A Reflection on Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water

I recently saw on my MAL page that I had completed close to 100 Anime. TV Anime to be specific, or what MAL considers to be TV, as I have in fact watched many more titles up to that point. Anyway, I naturally decided to have a specific Anime be my 100th. I did so after I completed ‘Mob Psycho 100’ for the novelty of having an Anime with an OP titled 99 as my 99th Anime; I think maybe about two people were in on the joke. Anyway, after that I then watched the Anime I selected for my 100th; and you saw the title so you probably know what it was by now.

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Yes, ‘Nadia: Secret of Blue Water’, the 1990 series that Hideaki Anno directed before he made ‘Evangelion’. Based on a concept for an Adaptation of Jules Verne’s ’20’000 Leagues under the Sea’ in the Mid 1970s by Hayao Miyazaki. Based on how old it is, meaning not many people have seen it, it may seem an odd pick for someone’s 100th. In fact, I conducted a Poll on Twitter in which out of nine voters, none of them had apparently even started let alone seen the series. But of course, my reasons for choosing to watch the series were largely based on ‘Evangelion’ being my favourite Anime and one which does hold a special place for me. And so I thought this predecessor to it seemed like the next logical step. Not to mention, the fact that it had the involvement of the man who many consider the greatest Anime director of all time at it’s conception, and the fact that from what I could tell on the outset it looked like an Adventure series with some philosophical elements and a lighthearted tone, the most easily digestible form of Anime for me personally, and yeah I’d say this seemed like something to pique my interest. And now that I have completed the series, allow me to share my thoughts.

Before we start, just one last point. I pondered whether or not I should bring up comparisons to ‘Evangelion’ or to try and judge the series based on it’s own merit. I ultimately decided on the former partly because that series is much more popular thus serving as an easy way to explain the series to those who haven’t seen it. And, as I found out through my viewing, has a lot more in common than I anticipated with this series. It is interesting to me that ‘Gunbuster’ is what is normally cited as the precursor to ‘Evangelion’ because while they may both be Mecha series with strong existential themes, ‘Nadia’, as we will see shares several plot points and character types with that series, as well as serving as a showcase for the directorial style that Anno would develop for the series. Finally, this will contain some Minor Spoilers for the series, but nothing particularly major, again for people who haven’t seen it. Now, let us begin.

The opening scene of ‘Nadia’ introduces us into the backdrop of late 19th Century Europe, a time of great technical innovation but also militaristic imperialism. This opening narration played over a series of picturesque still paintings portraying chaotic ship crashes serve to illustrate the time period, to foreshadow the mythos behind the series, and serves to introduce the viewer to just one of the themes of the series in the human spirit humanity’s strengths and weaknesses. After that, we get an Opening sequence which, let’s be real here, sounds and looks like a more energetic version of ‘A Cruel Angels Thesis’ with it’s fast editing and happy pop song played against seemingly symbolic visuals across a night sky to prep us for an exciting Adventure series.

That’s certainly what the first episode delivers, as we are taken to Paris during the World Fair through the eyes of Jean, a young boy with a passionate fascination with Science and Inventions going to meet his likeminded Uncle before he becomes infatuated with and meets a mysterious brown skinned girl with a pet Lion cub and a blue jewel on her chest. This is of course Nadia, the title character, and that blue jewel is the McGuffin of the series, the eponymous Blue Water, being sought after by a band of comical villains consisting of Grandis, a feisty but temperamental red head, Sanson, an arrogant thin man, and Hanson, a technical minded large man.

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A Clear example of some of the lovely scenery the episode provides. There are many other shots and gifs I could use, but they would fill out the article too much. There really is that much to enjoy from the first episode.

