to observe the surroundings and make sure that if we perform such an attack, it is done carefully.

In a following cutscene we are introduced to Harley Quinn, dressed in a fetish nurse outfit (groans) over the screen, having helped Joker to escape by infiltrating the facility, and has taken the warden  hostage. After the fact, we are able to use our strength to apparently break open the ventilation shafts, which are conveniently just large enough to fit a crouching Batman inside. The grapple tool is further used in a sequence where we have to rescue the surviving guards above  in a room filled with poisonous gas, helping to further integrate us into the superhero identity. We then go further into the corridors to pursue Joker, finally coming face to face with him as he stands atop some sort of container, from which he releases some sort of strengthened creature which the Joker describes as a “test subject”. We mostly spend this little section dodging the charges of the creature, and the bodies that it throws at us before it ultimately collapses on it’s own, serving simply as a practice for the boss fights later on in the game. In a short cut scene, the Joker challenges Batman to throw a Batarang at him to drop him to the ground far below and end his life, which he does not comply with due to his strict rule of no killing.

We then learn that Commissioner Gordon has been taken hostage, and so go back the way we came to retrieve him. While this is happening, in addition to the green arrow spray painted onto the facility, the Joker is now shown on the screens in the corridor, and is heard over the speakers to show us how much control he has taken of the Asylum at this point. Returning to the office room we were in earlier, Batman seeks to find Gordon, kidnapped by a  rogue guard called Frank Bowles, using Detective Vision. This is one of the most unique aspects of the game, in which we are able to use a technologically enhanced vision to seek out evidence in a particular crime-scene through first person view, in this case isolated bourbon particles from Bowles’ breath and following the trail of it. We can also use it to seek out objects of interest such as Gargoyles, control panels, and parts of the Riddler challenges. We can also use it to see enemies through x-ray vision, those with guns being isolated in red. The device proves very much useful in many parts of the game, some people find it to be too useful as it would mean we could easily use it all the time. I myself never really encountered this problem, as I only used the Detective vision when it was necessary.

A sequence in which we use the environment to our advantage can be found in the next setpiece, where a broken lift forces us to use the grapple hook, and our ability to hang from a ledge. The environment is actually designed in a way which for the most part makes puzzle sections such as this seem believable and not just a way to add to the game play. A great strength of this game so far is how it’s tutorial section, and really the whole game, keeps adding new elements to the gameplay, expanding the player’s horizons in the process, like the next scene, which uses the aforementioned predator mode to perform stealth attacks on enemies, displaying the silent takedown where we crouch carefully behind enemies and knock them out with what I assume is chloroform. The process is a good way to keep our whereabouts hidden to the other enemies, and is still appropriately challenging as it takes slightly longer than an ordinary takedown, forcing us to time our attacks carefully.

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We get a more detailed look into this in the next setpiece, where we are put inside a large room teeming with armed inmates for us to take out in any way we choose, as each method has it’s own advantages and drawbacks. You can go with either the aforementioned glide attack, the stealthier silent takedown, you can throw Batarangs at them and knock them out while they’re on the ground, or beat them there and then which will instantly alert the others to your location but can be done quickly. You can also acquire an upgrade early on in the game if you choose, where you can hang upside down from the Gargoyles, and when an enemy walks directly underneath your location, you can hang them from the Gargoyle. Once again this method alerts others to your location, forcing you to quickly swing onto another Gargoyle.

After finding Bowles’ corpse, we get a transmission from the Riddler, introducing us to the challenges of the game. These are a set of multiple different challenges scattered across the game’s entire location. These take up multiple different forms, I’ve already spoken of the Joker teeth, but there are also these Scarab Beetle stones we see sometimes which we can scan with holding the button for Detective vision to reveal a number of cryptic messages read in the voice of Warden Sharp, initially appearing to tell the story of the Asylum’s founder. We can pick up patient interview tapes, telling us backstories about the different villains we encounter through the game which provide some interesting insight to their individual personalities. The one introduced right here is the riddle challenge, where in seemingly every location of the game there is some sort of riddle related to an object, normally relating to a character from the batman universe not seen in the game, or simply a quick visual pun. This is my personal favourite of the challenges, as it requires intelligence to complete from piecing the riddle together, essentially keeping in character with the Riddler. But the most obvious and most abundant challenges are the Riddler trophies, the aspect from the entire series which fans initially enjoyed, and became increasingly sick of as the games progressed. These trophies are scattered all across the island, in some locations more obvious than others which require really in-depth puzzles to solve. For this game at least, they offer a decent distraction from the main quest but are hardly something I would call a great feature to the game. I’ll talk more about them towards the end of the game but for now I’ll just say that the developers did at least put a lot of effort into putting them in locations where we wouldn’t directly see them, while still making their presence obvious even to the least observant players, and providing some challenge to their completion.

Being unable to find Gordon here, Batman opts to go outside through the backdoor, into a cave where we then see the immense scope of the outside, with it’s gothic architecture and green sky. More accurately just the East side of the island, which makes the cinematic view more impressive in the cutscene which for me signifies the true start of the game. In this section of the island, we see the guards who are still firmly in control of it before we are motivated to move to the North side of the island to get to the Batmobile which is apparently being attacked by inmates. Although because I decided to take in as much detail as I could for this playthrough, I decided to explore this brief section of the game where we are in a peaceful place, because it does feel so detached from the rest of the game. The guards didn’t really provide anything of note to say, and the two buildings in this area which we will access later can be entered, but are largely protected by electric fences, with only interactive guards inside them.

 

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So we make our way over to the Batmobile, and after taking out the assailants, get some extra support by adding a new gadget to our utility belt from the boot of the car. This is the explosive gel, a logical anomaly of a gadget which is apparently gel we can spray bat symbols onto fragile wall surfaces and create a controlled explosion with in order to gain entry to otherwise inaccessible areas. I don’t know how that’s meant to work, but I do know that it is at least a useful tool, as once we track Gordon down to the Medical Facility we have to use it to gain access. We learn this after entering through the front door, and seeing Harley Quinn guarding Gordon behind the electric door, speaking directly to Batman in a way which wasn’t necessarily uncommon in games in 2009, but was certainly uncommon in Superhero titles at the time, once again distinguishing Arkham Asylum.

Continued in Next Part

Steven Bomb 5: Out of this World Review

So after nearly two months, Steven Universe returned into 2017 with a new Steven Bomb. I say nearly two months but some people already watched the episodes a few weeks ago, when all five of them were released to the public in what many initially thought to be a leak, but was actually intentionally done by Cartoon Network as a promotion for their app. This has drawn criticism to the studio for the possibility that it could affect the ratings of the episodes when they would broadcast proper.

Although the studio has in fact done this with their other series before, it is only with this incident that people noticed. This could perhaps be because their other series don’t have as much of an older audience who would notice mundane backstage details which the younger audience don’t take an interest in. This does display how passionate that largely older fan base is in regards to the series. As tempting as it is to frame Cartoon Network as a villainous empire who seek to destroy creativity and enjoyment of good shows by sabotaging the best one they have right now, really it wasn’t done to sabotage the series, it was merely a business strategy which perhaps didn’t work with the structure of the series being less episodic than most cartoons.

Anyway, I myself refrained from watching these episodes until their actual broadcast and did my best to avoid the inevitable spoilers that would arise from this incident, which allowed me to come back to the series with a fresh perspective. In the time between this and the last episode I was able to create this blog where I’ve so far been able to create a retrospective on the older episodes of the series, and not much else due to my own procrastination. And so now that I can write about these episodes with a fresh perspective, I can at least rely on the fact that I have something to do that can keep me with something to do on this blog more regularly.

With that long introduction out of the way, let’s finally talk about the fifth Steven Bomb, a story arc titles Out of this World, which takes Steven and the Gems further from Beach City than they’ve ever gone before.

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4.10: Steven’s Dream

Steven’s Dream begins with Steven having a dream. A dream about a windy and withered landscape with pink flowers set apart from the toned down greenery of the environment. Steven ultimately wakes up next to Greg with tears on his face. Steven has by this point in the series experienced enough prophetic dreams to know that this dream has to mean something. He probably associates the pink flowers in the dream with his mother, but of course the flowers in his dream, as seen in the picture above, aren’t roses.

Greg takes Steven home, informing him that the movie they were watching while he slept was about aliens who were abducting cows to use their milk for a cereal planet., and of course this is clearly more than just a throwaway gag (very few throwaway gags in this series really are), as references especially involving aliens do tend to hold a mirror of some sort to the Gems and Homeworld. In this case it could either be a reference to what we already know about how Homeworld once used the earth to gain access to it’s resources, or it could be foreshadowing something else later on.