This concept of two children being pursued by villains, wandering off into the larger world, and becoming involved in a larger conspiracy is of course a remnant of Miyazaki’s involvement in the series, as elements of Miyazaki’s own ‘Castle in the Sky’ (one of his underrated masterpieces)  permeate throughout the series. That and it’s lively nature aren’t the only commonality the series attains to Miyazaki as one of the things that stands out about the series from the outset is the impressive Animation quality of the first episode. Although certainly dated by modern standards (that was always inevitably going to happen) when compared to the animation quality of most other series at that time, it’s astonishing to look at how fluid the movements are; whether they be the perpetual motion of the rotational toys Jean holds while exploring the fair, the breakings of the planes in one scene as a display of how limited the technology of the period setting is, or the chase scene which takes place during the climax of the episode. This isn’t even to mention that many of the backgrounds in this episode look gorgeous, really making use of the Parisian setting of the episode.

This liveliness and excitement drawn from the Animation is also contrasted with several quieter moments of contemplation which allows the viewer time to breathe in between so that it doesn’t feel overpowering. These technical qualities combined with a likeable enough cast of characters dwelled from Nadia’s mysterious nature, Jean’s passion and determination, and the Grandis gang’s comical dynamic which informs the viewer of how they are clearly not going to be the main antagonists of the series, and each character’s not yet fully detailed motivation allowing for future episodes to explore them in more depth all helps this first episode to be a resounding success in introducing us to what looks set to be an energetic, world building steampunk adventure series delivered by one of the best studios in the industry.

Of course, as with most first episodes, which generally employ heavy amounts of Sakuga to lure the viewer in, the other episodes take a slight downtoll in the Animation department so as not to overspend the budget, which does result in the following episodes by contrast taking a slower pace. Still that isn’t a criticism at all, as the first four episodes do an effective job of exploring our established characters backgrounds in more detail while also taking them away from their current environments to move the plot forward at a gentle pace and introduce us to more characters.

Although I praised the first episode mostly for it’s technical prowess and excitement, it is actually in the following episodes where what makes ‘Nadia’ special and where the comparisons with ‘Evangelion’ begin. Jean and Nadia’s journey to escape the Grandis gang eventually leads them into the sea, where they discover a quest by the Navy to locate a supposed Sea Monster which they then learn is actually an advanced submarine. This is also where the element of the story being a loose adaptation of ’20’000 Leagues’ comes into play, as that submarine turns out to be the Nautilus, piloted by the stoic and serious Captain Nemo, we’ll talk more about him later, and his crew. Episode 4, which is mostly spent introducing us to the interior of the Nautilus through Anno’s signature silent and suspecting directorial style giving the viewer the distinct impression that something is watching them, the uncomfortable feeling that ‘Eva’ also had. It’s been a while since I watched ‘Gunbuster’ so my memory of it might be a bit fuzzy, but I do remember that series being a lot more direct than ‘Evangelion’ in terms of it’s visual storytelling. Although it did have moments of introspection, it didn’t pertain the same ominous feeling, which leads me to believe that it was during the making of ‘Nadia’ that Anno first developed that element of his direction.

This combined with the largely medical and decidedly non-steampunk imagery of the Nautilus’ interior which Jean himself notes seems alien to him is the first proper indication that this series is something more than what it initially appears, but episode 5 is the true confirmation of this when the two end up on an island which they soon learn is ruled by some sort of militaristic organisation white masks and KKK hoods. Yeah!

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And then, they come across the dead bodies of a man, a woman, and a dog, with their child, Marie being the sole survivor. This is the point where ‘Nadia’ becomes a different series. People often talk about ‘Evangelion’  and ‘Madoka Magica’ in similar terms in how they seemingly both start out as conventionally upbeat for their genre, but there always did seem to be something about about ‘Eva’. Technically, ‘Madoka’ also held strong moments of foreshadowing, but it did still seem tonally conventional at the start. The revelation of ‘Nadia’s sudden painting-over of darkness was made much more effective by the fact that it started off as  an energetic and lighthearted tribute to Classic Adventure Novels quickly becomes a study of the human condition.
I’ve been somewhat minimal in describing the main characters so far because I felt that this moment and how it is contextualised within their role as Adventure characters and as children were important, and that their role in the story only came to play at this point.