Anyway, the dream causes Steven to talk to him about his mother, specifically questioning Greg knew about her past and the fact that she killed Pink Diamond. This offers us some insight into how Greg sought to improve Rose’s perspective on life and her regret over her actions, showing the more serious side to their relationship which we haven’t seen before. This moment of clarity helps Steven to go to bed, where he ends up having the same dream but extended to include a vision of an old object he recognises. Contacting Connie, this object is confirmed to be the Palanquin, as seen in the journal from Buddy’s Book, which observant viewers already noticed before this episode looked exactly like the seat that Blue Diamond was seen sitting in, in The Answer. By this point it is obvious to the viewer and Steven that the object likely represents Pink Diamond more than Rose Quartz.

Steven hopes to gain answers on the object from the Gems once they enter the room. Amethyst doesn’t know, Pearl seems reluctant to discuss it, both keeping in character. Garnet however breaks from her usual cool headedness to adamantly refuse Steven’s curiosity in a fierce outburst. We have seen the Gems and Steven get into arguments regarding their history before of course, and I thought at first that this scene would simply be treading old ground until Steven said “I thought we weren’t going to keep any more secrets from each other” as if he was reading my mind in that moment. The fact that they have seemingly had this exact same conflict before and still refuse to tell Steven about it helps the argument between them to become especially unnerving.

After  Steven storms out of the room, Garnet tries to confront him more calmly, clearly feeling a sense of dread regarding the situation. A sense of fear even. It is clear here that her future vision has caused her to know what will happen if he goes there, but she cannot do anything to stop his inquisitive nature. I’ll talk more about this aspect later. Steven meanwhile takes the issue to Greg, who is more willing to go along with Steven’s wishes, and so takes them to Korea, where the Palanquin is located. They fly there with the help of cousin Andy, making an unexpectedly quick return after his first appearance just two episodes earlier.

So anyway, “the Universes are going to Korea”, and so we get a quick montage of Steven and Greg going sightseeing around Korea. This sequence is pure filler, but does what filler should and still be entertaining so that it doesn’t matter. The setting also helps to distinguish the sequence from the rest of the series, where we are normally used to the American setting of Beach City. The most notable part of the sequence is when they’re walking in an animation studio, and are given a fourth-wall breaking gag in which Greg sees himself being drawn. Again, this throwaway gag is more than it initially appears as the picture being drawn is specifically of Greg’s face later on in the episode. I was wondering if they were going to at some point see the border between North and South Korea, but of course they don’t. I mean, I know the series can get a bit dark at times, but I don’t think it’s going to include something like humans being forced against their will into prison camps. Yeah, that’s not going to happen.

So anyway, they eventually go to the location of the Palanquin, where they see a different Palanquin than that from Steven’s dream, this one is blue and in fresh condition. And then, they quickly notice the actual Palanquin they were looking for, being visited by a large Gem in a Blue hood, crying. This of course is Blue Diamond, accompanied by her Pearl, whose vision Steven was seeing through in his dream, and whose gigantic tears keep coming through his eyes as a result of his empathy powers. Having previously seen the Homeworld Gems as being ruthless and bureaucratic, the fact that Blue Diamond is mourning the loss of someone she once knew sets her apart from the others we’ve seen so far, showing that despite the apparent repressiveness of the Homeworld regime, even Gems on Homeworld do still have feelings and sympathies with each other.

This is what draws her to Greg once he is discovered by them, and empathises with her over the fact that they both lost someone very dear to them. Of course, the fact that the one he lost is the one who killed the one she lost is something he doesn’t choose to bring up. Taking pity on him, Diamond decides to save him from the impending doom of the cluster (unbeknownst to her that it has been deactivated) and kidnaps him. As her ship leaves, Steven tries to stop them with his jumping power but to no avail, being rescued by Garnet. Before she tells him in full about why she tried to stop him from going, it is already clear why she was afraid. Blue Diamond was previously seen in The Answer as the master of Sapphire, and was the one who threatened to shatter Ruby for fusing with her. Garnet, more specifically the Sapphire side of her personality, is clearly afraid of Blue Diamond like nothing else because of her past with her, but her fear evidently caused Greg to be kidnapped. And so she promises to rescue him, setting up the quest for this arc.

So much happened in this episode that it was difficult to breathe at times Being packed with continuity, emotional moments, expansion of the Homeworld mythos by showing a new side to the Gems, taking us to another country to prepare us for how far this arc is going to go. This is an instant great episode in the series canon, and a brilliant way for the series to return, and now let’s continue.

4.11: Adventures in Light Distortion

Go back to that joke I made just a few paragraphs earlier, about he possibility of Steven going to North Korea and the series tackling the idea of humans being taken away and put into prisons. Yeah, that was building up to the beginning of this episode, where it is disclosed that Greg is being taken to a zoo for humans that Pink Diamond once had. One which Pearl is apparently familiar with, helping them to know where to go. Yeah, it’s actually going to go there, though obviously less dark than a North Korea episode would be.

After a that, we see Steven speaking on the phone to Connie, who is not coming on the mission with them, instructing her to stay behind and do their work while they’re gone. I get the impression this short scene is going to build up to something, it wouldn’t have been in the episode otherwise. More importantly, we see that Peridot has altered the Ruby’s ship so that they can use it, and tries to explain to them that the gravity engine she has installed works by “bending reality” before they rush off into space. Although a rash decision on Steven’s part, it does show the urgency of this mission in how he hopes to rescue his father as quickly as possible. Even though we the audience know that they are going to successfully rescue Greg, the characters in the series themselves don’t know this for certain, and so the drama comes from their emotions.

So this episode is split into three parts in terms of tone. The first third of the episode is largely a build up for the main premise of the episode, where Steven and the Gems try to figure out how to get the ship to go faster after Steven is informed that going at normal speed will take them 70 years to reach the zoo, which Pearl is ambivalent to. I know she’s the most alien of the Gems, and they aren’t affected by long timespans, but surely she would realise the urgency of getting there much quicker than that. We also see them go through an asteroid field, and then hit some of the Rubies floating in space. I’m noticing that this arc seems to carry quite a lot of continuity with previous episodes so far, and they even mention that they should do something about the Rubies when they return.

The second third of the episode is largely focused on comedy regarding Steven trying to get the gravity engine to work properly. This results in a sequence of the Gems changing shape and size as a result of the titular light distortion caused by the ship, initially being shrunken to Ruby size because the ship is designed to accommodate Rubies, I thought we would get a scene of Garnet defusing here to be unaffected by the change but that didn’t happen. They then shrink to a much smaller size (I’d like to see which class of Gems that size belongs to), then grow to Diamond size. Of course, the comedy of this sequence never manages to match the preceding line from Steven “Bring on the Syrup” in response to the possibility that he would be squashed to a pancake.

The final third of the episode takes a more serious route, as the ship suddenly goes into an extremely fast speed, resulting in the Gem’s forms being disappearing as a result of going at a speed faster than light. So this is basically Ludicrous Speed from Space Balls, the room even shifts to a plaid red colour as Steven is pushed to his chair by the force of the speed. Ok, despite that silly reference, the moment is actually quite serious as Steven, now all by himself, tries in desperation to reach the button to stop the ship before it crashes into the zoo. The soundtrack accompanying this scene is intense, a repeated percussion of loud electronic drums which beats the intensity of the moment. Zach Callison also deserves props here for his evocative turn as Steven, forced to confront his inquisitiveness and how he has led them to this point where they may not survive. It is a powerful scene, and easily the high point of the episode.

Steven naturally manages to reach the button, preventing them from crashing and allowing the Gems to return to their forms as they arrive at the zoo 70 years earlier than expected. I didn’t mention this in the previous review, but the ambient music that now plays in the closing credits has also changed to include an urgent piano melody. Just like “Love Like You” before it, it seems this song is also going to slowly progress as the series goes forward. What it will sound like afterward, we will have to wait and see, and how it reflects the direction of the series. But right now it does sound significantly more foreboding than it’s predecessor.

As mentioned before, this episode is split into three thirds, a quick build up, a comedic middle, and a serious final act. The final act is easily the best of the three, giving Steven a moment of self reflection in a very drastic moment, escalated by the soundtrack and the excellent performance from his voice actor. This episode did ultimately feel more like a slow build up for the arrival to the zoo, which we will visit next episode.

4.12: Gem Heist

Having spoken of the possibility of Garnet defusing in the previous episode, first thing she does so in this episode to get through the zoo under the guise of delivering Steven to the zoo as a Sapphire, with Ruby, Pearl, and Amethyst as her servants. So once they go outside we get introduced to a few new characters, the Amethyst guards who are significantly taller than our amethyst while having a similar raspy voice to her, and Holly Blue Agate (voiced by Christina Pedi), the apparent head of the facility, whose elitist personality is quickly established through her condescending attitude towards the Amethysts while holding a strong reverence for Sapphire.

That is the main attribute of the character throughout the episode, that she holds a strongly traditionalist view regarding the roles of certain Gems. Whether that be through instructing our Amethyst (which is what I’ll refer to her as to distinguish her from the others in this review) to stay behind with the others, instructing Pearl to open the door for them and chastising her for speaking just a quick line of dialogue, which is enough for her to be considered “chatty”, and when Ruby tries to distract her by lying about leaving the ship’s engine on, is dismissed by her in a way which brushes all Rubies as incompetent. Then there is when Steven talks, which she simply hears as gibberish despite them speaking he same language.

The bulk of the episode revolves around the comedy of the bad acting of the gang as they try to keep up with the scenario. This is especially difficult for Ruby, whose proneness to anger causes her to become enraged when Agate tells a very one-sided account of the story of the Diamonds versus the Rebellion on earth, which she is only able to vent out once she leaves their company. Incidentally, the way that she and Sapphire signal each other through winking is cleverly done considering how Sapphire only has one eye. The audience can tell that how this is distinguished from a blink is in how hard her eyelids press.

And to  be honest, there isn’t really that much more to the episode worthy of mention. Not that it’s a bad episode at all, the comedy works well and it does give us our most in-depth view yet of Homeworld with how the different classes of Gem are treated by Agate. But the episode does ultimately feel like more filler until the next episode. It ends with Steven being taken into the zoo, the other Gems seemingly unable to do anything that wouldn’t break their cover. After a sequence of Steven going through a machine which puts him in new clothes and cleans him, he lands in the zoo which is considerably nicer looking than the earlier dialogue would lead us to believe.

4.13: The Zoo

So Steven and Greg are reunited in the zoo, where there are other humans whom Greg has gotten to know. The inhabitants of the zoo have an extremely upbeat attitude, almost inhuman in how they constantly smile and speak with a limited vocabulary, and have names such as Y6 and J10. They all have a heavily androgynous appearance and have developed their own peaceful culture with each other. They have certainly been raised in an environment which is extremely different from that of earth, growing up apparently without knowing about anything outside of the zoo. While Greg seems to have taken to the abundance of happiness in this environment, Steven is a bit more sceptical, something which lends to what becomes a theme in the episode concerning maturity.

The inhabitants of the zoo are basically children. They are given play time by their management, and get to live in a world without worries or consequences, instead allowed to live in peace and harmony with one another. They similarly take a quick liking to Greg because of their innocent nature. Greg, who views responsibility as a burden, enjoys the routine here, even to the point of sometimes showing reluctance at the prospect of leaving, though he does still agree with Steven’s assertion that they should leave when the opportunity arises. As such, Steven ends up coming across as the more mature figure of the two. This is a result of the fact that he has grown up with responsibilities built up around him, and the fact that he has had multiple experiences of overcoming difficult obstacles through his adventures with the Gems, something Greg is less experienced in.

Of course, in addition to maturity, another point of philosophy which this episode addresses is the status of the humans in the zoo as prisoners. Though that is what it looks like from Steven’s perspective and to a lesser extent from Greg’s, to them it isn’t a prison. Sure, they wouldn’t be allowed to escape, but they also never think to do so. Prisons are generally intentionally made to be unpleasant places to stay, as a form of punishment to the prisoners, even if they are still given food and sleeping facilities to live. This facility is first and foremost a zoo. It is not a place where people are sent to be punished, but rather to be preserved, and as such are treated with necessities for living while still having the area accommodated specifically for humans to flourish, as evidenced by the tropical environment (humans are most naturally accommodated to warm environments) and simulation of night and day for their daily routine.

Indeed, the people are so heavily adapted to living in an apparent utopia that the concept of “hurt” is alien to them. The next revelation we learn of the zoo, which turns out to be a breaking point for Greg, reveals how they reproduce, you will notice that there are no children amongst the inhabitants. It is done through a matchmaking ritual where in certain individuals are paired together by selection of the Gems. Incidentally, the fact that the inhabitants are directly communicated to by the Gems, showing that they do indeed speak the same language, leads me to believe that the ignorance shown by Agate in the previous episode was merely to maintain her own prejudice.

Speaking more on the concept itself, and going back to the idea that the humans here are similar to children mentally, I am reminded slightly of Huxley’s Brave New World, the premise is certainly similar to that of this episode, in which people are controlled by being given what fills them with pleasure, rather than forced to accept reality through direct totalitarianism. That book even included a detail about how even children had sex with each other, participating in the conformity of the society from an early age. Of course the difference is that sex (although not directly mentioned here because Kid’s show, but that is clearly what is intended for the humans) is done for the purpose of reproduction, whereas in that book, it was merely a pleasure which infertile humans conformed to. Still, I think there is certainly a thematic similarity to be seen between the two narratives.

Anyway, Greg doesn’t agree to go through with this, explaining to the inhabitants the concept of choosing who one wishes to be with. Their love of Greg causes many of the inhabitants therefore to choose him, including many of the males (god, I love this series), but when he rejects them, they become saddened by the rejection, exposing them to the concept of hurt the hard way. This causes a group of amethysts to come into the zoo to calm them down. Steven and Greg attempt to use the opportunity to escape, but are swiftly captured by one of the amethysts.

This episode was highly interesting thanks largely to the themes it presents such as Maturity, Imprisonment, Conformity and Pleasure. It’s certainly one of the most philosophical episodes (seriously, I ended up citing Aldous Huxley as a reference for the episode). The paradise setting distinguishes it from the rest of this arc, set largely in space, while also keeping it as an integral point in the arc. It is of course where the previous episodes, which have mostly just been build up, were headed. And now we only have one episode left of this arc.

4.14: That Will Be All

So we immediately start off from the end of the last episode with Steven and Greg being taken into a room full of amethysts, rather than kept inside the zoo. We see that our Amethyst, who was notably absent and unheard from afterwards during Gem Heist, has also been captured. But this quickly turns out to be an act, as she has actually spent her time bonding with the other amethysts, who like her were born on earth and whom she feels an immediate connection with due to sharing the same status. There are also apparently jaspers in the facility who share space with the amethysts.

Much like Adventures in Light Distortion, this episode can be separated into three separate parts. The sequence with the amethysts is the first part, which is interrupted when Agate stampedes into their way, causing them to hide Steven and Greg. Agate, who is blue, is preparing for the arrival of Blue Diamond, her apparent master. This establishes that, as well as class, the Gems are also divided into colour groups based on who their master is. Agate herself also shows that, in addition to being an extreme elitist, she is also apparently a massive racist as she critiques the amethysts for being “oddly coloured”. Anyway, so the amethysts storm out of the room, allowing Steven and Greg to escape undetected.

The second part of the episode takes place inside a giant, pink room filled with bubbled gems. Specifically, Rose Quartz gems. We then see Blue Diamond enter the room, still saddened like she was before. And then we get Yellow Diamond, less of a meme this time around, but still maintaining her established stoic personality. She proceeds to scold Blue Diamond for her seemingly sympathetic attitude, particularly regarding the gems in the room, who were apparently all bubbled after the rebellion, since a Rose Quartz led the rebellion. Yellow even goes so far as to say that they all should have been shattered long ago. Yet unexpectedly, she does even show some semblance of empathy towards Blue, again showing a softer side to the Diamonds which he hadn’t seen before this arc.

To convey her frustrations, Yellows orders their pearls to begin a song which she sings. “What’s the use of Feeling Blue” I suppose is meant to be a villain song. It certainly gives off that vibe at the start of Yellow’s singing with the commanding and uncaring tone punctuated by the loud drum beats in the backing track and the higher notes she performs. Most of all, it is a villain song because of the way in which she seeks to motivate Blue throughout the song. And yet it still shows a more human side to the Diamonds, as both she and Blue seem to feel sadness over the death of Pink Diamond, the difference is that Yellow has moved on from the past to concentrate on the present whereas Blue still feels sadness despite it having been such a long time ago. The use absence of “blue” after “feeling” in some pauses of the song’s structure does cause me to wonder if she does still hold malicious intend however, as her apathetic attitude does make it seem like she would be opposed to feeling any emotion period rather than just sadness.

While the song is being sung, Greg and Steven make their way to the door before Agate leads Sapphire into the room. Luckily Blue doesn’t recognise Sapphire, who is clearly still frightened to be in her presence, kept warm (visually even) by the presence of Ruby, and is thus able to come up with a believable excuse for bringing another human to the zoo. The downside to this is that it convinces the Diamonds that, since they believe the earth still has yet to be destroyed by the cluster, they can go back to earth to collect more humans for the zoo, setting up a very visible and early return.

So the third part of the episode is the escape, where Agate accompanies Sapphire and the Gems to the ship while Steven and Greg do their best to hide through a grown Amethyst, using the trust between them and the amethyst guards to ensure they don’t report anything, and least plausibly go underneath her as she looks up. But inevitably, she does manage to spot them entering the ship. Naturally, she blames the amethysts for this, all evidence to the contrary, before Ruby and Sapphire fuse into Garnet to stop her from capturing them, wrapping her in her own whip. This is the moment when the Gems manage to reclaim their authority.