Jean Rocque Raltique, as mentioned before, is a 14 year old French boy with a love of science and invention, even able to invent miraculous inventions such as a flying machine and a water heater. This puts him at the centre of one of the themes of the series, technological advancement, the ultimate achievement of humanity which around the time of the series’ setting is regarded  as a monumental point for technology. The character’s humanity is encapsulated by his immense passion for such technologies and scientific breakthroughs, as well as his pubescent liking towards the opposite sex, and his backstory. He lives with his authoritative aunt in a house near the coast due to the disappearance of his father who was in the Navy, causing him to grow up in a largely sheltered existence free from harm, much like the protagonists of many popular Adventure novels of the late 19th century. This all gives him a believable purpose to go along the adventure, having a backstory which is just mundane enough to cause him to seek adventure in search of Nadia’s homeland, and his father. I won’t go into where that plot point leads for spoilers.

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Standing as the opposite to him is the title character Nadia. In contrast to Jean who holds an intense passion for the world around him which causes him to go on her journey, Nadia is largely cold and resilient in relation to the world around her. This stems from a deep rooted distrust towards adults and modern society in general as a result of her upbringing in the Circus, which the darker elements of are only explored in flashback during the midpoint of the series. Along with her cold and often temperamental nature, she also despises killing in all forms, no matter what justifications it has, whether they be killing animals to eat their meat (resulting in her having an extreme vegetarianism) or killing other humans in self defence, she has an often extremist view against the act of killing in itself, as well as a love of nature which she perceives as being more pure than the destruction caused to nature by human civilisation. This ideology often puts her into conflict with Jean and especially Captain Nemo who at one point kills an enemy in order to protect her, but she refuses to be thankful due to her view that all killing is wrong.

Whereas Jean exemplifies the more idealistic perceptions of childhood, Nadia exemplifies the stubbornness that can come about at this age, but both of them are distraught when their experience on the island shows to them that the world is dangerous, in Jean’s case it becomes shocking because he grew up sheltered from the darker realities of the world, in Nadia’s case because she had hoped to escape from the dangers and depressing parts of the world, in Marie’s case it is shocking because like Jean she grew up with little experience to this side of the world but with the added blow that it more greatly affects her because she has been newly orphaned, and in the audience’s case, it is shocking because both of these characters being so young and realistically so makes their confrontation with such a harsh situation all the more brutal.

This is where the main antagonist of the series named Gargoyle comes in, and his motivation is introduced with Biblical references to the tale of Sodom and Gamora. As an inhabitant of the dead Atlantean Empire, he wishes to destroy humanity using Nadia’s Blue Water jewel which holds the power to do so and reshape the earth in his image to restore the entire planet to it’s former glory. I won’t go into much detail on the story of the Atlantean Empire itself because, again spoilers, but this does bring to the forefront just one of many themes that are introduced in the series.
In fact, the story has many themes in case you couldn’t tell. In addition to the value of humanity, we also get a story of contrasts, whether they be the contrast between idealism and cynicism, the contrast between vegetarianism and carnivorism, the contrast between technology and nature, the contrast of childhood and adulthood, many of which are brought to the forefront by Nadia’s aforementioned conflict in ideologies with Captain Nemo.
This side of the story is where it being an extremely loose adaptation of Jules Verne’s ’20’000 Leagues Under the Sea’ becomes thematically relevant. Those of you familiar with the original character from the novel, or for the more cultured of you, his interpretation in Alan Moore’s ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ will know that the character in his original form was an Indian prince who carried a deep seated hatred of British Imperialism and the direction of the world which caused him to escape into the oceans to build a Utopian life for the crew of the Nautilus. In this version, the backstory is the part which is radically altered, but for a lot of the Anime, the character isn’t all that dissimilar from his original version. The image of a stern and serious leader is projected by him onto his crewmates, but we also see glimpses of his regret over his past which he consolidates by performing on his Organ. His mysteriousness and utilitarian ideology make him one of the most fascinating characters in the series.
Speaking of, although the narrative presents many interesting themes to the table, Anno’s greatest strength as a creator has always been his focus on character. I’ve already gone over some of them, but the large cast of characters really helps to make the world that the series presents feel alive. This is best displayed when they are all united on board the Nautilus in episodes 9-22, the highpoint of the series for me. These episodes take place on board the Nautilus and the places it visits, with all of the main characters fully united. The formula adopted by the series at this point is a combination of Slice of Life elements to help bring to life the setting through the discussions of the characters and their activities aboard and outside the Nautilus ranging from comedic mishaps to serious discussions between them, and of occasional run-ins with the Neo-Atlanteans which raise the stakes of the series whenever they pop up.