I didn’t mention this when talking about Gem Heist because it wasn’t so apparent to me during that episode (the comedic side tended to overshadow it), but in that episode, the Gems were clearly in a position where they felt particularly vulnerable due to being deep inside the enemy’s territory. The defuse of Ruby and Sapphire during their time here symbolising that vulnerability (a sort of PG rated stripping naked for Garnet), and so her fusing together in order to stand up to their enemy represents how they have re-attained their control of the situation.

The amethysts don’t do anything, and even cheer them on, showing that they may have resparked the rebellion by gaining new allies away from earth. The victorious attitudes from each of the Gems in the last scene is quite entertaining to behold. Our Amethyst refers to them as the “famethyst” displaying her more human personality through use of slang. Garnet teases the possibility of pushing her with her fist glove before instead using her normal hand. Pearl uses logic to avoid having her report this, informing Agate of the negative repercussions of her allowing this to happen. And so they all manage to safely get away from the facility and return home.

Oh, and the music in the end credits shifts once again, into a segment where the piano has melded more into the ambience of the background.

*

And so the arc ends. Over all hardly the best arc we’ve had, it established a destination for the characters to reach and took a long while for them to reach it. That is the biggest case against the arc that I can make, though there is another one I can manage other people making which I will get to later. The worst offender of this was Gem Heist, easily the weakest episode of this bomb due to the fact that it felt like lagging through a corridor with only the beginning and ending of the episode making any momentum, but even that episode still managed to pack in a good amount of character-based humour to keep me engaged, as at no point during these five episodes did I ever feel bored. The individual episodes themselves each felt like mini packets of clever writing and lovely character moments, Steven’s Dream had foreshadowing, Adventures in Light Distortion had high stakes emotions, The Zoo presented ethics and That Will Be All expanded the series as a whole by establishing a subtly placed plot point in how the Gems new connection to the base is clearly going to come back to the series later on.

I can imagine some people not liking how inconsequential they may have perceived this arc, as in the end the Gems are able to escape without worrying about Homeworld coming after them, though of course we do know that the events of this arc did change something, we got to see a new side to Homeworld, more silly and human and even emotional than compared to the initially stoic earlier appearances of Homeworld Gems. The Gems now have allies in the zoo’s amethysts and established an intention for the Diamonds to return to earth in a brief scene, so we know that this will cause them to return to earth. Of course there were some plot threads that weren’t completely resolved, such as the humans who are still locked inside their habitat, but this arc wasn’t really intended to disclose story arcs, rather to build up new ones, the series is certainly far from over for now after all. So now, Steven Universe is back, and the next few episodes do look as if they’re going to take a calm break, though considering that many other recent filler episodes have expanded their game to match the quality of more major episodes, I am optimistic in regards to the future of the series.

The Ultimate Steven Universe Retrospective-Part 4

1.19: Rose’s Room

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This episode taps into Adolescent angst in an intricately detailed portrayal from the start of the episode, as it looks at how Steven may not be entirely satisfied with the Gem’s method of parenting may be a cause for disconnect for Steven, as they are often too busy to perform humdrum activities such as Golf with him. Specifically, Garnet is the one who tells him this, the most fatherly of the Gems, which is important to the episode’s themes later on. In their absence, he becomes dangerously addicted to a golfing video game (one with a story apparently), and then appear to send mixed messages to him when they begin giving him their attention while he is playing it, when he doesn’t want their attention. The usually kind Steven impulsively, and perhaps sporadically, lets out his frustrations towards them, wishing for a place where he can be alone. It is then that the door to his mother’s room, which has been inaccessible since her death, opens at the surprise of the Gems.

Going against their attempted warnings, Steven runs into the room where he finds a pink, cloud filled room where all his wishes come true, bunk beds, whales, the ending of the video game, and an infinite supply of donuts that he can’t eat because they are projections. Eventually he gets bored and wishes the room to let him out. Of course when he comes out and is seemingly back in Beach City, we can immediately tell that something isn’t right. The Gems are gone, it is unusually quiet in town, and the final confirmation that he is in fact still inside the Room’s projections is when the people, Lars, Sadie, and Connie are shown as unthinking zombie-like beings in a turn to horror for the episode, a genre which this series is able to do surprisingly effectively.

The one human who seems to act normal when Steven runs into him is Greg, the father figure in his life and the person in Beach City who he is most familiar with, which is probably why he seems the most normal in the projection. Though this could also be because the room is giving Steven what he wishes for, in this case a father figure to look up to. We have seen him so far in the series in multiple different ways, either as a lazy old man, a supportive father, a coward. This isn’t to say that he is an inconsistency character, rather that this is how he is seen through Steven’s viewpoint at different moments. This lack of consistency, other than the fact that he is a nice man, from Greg has caused Steven to try and imagine a version of him who is more of a figure to look up to, which he is given here offering introspective advice to Steven that the real Greg perhaps wouldn’t be intelligent enough to provide. Indeed, Steven soon enough figures out that the whole thing is a projection and escapes from it, being relieved to be reunited with the Gems, the three of them go golfing to bring the story full circle. Greg’s golf trousers incidentally, also fit Garnet, symbolising Steven’s desire for such a father figure, and how Garnet seems to fulfil that role when Greg is away.

This episode served as yet another demonstration of the frequent foreshadowing of further details which I have spoken of before. Once again the fact that this episode only provided a miniscule amount of detail in introducing a new aspect of the world relating to Rose does cause it to feel like a teaser more than world building. Still, the episode as a whole did provide a dark look into Steven’s psyche, analysing the disconnect that Steven feels in his life from the Gems and his own father, but done so in a subtle way. And it also provides an effective horror episode for the series.

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1.20: Coach Steven

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“What Magical place of Mysteries is this?” asks Steven at the beginning of the episode.

Hey we haven’t expanded on that whole fusion idea since it was introduced in that one episode. Well this episode does just that by introducing this time the fusion between Amethyst and Garnet, Sugilite. And expanding upon the concept is what it does by demonstrating to us why the Gems don’t do it all the time if it apparently makes them stronger. Pearl seems wary about the consequences of their fusion, which is our first clue as to how destructive this fusion is. We also see here the process of fusion itself, which we didn’t see in Giant Woman as Steven was inside the giant bird. And the dance that we see unfortunately also helped to create the popular fan theory that fusion is a metaphor for sex, what with the gyrating hips of the two Gems, Pearl covering Steven’s eyes as he looks on ambitiously at what she might describe as a “shameful display”, and the filthy background music that plays during the dance. Of course, while the two may share similarities, both representing an intimate connection between two individuals which is apparently extremely pleasurable, the two are not completely analogous as many fans seem to think just to say that we’re watching sex on a children’s TV show.

The design and actions of Sugilite herself stand as an extreme contrast to Opal, whose design was pale and gentle, representing a peaceful character. Sugilite is, for one thing, bigger than her, much bigger. Her design once again is a combination of features found in the two Gems, the two shades of purple creating a much darker purple, their large lips combining to create a monstrous mouth, Amethyst’s flowing hair and body shape mixed with Garnet’s sunglasses and more controlled shape. The design by its own however looks monstrous, with sharp teeth and a dark colour scheme representing her extremity. Her voice is provided by Nicki Minaj, who manages to provide an intensity and energy to the character, combining Garnet’s willingness to do her work with Amethyst’s fun-loving nature. What Steven takes from this is the strength which she displays, providing him with a determination to become similarly strong, which is the actual plot of the episode that I haven’t gotten to yet. So Steven becomes a coach to a gym which he gets Lars, Sadie, and Greg to become members of, but Pearl is disheartened by the fact that he seems to be looking up to Sugilite, partly because of the fact that as we saw before she doesn’t seem to trust Sugilite, but mainly because she sees the lesson of strength that Steven is taking to be a poor one. He only seems to see strength in terms of the ability to lift heavy objects, physical strength. But Pearl believes more in a balance between physical strength and mental strength.

Hence, we get the song “Strong in the Real Way”, which starts with Pearl displaying that Magno has quite the lovely singing voice over the vibrant piano based soundtrack that builds into the lead in for Steven’s part on the song, which is placed against an electric guitar backing track. A major theme in the episode is of contrasting viewpoints on what qualifies as strength. In the song, “Strong in the Real Way” means to Pearl that Steven fails to understand  what true strength is (that balance which is more difficult to maintain due to the mental half), Steven meanwhile interprets it wrongly as a call to try even harder to pursue the physical strength which he seeks of himself, and the Gym members. The balance is one which Sugilite is unable to obtain as she is an unstable fusion guided primarily by arrogance stemming from her physical strength, but the contrasting personalities of the Gems inside her create an instability making it  impossible for her to become mentally strong. This is ultimately how she ends up getting defeated in the end. The episode concludes with a humorous use of the star wipe motif on multiple character’s different reactions to seeing the giant Sugilite nearly crushing them.