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It is in the unnerving direction and generally quiet, a capella sound design which coordinates attention squarely onto the dialogues of the characters as they info dump on the technologies and organic life that make up the world of the series, much like Verne’s novel, where the seeds of ‘Evangelion’ are planted. An underlying factor helped by both series’ character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, the designer for many of Gainax’s best titles as well as those of Mamoru Hosoda’s filmography who has a slightly inconsistent if consistently excellent track record of drawing designs which look decidedly distinct from Anime in varying ways.

As the styles tend to shift according to the series, it is difficult for me to properly explain why Sadamoto’s character designs work when there’s technically no real absolute design choice for him. Comparing the fairly cartoonish designs of ‘Nadia’ for example with the more realistic and refined designs for ‘Evangelion’ seems to display only minor similarities in superficial details such as the shapes of their eyes and noses, made more difficult when compared to his Hosoda works which have less edginess in their eyes. That said, I think one thing which remains consistent in Sadamoto’s work, although not a grand observation, is the way in which his designs expertly match the designs for each of his characters. Take Grandis for example, a feisty and often assertive woman who succumbs to falling in love too easily  is given fiery red hair (hey, does that sound familiar?) and is traditionally dressed at first in masculine clothing to reflect her tough attitude despite often leaving her accomplices to do her dirty work for her in which her natural feminine beauty is also allowed to be displayed, which is further displayed when she adopts more feminine, frilled clothing later on to try and attract the attention of Nemo.
Speaking of, Nemo is given a ruggedly handsome but also gruff and elderly appearance to emphasise the fact that he is tough, but also conceals a more fragile side to himself underneath that exterior. Perhaps the most fitting display of how character design plays into the narrative in this chapter of the story is in the design of Electra, who I haven’t really mentioned up until now due to her being one in a fairly large cast. She is the first mate of the Nautilus. Nemo’s right hand girl who often displays a more attentive attitude towards the two children than the captain himself, but like Grandis also harbours an obvious secret affection for the captain which is the source of frequent rivalry between the two. Her character is actually given perhaps the most reserved appearance in the series, often wearing heavy period clothing and a fashionable hair style, as well as often sporting glasses to both inform us of the fact that she is intelligent, and also that she has some hidden agenda.

From a personal enjoyment factor, this section of the series spoke very much to me because of how it synthesized the pre-established themes of nature vs. technology in a way which despite relying on exposition as a praxis, never felt overbearing. The frequent shots of the outside of the Nautilus from which Jean is often of awe toward how humans could create something so great, only to have that contrasted with the larger natural outside, underwater environments displayed in majesty towards the smaller submarine. These were often complemented  by a well researched exploration of marine life to convey the incredible scope of nature and how earthly existence surrounds the characters.