This episode provides a strong expansion on the concept of fusion by looking at the destructive aspects of it, and featuring a fusion character who gets more screen time than Opal did. Perhaps more impressive is the way in which this episode handles it’s theme of strength in a way which doesn’t make it completely obvious to the viewer through exposition, instead allowing the actions to speak for it. Overall, this is a strong episode, quite appropriate for an episode about strength, displaying an expansion of the series’ mythos and some decent moments of character-based humour in the Gym sections.

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1.21: Joking Victim

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Yeah, this is the photo I’m going with for this episode. It’s famous enough in the fandom to represent. And I couldn’t really find many decent photos from this episode.

I maybe haven’t emphasised how I’m not particularly a fan of Lars. At this point in the series, his most recent appearances certainly weren’t that bad at least. But here his presence serves to remind us why I and many fans consider this character so unlikeable. But I’m getting ahead of myself right now, that aspect of the episode comes a lot later. I will say right now though that what I like and dislike about this episode can be easily summed up in two words, Sadie and Lars. Bet you cant guess which is which.

So the premise of this episode is that Lars, apparently feeling unwell, is unable to go to work. Steven, being the kind soul that he is, can’t bear to watch Sadie do all the work on her own, and volunteers to work at the Big Donut. Of course anyone except the characters can tell from the beginning that Lars is faking his injury, and it is especially cringe-worthy to see him exacerbate his feigned pain to avoid picking up soap, or when Sadie points out that she cleaned up the last five “Stevens”, apparently Steven causes messes at this place that many times. So any way, it turns out employment at this shop is easier than in most places, as Steven is required only to watch a video tape, a device which both he and Sadie are only vaguely familiar with, this being the current decade and all. The tape features a funky, but apparently extremely long song by Mister Smiley describing the rules of the shop. I remembered this song, but rewatching the episode made he remember how funny Steven taking this very seriously is.

Anyway, while we have interacted with Lars quite a few ties throughout the series so far, this episode gives us our first real look into the life of Sadie. She is an amazingly humble person who is able to tolerate Lars, only making his attitude come across as more ungrateful. We learn of a story where she apparently  played a videogame with him, from which the two of them formed a special bond. It is also implied here that the two of them may have had se with each other one night. Certainly that is the implication of the scene, but it is left more to the interpretation of the viewer whether or not that was the case or if they really did just play videogames as she says, and her awkward reaction to Steven’s questioning is simply because she associates that moments with a similar level of intimacy. What is certain is that whatever happened, she does certainly have feelings for Lars which extend beyond simple friendship, so it is natural she would feel disheartened when she learns the “shocking” truth that he is faking his injury to hang out with the cool kids. It’s never brought up that Steven helped introduce him to these people, but let’s not try to blame anyone else for this, this is all Lars.

So in the end, the two decide to get revenge on him by putting the spice that Steven had earlier on a donut. Most cartoons would probably end the episode there, but this isn’t most cartoons. And so we see the aftermath in which Lars runs through the city in screaming pain from the spice, and the two of them realize that their prank went a bit too far. Considering my obvious preference for Sadie’s character, you may think that I would be inclined to side with her in this situation, but her and Lars are brought on equal footing by the end of the episode when you realise that she may have a feeling of entitlement based on that one night they spent together as one could argue that a whole night of playing video games doesn’t make you entitled to that person, or even if they had sex that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be together, at least in Lars’ eyes. This doesn’t change the fact that Lars still lied to get out of work and has a needlessly bitter attitude to her, but the wounds do seem to be patched by episode’s end. Oh and Amethyst is there to deliver the classic “Well, I guess my work here is done/But you didn’t do anything”.

That final line emphasises how much this episode takes us into the more domestic side of the series, featuring  only one Gem character, and relatively no supernatural elements. This allows an episode which takes a look at the relationships between two of the side characters, conveying that the writers of the series seem to have a perk for introspective teenage relationship dramas, even if one of those characters is an unlikable shit bag, which des take quite a bit of enjoyment out of it. But while I was expecting to rate this episode lower, it’s look and implications into the life of Sadie, it’s analysis worthy use of moral dynamics, and of course the Big Donut song did help it to rise in my opinion. Oh and Steven produces some slick raps while serving coffee to Sadie so there’s that too.

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1.22: Steven and the Stevens

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I only just realised that this episode is a remake of the pilot episode. It carries the same premise, Steven obtaining a magical device that can allow him to travel back in time, which he does to try and correct his mistakes and create a perfect timeline. So I shall compare this episode with the original version. The first major difference, and one which demonstrates how the series has developed since the beginning, is that whereas the device was given to Steven as a present from the Gems from one of their missions which he didn’t go on back then, here he now regularly goes on missions with the Gems and finds the device among other miscellaneous objects in an ancient room. Whereas the Gems in the pilot episode were lacking in individual personalities, we now know the character well enough at this point in the series to know that it would make sense for Amethyst instead of Steven to be the one who ends up flooding the room and forcing them all to return to Beach City.

The major difference between this and the pilot however is how the time travel device works. In the pilot, it seemed to do something of a brain switch with Steven’s previous self. Here however, the device appears to take him to his past, with the past version of himself still there for him to interact with. And it is here where the similarities between this and the pilot end. The episode instead follows Steven in his efforts to at first fix Greg’s inability to attend the Beach-a-palooza festival in which they are meant to perform, and then getting his past selves together to form a band to perform there instead, which could already create so many problems that I don’t think I could even list right now. This episode follows the oddly common trope of doppelgangers of the main character, the most obvious reference point being Gravity Falls’ Double Dipper. These episodes normally follow the format that the doppelgangers end up waging a war against the original, which is exactly what happens in the episode, no doubt creating over a million paradoxes in the instant, so that isn’t where the subversion comes from in this episode, which it probably should because the only reason that the other Stevens seem to rebel against the original is because they disagree with his musical direction.

Before that happens, at least we get a decent song out of this episode. As Steven describes it a tribute to the early days of Rock and Roll” featuring a decent surf rock vibe. Although I do get the impression that it was recorded before “Strong in the Real Way” due to the fact that Steven’s voice normally grows lighter as the series progresses, but in this song his voice is noticeably deeper than usual. Of course this has nothing on the Musical masterpiece that the other  Stevens create later, “Steven is a big, fat, meanie zucchini”, truly a work of modern poetry. Anyway, the subversion to the trope comes in the resolution to the conflict, in which after what looks like almost a hundred Stevens have been created, the original Steven realises that he has made an immense mistake, goes back to the original timeline to prevent himself from starting this in the first place. After this, all the other Stevens are erased, leaving only the original Steven, which is unequivocally dark when you apply some thought to it’s implications. Mainly the fact that, as the song points out, Steven watched himself die.

The final scene of the episode, in which the  Gems serve as his band, and he sings a revised version of the song from earlier, is one of my favourite moments in the series. Partly because of it’s happiness, and the renewed lyrics emphasising Steven’s love for his family as opposed to having to rely on himself all the time. But also because of how it still reminds the audience of the dark resolution to the story, a resolution so good that I originally thought I was going to give this episode a full rating based simply on that, but the fact that we had to rely on a contrived conflict created by an incredibly stupid decision by the main character in order to reach that conclusion take down some of the quality of the episode. It is still an interesting episode however, an example of the journey of unexpectedness that I have encountered upon revisiting these early episodes, speaking of which….

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1.23: Monster Buddies

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Skipping ahead a bit, some of you may be aware of the sequel to this episode Monster Reunion. When I watched that episode, I must admit I was caught a bit off guard by the premise, because I had actually forgotten about this episode, it had been so long since this episode. I did vaguely start to remember an episode in which Steven befriended a monster as the episode went on, but this was still an episode that had largely slipped from my memory, which normally wouldn’t say good things about it, throughout this retrospective I have certainly found myself becoming a bit more cynical towards episodes that I used to think were five-star worthy after all. So I was caught off guard when I rewatched the episode and found that it was really good, as in really good. I also forgot that it is the episode which features the “No! Me Torta!!” line.

One thing which particularly makes this episode stand out is that it is the first one to give us a truly in-depth look into the monsters of the series, who have previously only been portrayed as nothing more than that-monsters, simple plot devices for the Gems to fight with no real depth or mythos to them. Of course, with the rest of the series having such an in-depth mythos, it should have been apparent that there was more to the monsters than we initially thought. That is exemplified in this episode when Steven, while the Gems are away, accidentally pops one of the bubbles containing the monster gems. Incidentally, observant viewers will note that the monsters have a similar physiology to the Gems. The monster which comes out, initially trying to attack Steven, displays less violent tendencies when Steven seems to show it kindness, represented by the potato chips he gives it throughout the episode. When he presents this finding towards the Gems they initially protest, apparently wishing not to know more and just keep the beings at bay. That is except for Garnet who seems more willing to go along with Steven experimenting with his new discovery.