We are handed some lovely bits of Sci-Fi worldbuilding such as the concept of known extinct animals still being alive in the deep sea. As someone who grew up watching the documentaries of Impossible Pictures including the ‘Walking with’ series and ‘Ocean Odyssey’, the fight against the Dunkleosteus felt oddly nostalgic to me due to the fact that I was familiar to this creature which I can imagine being somewhat obscure to most viewers. This and the Antarctica episode in which we are taken along the journey to see displays such as the origin of life served the purpose of releasing an inner child in me in my former love of prehistoric topics. This in the same series that had previously shocked me to my adult core due to it’s dark realisation of the futility of childhood.
Rather than consider these elements to be contradictory, I actually feel they both work well to convey the greater messages of the series of how children are flung into an extremely adult world.

But this section of the series still never loses track of the darker themes such as the concept of when it is ok to take another person’s life such as that aforementioned scene where Nemo rescues Nadia, an episode in which members of the crew are trapped inside a damaged section of the submarine and the characters debate whether or not they should risk their own lives trying to rescue them or leave them to die so  they can advance their mission, or the conflict that arises in the excellent episode 22, in which the previous hints towards the past and what we learn of Atlantis come to the forefront as the Nautilus faces it’s biggest challenge yet from within. I won’t spoil this episode but I will say that it does reveal some of the darkest parts of Nemo’s ideology and how it comes into conflict with Electra, and delivers the strongest episode of the whole series.

The first 22 episodes of ‘Nadia’ were truly an exciting experience for me, laying out the groundwork which would serve to lead us toward ‘Evangelion’ while standing on it’s own as a fascinating journey into life and the human condition through the lens of a slow but methodical Adventure series. That isn’t to say it was perfect; there was the occasional comedic bit amongst the Slice of Life trivialities which did feel ultimately interruptive although I understand their purpose to balance the tone. Towards the end the fractures in the series’ animation which would lead to the infamous bankruptcy of the studio began to show. I also feel like the concept of Race wasn’t expanded upon. We get little tidbits of the main character’s race brought up in the naturally prejudiced environment that 19th century Europe would have provided, right from her and Jean’s first meeting where she assumes he’s only interested in her because of her skin colour. Adding to this is the prejudiced language of Jean’s Aunt in relation to her, and his commentary on the diversity of the crew of the Nautilus and how it strengthens their seemingly utopian existence. These are all things which could help to expand on the series’ commentary of humanity’s flaws since racism is one of humanity’s ultimate failing. Unfortunately, outside of these little moments, the theme is never expanded upon, leaving these moments to feel more odd than meaningful, and also leaving how accepting many of the white characters are towards Nadia and even her developing romance with Jean feeling somewhat confusing, considering that the series did acknowledge the existence of racism.

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Although evidently part of where the resources for animation began to lost track, this scene from episode 22 is the best in the entire series, as the rough illustration of this sequence makes the dark subject matter of it all the more haunting. Almost reminiscent of children’s drawing from the massacre in Guatemala which depicted the soldiers who came to take their lives.

But leaving aside my personal political agenda to ruin Anime with race debates, the first 22 episodes of ‘Nadia’ were truly an enrapturing experience; combining harrowing Adventure narratives with philosophical questions which never felt overbearing, imbued with some dedications to scientific realism and world-building in regards to it’s mythos, it’s clearly a series which sought to appeal to a wide audience which is how I can feel comfortable endorsing it, and after that excellent episode I was ready to declare it one of my favourite Anime. That was, until the next episode.
Oh yes, now we have to get into where the series made it’s dramatic decline in quality which brought Gainax to near-bankruptcy. The infamous Island Arc, in which after being separated from the Nautilus, Nadia, Jean, Marie and King end up on a Desert Island where they spend the next few episodes. This portion of the series is generally reviled by those who’ve seen the series due to factors such as how the plot just sort of stops right there, with the villains and the main quest being all but forgotten. This as well as a significant drop in Animation quality leading to some glaring oversights and wasting of resources on seemingly unnecessary scenes which involved using clips from previous episodes. But perhaps the most disliked aspect of this Arc is the formula of it. The series from this point until episode 35 becomes a largely episodic series of skits which sees Nadia’s temperamental attitude reach it’s nadir, resulting in her character becoming unlikeable in several moments, taking her vegetarianism to a new extreme and having her get into a series of repetitive arguments with Jean which greatly irritates the viewer.
This portion of the series is so reviled that many will tell you to just skip it completely, maybe only watching the episode where they reunite with the Grandis Gang in the middle and then skipping to episode 35. This was certainly a warning I saw going into the series, and ultimately decided to ignore to both get the complete ‘Nadia’ experience and see what about these episodes was apparently so bad that even people who liked the last two episodes of ‘Evangelion’ couldn’t muster a defence for them. And I will say that these episodes aren’t entirely without redeeming qualities, specifically there are moments during this arc which serve to advance the romance between Nadia and Jean. These are where I would actually dispel the notion that they are completely “unnecessary”, as in between the end to the first half of the series and the climactic final few episodes, I can actually see the necessity for something similar at least to this Arc to help the audience breathe and delay the time for that big climax.

When it focuses exclusively on that aspect is where this portion of the series is at it’s strongest, creating an occasionally psychological and often sincere portrayal of the pubescent development of love between these two adolescents. Once again, highlighting Anno’s tendency for emphasis on human inflections to add dimension to the scenes, emphasising both their shyness and their agitation. These scenes are unfortunately cut too short to make way for some comic set-piece which always feels more jarring than welcome as it comes after that genuinely great series that I described before. Some may deride the apparent overuse of stories using light-hearted “fun” build-ups made to establish a scene for a more serious and in some cases darker scenarios, but the reason this specific plot formula is so heavily used throughout the medium of fiction is because it is a formula which has been tested and proven to work, as it generally succeeds in hooking in the intended audience so that they can be affected by the story in question. When the series so readily aims itself in for pantomime slapstick in this segment shortly after such a serious segment of the story with which it seemingly mocks as it only becomes apparent how haphazard the experience truly is, it only has the effect of causing the viewer to gradually lose interest and feel like their only obligation to still watch the series while it does nothing to interpolate any sense of enjoyment in them is to see it through to the end, or possibly because it’s an important segment of Anime history (the latter in my case). This isn’t to say that the series from that point onward should have been constant bleakness (nor would I tell a series what I think it Should do), but the comedy in this section of the series was overwrought to find any balance with the preceding seriousness, causing the two tones to becomes at conflicting odds with one another.

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Getting high on ‘Shrooms. An accurate depiction of how this portion of the series felt sometimes. More importantly; why was this scene here?!

 

There is also technically a new character who is introduced in this Arc who some would argue serves no purpose in the grand scheme of things as he doesn’t really do much afterwards, but he is actually given a thematic purpose later on, so I won’t count that as a criticism. But this Arc was a disorienting experience in what had previously been a genuinely great series, where I found myself letting out a sigh of relief whenever any sort of plot development such as their reunion with the Grandis Gang and their inevitable leaving of the island. But after they finally left that Island, things did not improve as we then get treated to the Africa Arc, where any defence I can muster for the Island Arc is instantly vanquished as soon as Nadia is turned into a pining love-struck groupie for a character whose name I can’t be bothered to remember, a tribal member who is apparently able to make her forget about Jean in just two seconds. Added to that the continuing weak Animation, a plot about capturing a diamond which feels even more like filler than all the episodes of filler we experienced previously, and at the very least this Arc was short so I don’t have to dwell on it any further.

Episode 34, bridging the Africa Arc and the climax was undoubtedly the worst offender of this though. It’s technically a recap episode. Or perhaps more accurately a clip show episode which half consists of original material. That original material is too lacing is mostly just a plot about Jean writing a song for Nadia, oh yeah, this is  also a Musical episode. One in which each member of the main cast gets their own song. The songs sound poorly improvised and irritating, mostly serving as character factfiles which don’t inform us of anything we didn’t already know about each of the characters. And the ultimate conclusion of that plot doesn’t lead to anything other than one of the worst Anime episodes I’ve ever watched, and a strenuous experiment in series’ self indulging.