The domestication process is slow but seems to be effective, with Steven even suggesting that the creature’s acid spit can help them in their missions. While it seems to go well at first, it does seem that he creature isn’t completely under control. When it sees Garnet’s gauntlets it begins to go frantic, beginning a climax which is particularly effective because the bond that Steven has built with the creature has been engaging due to the threat engaged from the Gem’s efforts to stop it, which is why this bond which follows a similar development to that seen in Steven’s Lion is more effective. Inevitably, the creature dies trying to save Steven, or is put into hibernation to regenerate their form. It is here that we are told the reason Garnet was willing to accept his kindness to the creature was because his mother tried to do similar things but could never quite succeed. This adds a new layer of character development to the episode in how his bond with the creature also represents his determination to try and become his mother’s successor. His hope is not lost when it turns out he is able to form a bubble around the Gem and send it back to the chamber, along with a bag of chips to show his bond with it, and perhaps as a reminder to revisit it later on.

This episode manages to develop the series in so many ways, developing a strong emotional connection  between Steven and the new character. The willingness of the Gems, particularly Pearl, to simply get rid of the creature also displays that the Gems may have a darker side to their missions, which is built upon further a few episodes later. As I said before, I had actually forgotten this episode until it’s sequel turned up much later, and rewatching with the knowledge of what it eventually leads to does seem to improve the episode’s quality in some way, as it becomes more enjoyable to notice the foreshadowing details hidden in the episode, and to see how much the monster concept would be expanded upon from this starting point.

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1.24: An Indirect Kiss

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Now will you look at that title? And then look at the fact that the bedrock of this episode revolves around Steven and Connie sharing a picnic atop the hill. And then don’t notice that because before I talk about the implied ship that the series writers have between the two characters, the real meat of the episode is in finding out what leads up to that title and it’s meaning within the episode. To start out with, we see Steven and Connie sharing a picnic together but Steven’s face is morose, indicating to Connie and the audience that something has happened to upset him, something relating to the fence on the hill. So Steven tells the story of what happened wherein we learn that Amethyst accidentally fell off the top of the hill. Surviving the fall but landing on some sharp rocks, damaging her Gem in the process. This incident inspired the creation of the fence, but that isn’t the reason that Steven is sad.

So having previously learned what happens when a Gem’s body is damaged in Steven the Sword Fighter, here we learn what happens when their Gem is damaged, which is far more worrying to Garnet and Pearl as it means the threat of genuine death looms over Amethyst now, as conveyed through the deformities which rapidly develop in her body such as a wonky eye and then her speech going backwards. While this aspect is occasionally played for laughs throughout the episode, the audience is still kept in a sense of dread due to the real possibility that she can potentially die through the implication that this may be the cause for Steven’s depression. To try and prevent this from happening, the Gems try to see if Steven has inherited his mother’s ability to heal others with her tears, but Steven evidently can’t quite force himself to cry. As such, they opt for the next best thing and go to an ancient chamber formerly belonging to Rose.

It is here that we see the characters provide a strong ensemble for the episode, in which subtle moments of character expansion are given to us. This is perhaps most evident in Pearl, who we haven’t really seen acknowledge Rose so far in the series due to the latter being so rarely mentioned until this episode. This episode establishes through her nostalgia for the garden and her horror at the realisation that it has gone to ruin, and her internalized anger when the ever-so stoic Garnet punches a rock through a bush of thorns in order to move their progress, that Pearl put Rose on a pedestal, holding a greater respect for her than the other two. And it is here where we see the first implication in the series, that this respect she held for Rose may have extended to romantic feelings, which is expanded upon later on in the series. Steven meanwhile continues to pursue the ability to cry, ultimately to no avail. He believes that seeing the images of his deceased mother may be able to swell him with enough emotion to make him cry, but this does nothing as he doesn’t hold the same connection to someone he never met that the others do. He realises this as Amethyst becomes increasingly unstable while he continuously forces himself to cry, admitting that all he wants is the opportunity to have met his mother. The episode observes Steven’s desire to fulfil the legacy which his mother let behind, which is the entire motivation for his character throughout the series, something which helps this episode to stand out so much.

Ultimately, he is able to cry due to the tangible possibility that Amethyst could die, and his tear doesn’t do anything. The fountain in the chamber does however weep instead, clearing the garden of the infesting thorns, and healing Amethyst’s wound. When this happens, Steven at first thinks that his tears awoke the fountain, but he is then informed by Pearl that she and Garnet activated the fountain while they were away, and that he had no real part in the process. He translates this to her saying that he doesn’t have any real powers and that the Gems want nothing more to do with him. He actually says that to Connie, emphasising exactly how important it is to Steven that he lives up to the expectations set out by his late mother. This ultimately brings us to Connie’s role in the episode.

So why is the majority of the episode told in flashback, as it doesn’t seem that it needed to  be. Well, the fact that it is a flashback being told to Connie, the audience surrogate of the series, helps to convey a connection between the episode and the audience, helping to build upon the central theme of the episode being Steven’s desire to fulfil other’s set out ideals for him. But for another thing, we quickly learn that her role in the episode was more than to simply expand this aspect of the character, but also to develop it. Earlier on in the episode the two made a deal in which Steven got to wear Connie’s glasses in exchange for her to drink from his juice box. And at the episode’s end she experiences a headache which she soon learns is the result of her eyes healing and her being able to see without her glasses. It turns out that the exchange of Steven’s saliva from the straw of the juice box was able to heal her, revealing that Steven does in fact have healing powers, in his spit. This brings the episode to a close full circle as this is what the “kiss” of the title refers to (the fact that it is referred to as that does still strike a hint of shipping from the crew’s part). Steven is suddenly overcome with joy to learn that he does in fact have the powers of his mother (although slight nit-pick, did we forget that he’s already discovered powers beforehand, in fact in the previous episode he was able to contain a gem inside a bubble all by himself). Connie meanwhile is realistically wrought with concern, worried about how her parents will react to the fact that she no longer needs glasses. To overcome this, the final scene of the episode has her removing the rose-tinted lenses from the frames and continues to wear the frames.

This last moment is the scene where Connie truly becomes a part of Steven’s world, disposing of her rose-tinted lenses, which is an everyday expression and a symbol of Rose the character, representing this as she no longer sees Steven as her sweet, kind friend, but as a real person who has altered her life in a significant way. The gravity of this scene alone earns this episode a deserved place as an all-time classic in the series canon. But in addition to the well-handled character development, the episode beforehand presented strong humour, an expansion of the series’ mythos, and a very real threat to Steven’s wellbeing. This added to the most in-depth examination of Steven’s character we’ve seen so far, and development for Connie in a subtle piece of visual and symbolic storytelling, helps this episode to represent the oncoming development of the series into more than just an entertaining science-fiction cartoon.

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The Ultimate Steven Universe Retrospective-Part 3

1.13: So Many Birthdays

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“Gems can’t die from aging. But Steven’s half human!”

After an episode which introduced such a large aspect to the series’ mythos, one would expect the next episode to take a more light approach to it’s subject matter. It does not, as So Many Birthdays is the first episode of the series which truly explores the dark concepts of life and mortality that would go on to define it later on. The first episode to truly explore a dangerous, emotional situation. We did briefly see something like this during Connie’s breakdown in Bubble Buddies, but it really goes in depth here. The episode begins with yet another revelation about the Gem’s physiology, specifically that they don’t age. This means that they are actually extremely old. And what Steven takes from this, being as innocent as he is, is that they’ve never celebrated a birthday.

The first half of the episode thus consists of him trying to throw each of them a birthday party. This sequence is heavily comedy-driven, each Gem allowing their individual personalities to get the better of them in regards to their understanding of this new idea. Amethyst’s lack of coordination causing her to hit a piñata far away, Pearl’s carefulness causing her to spoil a pie-based gag, Garnet’s general lack of fucks. While I would criticise the fact that this segment of the episode feels so disconnected from the second half, I can’t deny that this provides some of the strongest comedy at this point in the series. Of course, the fact that Steven ultimately realises that his efforts to introduce these things to the Gems are futile due to their lack of understanding, soon causes him to question the legitimacy of birthdays. In short, he begins to question them for himself, beginning to feel old.

Taking that to a literal place, Steven ends up rapidly ageing. Somehow he doesn’t seem to notice it happening despite putting on a shirt that would be too big for him  normally, and his changing voice. The sequence displays a direct parallel between his emotional state and the stages of aging. This is all just build to when he reunites with the Gems, when they and the audience realize that this new power of his potentially puts him at risk of dying from old age, that quote at the top coming from Pearl in a cryptic delivery. For the first time in the series, our main character is put in a real sense of danger, not from any monsters attacking, but from his own powers. This episode touches on theme which so few series intended for children would even dare, mortality. We know from this episode that the Gems are practically immortal, while Steven being half-human lacks the ability to age. What could that mean for when he eventually ages to a point where the other Gems will outlive him? Could the scene of them all gathered around him be foreshadowing? Probably not seeing as this is a Cartoon Network series, but the ideas it present are still fascinating in their analysis of this topic nonetheless.

This episode took the series into a dark place very quickly, the scene of Pearl in clown makeup tearing up, in addition to being an extremely well-animated facial piece, feels so raw that it extends past the silliness of the situation in which the Gem’s begrudgingly try to throw a party for Steven but are too distraught by their sadness to fully commit, Garnet even resorting to violence in a bid of desperation. This moment makes one thing inherently clear for the viewers, that this series is not going to go light on the stakes. This Cartoon Network cartoon is unafraid to confront intense drama through fantasy establishment. And if that wasn’t apparent before, it’s definitely apparent now.

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1.14: Lars and the Cool Kids

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Oh goody, an episode focusing on Lars. Is not what I am going to say because honestly this episode is really good just like the last one. It is funny that I’ve previously described Lars as an unlikeable character (at the time of writing this, the most recent episode to feature him didn’t exactly paint him in a good light) but I would never go so far as to say that I hate him, even in his worst moments, because he is ultimately a very human character. He is selfish, egotistical because he is human. And though that impression is certainly still displayed by this episode, the way that the episode uses him as an asset to the narrative is still admirable. We open on the Gems baring witness to a assortment of moss which apparently used to grow so that Rose would take them to the top of a hill, but now that she’s gone, the Gems simply put police tape around it to prevent humans from going near. This couldn’t possibly be build up for later on in the episode could it?

Lars comes into the picture when Steven encounters him in town, hoping to become involved with a group of popular teenagers. One particular strength this episode has it how it subverts the common cartoon trope of the main character trying to be cool. It would probably be out of character for the highly empathetic Steven, so Lars fulfils that role allowing for an outsider perspective of the trope. The second way in which it subverts it is with the eponymous “cool kids”. Often, teenagers in cartoons are portrayed as highly exaggerated caricatures of real teenagers, written by an obviously out-of-touch writer, here though the three cool kids are written rather realistically. Not in the sense that they’re down-played so much to the point of dullness, they are imbued with enough personality to prevent them from feeling boring, while also managing to remain realistic.

While I’m talking about this subject, the individual cool kids themselves are Jenny, daughter of the Pizza family, Buck, the sunglasses wearing son of the mayor, and Sour Cream, who from his pale appearance and food-based name seems to be related to Onion. A later episode fleshes out their personalities more, but in this episode it is admirable how they are written. They never make any obnoxious pop culture references, and their clothing conveys the idea that they are “cool” while not constraining them to any specific time period, giving them something of a timeless quality. Their downplayed nature gives us the Third trope subversion of the episode, the fact that they are nice. Cool kids in cartoons are most often portrayed as being sore, arrogant antagonists for out young and innocent hero to recognise the immorality of. These kids aren’t that, as they never once point and laugh at either Steven or Lars, even when the latter tries so desperately to fit in with them.

This brings us to the final subversion, the episode’s portrayal of Cool. By giving Steven and Lars screen time next to each other, we see the contrast between them in their interactions with the cool kids. Lars tries to fit in with them by copying them, pretending to like the things they like and mimicking their speech, but this only causes them to judge him. Steven meanwhile wins their approval by simply acting like himself, which is what they do all the while, and where they get their coolness from. It’s a great message for young audiences delivered with incredible subtlety through visual language. Hey, wasn’t there a plot in here? Anyway, so long story short they go to pit where that moss was earlier and get trapped in it. In a scene which pushes the already strong episode into being a great one, Lars confronts Steven, laying the blame on him, only for Steven to refute him after he brings up his mother, antagonising him in a way that feels like personal liberation. I don’t normally talk about voice actors, but Zach Callison’s performance here is especially admirable. You will also notice that he seems to take inspiration from Jeremy Shada in Adventure Time, in how his voice seems to be changing, his character being the age for that and all.

The episodes sees a lush conclusion as they move to the top of the hill so that the moss is exposed to the sunlight. After briefly being trapped themselves, the moss blooms into a shower of roses floating in the air. The scene is extremely beautiful, with the picturesque view of Beach City providing the audience a satisfying sense of conclusion to an episode with well-written subversion to cartoon tropes and character development, as well as some additional information on Rose which give the series a sense of pathos.

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1.15: Onion Trade

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Ok, after a string of extremely strong episodes we did have to calm it down a little bit. So this episode focuses on the mysterious young background character Onion. A young child who seemingly never talks and as we learn through this episode, has layers to him just like a real onion. It turns out he’s a thief, as we first see him in the episode escaping from a vending machine. In a later scene, a see him crash a car so that it burns. I know it is intended as a joke, and that no one actually gets hurt in that scene, but one does have to question the logic behind the scene, even by cartoon standards, that a small town wouldn’t notice a young child driving a car. That overdramatic scene is perhaps my biggest gripe about the episode.

On to the actual plot, which is the strongest aspect of the episode, Steven tries to find a missing toy, part of a series called GUYS (Guys Under Your Supervision). The reason he is so adamant about it is because he bought it at a fair with Greg. One of the few times he was able to spend alone with his father, as we’ve established he doesn’t like to get involved in the Gem’s affairs. For Steven, this seems to mean that he cherishes anything which drives a connection between him and his father. The GUYS are symbolic of this in how Ranger GUY, the one Steven is searching for, represents what he wishes his father were like, a bold and inspiring figure. The one he keeps getting from the vending machine is Dave GUY, an ordinary individual who represents what Greg is actually like. Steven’s disconnection has caused him to picture Greg as being more like Ranger GUY. It is a surprisingly deep look into parenthood and the need for role models in a child’s life.

This theme is further exemplified by Onion, who’s father is a fisherman, meaning that he spends a lot of time out at sea, so his son often waits at the dock to see him. Although this aspect is more problematic due to the aforementioned delinquency which seems to stem from Onion’s own attachment. As for the conflict, in which Steven makes the wise decision to give Onion a wand which multiplies objects, and Onion proceeds to wreak havoc on the town with it, yeah the leap in logic Steven seems to go through in this episode is rather troubling. We also learn that Onion stole Steven’s Ranger GUY in order to cope with his isolation. The resolution to the episode does feel terribly rushed, Steven comes to an understanding with Onion and lets him keep Ranger GUY immediately after he just caused mayhem across town by multiplying millions of GUYS.

I wouldn’t call this a bad episode per se, but it is certainly amongst the weakest episodes of the series for me. It does have a strong message about role models and fatherhood figures looked at through the perception of two characters, but the message feels clunked and contrived by Onion’s uncaring behaviour throughout the episode.

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1.16: Steven the Sword Fighter

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Patience is the theme of this episode, the lesson which Steven has to learn. Though how he learns it isn’t quite the way we first expect. At first, given the title we think that this episode would be about Pearl teaching Steven how to sword fight after Pearl criticizes a film he watches with the three of them for being unrealistic. It would seem at first that this episode is going on a very direct path with just that, giving the audience their first real episode focused on Pearl. A character who so far is the most interesting of the Three Gems as she is the one who is most dedicated to their mythology and ways of life. Additionally, she seems to have her own philosophy when it comes to fighting, being an adamant follower of ancient teachings, hence her dismissive attitude towards Steven’s calls to copy the technique from his film. While Garnet is the most significant Gem in the grander narrative of the series, and Amethyst the most human and relatable, Pearl is the most interesting individual character out of the three because of these characteristics.

So once again, we see Pearl teaching Steven how to fight, using a hologram projection of herself, but he keeps badgering her to teach the techniques from his film, much to her dismay. We the audience know that Steven is probably going to learn a lesson about that, but not in the way that happens next. And then, we get the scene that everyone remembers from this episode, where Steven’s argument with her distracts her while she is fighting, resulting in her getting stabbed by Holo-Pearl, with a real sword. This shocking scene is elevated by the animation of Pearl’s figure, with her hair becoming more ruffled than usual, and wrinkles enveloping around her face, giving the pierce a sense of physicality. The character’s reactions also make the scene, with the other Gems being noticeably shocked, and Steven looking especially shocked, potentially to the point of trauma due to the fact that he caused this to happen, and the fact that probably hasn’t seen anyone die before, let alone  one of his mother figures. And then Pearl’s body disappears.

Of course the series doesn’t kill her off like that, and we then get an explanation of Gem biology wherein we discover that their bodies are projections which can be physically damaged, but are allowed to regenerate. Hence, the one part of Pearl left afterwards is the pearl from her forehead. This informs the audience of the limitations of their abilities, giving them a greater sense of mortality, even if their “death” is only temporary. The tension comes more from the fact that it causes them to remain absent, as the regenerative process takes time (in this episode’s case, over two weeks) leaving the others to have to cope without them. After that though, most of the episode focuses instead on Steven trying to fill in the absence of Pearl with Holo-Pearl. The hologram, as a mere machine designed to serve a purpose, lacks the real Pearl’s restraint, causing her to damage Steven’s TV and Pearl’s favourite tree (originally seen in Gem Glow). Truth be told, I do feel the comedic tone of these segments does contradict the intensity of the scene from earlier, and interferes with the narrative of the episode, in addition to the silly sub-plot about Garnet leaving to rescue Amethyst, who has turned into a floating balloon, which is just a way to get them out of the way for when Holo-Pearl begins attacking Steven. Holo-Pearl does become a genuinely threatening presence in the climax of the episode.

As I said  before, the episode focuses on Steven’s need to learn patience. He does so through learning to cope with waiting for a loved one to return. The way that the episode sets itself up to go in one direction only to shatter the viewer’s expectation with an incredible twist barely even half-way through the episode is commendable. Though the episode does seem to struggle after said twist, it does make up for it  with an intense climax. Also, even though Steven defeats Holo-Pearl with a broom stick, I don’t think that qualifies as sword fighting, so the title is kind of inaccurate.

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1.17: Lion 2: The Movie

steven universe su uploads suedit lion 2 the movieLion 2: The Movie is really only a sequel to the first Lion episode in the sense that it expands upon Steven’s huggable pet and it’s supernatural abilities, which I will go into detail on later. The episode in question instead focuses more on the relationship between Steven and Connie. Connie plans to go to the movies, to watch Dogcopter 3, a film about a Dog who is also a helicopter. We see early on though that something which fascinates her even more is Amethyst’s ability to shape-shift, setting up her interpersonal conflict for later on. So Steven suggests that to get there,  they ride on Lion, another element of Steven’s life Connie seems terribly impressed by. Early on in the episode, it is already evident without dialogue to convey it that Connie perceives Steven’s life as something greater than her own. The fact that it was established in her first appearance that holds an incredible degree of self doubt causes her to feel insignificant as a result of this.

Back to Lion, we discover that he isn’t just an ordinary creature that Steven encountered. Lion turns out to have magical abilities, first the ability to run on top of water, something which even Steven hasn’t known until this point. Then it turns out he can create a portal with his roar, which takes them to a secret room filled with weapons. It is worth noting that observant viewers may at this point connect Lion’s pink fur with Steven’s mother Rose. This and these abilities, and the secret room tinted with Rose insignias indicate to us that it has some sort of connection to her. Although while the foreshadowing in this episode is strong in how it also gives the audience subtle hints, it does have a problem many episodes at this point in the series suffer from, wherein the foreshadowing takes up too much of the episode. Although the imagery we are presented with in the weapon’s room is still intriguing, and it presents us with an imminent sense of danger for out two young characters, both of whom have highly limited knowledge of what surrounds them, increasing the tension of the scene when they come under attack.

The physical conflict of this second act I do feel goes on a bit too long, but it is worth it when we finally reach the third act, when they escape to the movie theatre. It is here that we get to the more interesting character conflict of the story, starting with an innocent display of charity when Steven gives Connie a cold can of soda as a means of attending to their bruises. This action sets up the conversation in a way to importantly show that despite getting into an argument, it is not a confrontational one. At no point in the episode are the two of them disagreeing in a way which results in a spar between them. This disagreement comes from their shared distrust in themselves. Steven, who throughout the series has consistently made terrible mistakes which have put others in danger (even if he is slowly getting better) can only see that side of himself even though Connie sees him as a wondrous person who leads an exciting life of unknown mystery and potential. The moment where he admits to these mistakes is part of the wonderful trend in modern cartoons, where writers are embracing the age-old art of character development, something the medium has for too long ignored in favour of maintaining a consistent episodic format in which characters must always remain the same. I approve of this change.

This brings us back to the point I made earlier on how Connie similarly views herself as an uninteresting girl with nothing but Tennis practice in their life, and who uses Dogcopter as a means of escaping from the mundane aspects of life, though she doesn’t understand how Steven, who leads a life of magic and destiny, can take an interest in such a thing. It is at this point in the conversation where the audience comes to a realisation of the significance of Dogcopter. Although Steven’s dialogue regarding the character would appear to convey a similarity to him (“and he’s going to save the world!” reflecting Connie’s previous description of his wonder), it is evident that Dogcopter more resembles Connie in how it appears to be an ordinary dog on the surface, but inside contains something greater. In the dog’s case it is his helicopter, in Connie’s it is her tennis skills which prove instrumental in defeating the machine at the end. Though one could interpret Dogcopter as a symbol of both children in how they both hide something greater beneath them, as Steven still doesn’t know the full extent of his own powers at this point in the series. Lion’s role in the episode is additionally representative of this after he introduces his ability to summon a sword from his forehead, which is the object Connie uses against the machine. The scene in question is an example of the series’ visual similarities with Revolutionary Girl Utena along with the frequent use of Roses. And if this episode is any indication, the influence of that Anime goes beyond just simple visual homages to thematic relevance.

Both of these characters can only see the worst in themselves, as many of us do. But through that light argument between the two of them, they are able to find meaning in their friendship in how they reconcile through uncovering the unknown between themselves, as well as their relation to a work of fiction (a philosophical idea which inspired me to create this blog). This episode establishes so much regarding the friendship between these two characters that I am impressed greatly by the fact that they fitted so much into what appears on the surface to be a mere simple 20-second conversation between two afraid children, but underneath conveys so much more, again like Dogcopter. In addition to this, the episode is also a great world building tool of the series, expanding on all prominent characters in the episode, and taking us to a new location which holds heavy implications for the future of the series. Although I was originally going to take off a star for the over-long period of the second act, while writing this I came to the decision to give the episode a full rating because what it does well, it does almost insanely well.

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1.18: Beach Party

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This may seem like a random place to start, but one of the most frequent clichés of Superhero stories is that the Hero’s efforts to protect people form some great threat can have an adverse effect of causing damage to the community, most frequently in property damage which in real life, would cause the owners of said property to sue them. This is one of the most widely lampooned clichés in superhero fiction, that lampooning of a cliché even becoming something of a cliché in it’s own right, being pointed out by such titles as The Incredibles, Futurama, One Punch Man, and has even been called out in the proper franchises of Marvel and DC themselves. One aspect which I feel goes more unnoticed by viewers however is the Hero’s reaction to the damage they cause, which is typically one of apathy, both in parodies and regular superhero stories.

I bring this up because the premise of this episode is that while fighting but not defeating another monster, the Gems accidentally cause damage to the local pizza shop, which the owner (whose last name is apparently Pizza) is understandably upset. But the Crystal Gems, who one could consider to be superheroes, show no concern for the damage they have done. Where one could perhaps consider this a subversion is the fact that they have a reason to not care about it. They are aliens. Their only real connection to this place that they have is through Steven, who conversely shows genuine worry regarding the damage they have done, in the way that a human superhero perhaps would to contrast with their apathy. And the Gems maintain this attitude while Steven throws a beach party for the Pizzas in an effort to make amends, which they only seem to participate in because of him. Even though they do work with the family in the defeat of the monster, they evidently still haven’t learnt anything in the end, not even remembering what they were meant to apologize for.

I haven’t even really talked about the presence of the Pizzas themselves, who take up a larger part in the episode. Because they are  largely the focus of Steven’s patching efforts, the episode devotes a good portion of it’s runtime to them, meaning they have to make a good impression on the audience to carry the episode. I can say that the family as a collective are amongst the more interesting Beach City residents we have come across so far in the series. We have Kofi, the agitated father of the family who spends most of his screen time enraged at the Gems for their damage, but does show more when he competes in the volleyball tournament. His twin daughters, Jenny who we already know from her appearance in Lars and the Cool Kids, and Kiki. They don’t get as much dialogue as the other two, but from what we can see here, it would seem Kiki is the more responsible of the two, while Jenny is more spunky and adventurous. Finally there is Nanefua, the grandmother who displays a carefree attitude towards all that transpires around her. This attitude makes her the most enjoyable presence of the episode, as her youthful demeanour and consistent optimism regarding all situations serves as a reflection of how audiences may wish to perceive their own relatives. And the fact that she proves instrumental in defeating the creature at the end helps too.

This episode overall is a fun experience. While not quite the deepest or most emotional episode, it is enjoyable nonetheless. The Gem’s apathy combined with the Pizza family’s humanity helps to develop the comedy, as well as keep in tone with the series’ theme of reverse escapism. Garnet, being the most apathetic of the Gems, delivers some of the best laughs of the episode, while Nanefua’s cool Grandma identity serves as a strong balancing point to Kofi’s stress. Most of the episode does stick to a very basic formula though, preventing it from ever becoming anything more than very good. Incidentally, the Gem’s beach clothes look totally fabulous.

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