But finally, in episode 35 just towards the end of the series, it finally gets good again! The whole tone quite quickly reverts back to the maturity of the earlier episodes, as Nadia is forced to confront herself and her past. And then, after that bit of ‘Eva’ like dread, the series instead turns into ‘Gurren Lagann’. Dispensing much of its angst to focus on fast paced plot progression by way of a complete makeover in In-Universe technologies to a more pristine and less steampunk aesthetic, and an epic climax which opts to dispense with silly logic and explanation. To give you a hint of how the climax goes, consider the fact that it’s a Gainax Sci-Fi series and, yeah that’s it!

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This makeover is even accompanied, similar to ‘Gurren Lagann’, with a slight change in the visuals of the OP despite the song and most of the other visuals remaining the same. I don’t know how common this was in series from that era, but it does feel like something original and revolutionary when it is presented, using the OP as a complementary on the progression of the plot is something familiar to Anime, usually by means of completely replacing the OP while keeping them the same throughout their runtime, but this is an OP which only makes a minor change.

Also feeling revolutionary is the way that the series concludes, as not only does the plot come back and rushing quickly, but it almost seems to change the tone of the whole series to a more hopeful and upbeat one. This is done in a way which doesn’t conflict with the rest of the series, and while I question how appropriate it is as an ending, it does leave me feeling satisfied, especially after that aforementioned timewaster of two Arcs.

While I’m not sure if the rushed nature of these final episodes is the most satisfying ending that could come about for the series, it does neatly wrap it up. We also get an epilogue revealing where each of the characters went afterwards, which does unfortunately remind me that although themes were overseen throughout the series, we didn’t actually manage to get a lot of proper character development, particularly from Nadia who doesn’t really seem to change much throughout the whole series. Also, two characters have a particularly disturbing conclusion involving romanticised paedophilia (seriously WTF!!!!) but other than that it is a satisfying ending overall.

Conclusion; ‘Nadia: Secret of Blue Water’ is a great time capsule from the days of early Gainax, and an integral piece of Anime history as a project from one of the greatest Anime directors of all time which served as the precursor to his Magnum Opus. But ignoring its place in Anime history, the series still holds up well in some regards as a Steampunk Adventure series with speculative elements which allow the series to expand itself thematically beyond the usual fare of its genre at the time. And while it certainly isn’t perfect, what with the filler that comes later on and the apparent lack of character development by the end, the series is still worth watching in my book.

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Incidentally, this Article took me much longer to write than I initially thought it would, which doesn’t really surprise me at this point, but I would also like to use the time it’s taken since I watched ‘Nadia’ to add some extra thoughts. More specifically, if you yourself find the more flawed elements of ‘Nadia’ to be a bit grating but still like some of its core concepts I would also like to recommend ‘Made in Abyss’. A series which tackles some of the same themes as ‘Nadia’ (innocent children thrown into a cruel and violent world of adulthood, the fragility of life etc.) and does so in a more competent and cohesive way which doesn’t end up getting bogged down by the sillier elements present in ‘Nadia’. Definitely check it out if you enjoy suffering.

Well, that’s all from me now.

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Recovery of an MMO Junkie: How this silly little comedy made me reflect on my life

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At the time I begin writing this article, I’ve watched the first episode of ‘Recovery of an MMO Junkie’. Just the first episode mind you, since it was already really late by the time I finished it. And I really enjoyed it. A lot in fact. I really enjoyed the ultra-expressive character designs, the colour art-style which Crunchyroll was kind enough to provide a non-subscriber like me with glorious 1080p and a full panoramic screen on which to view it. This made the art-style, which I didn’t actually think looked that appealing when I saw the series through livetweets that people on my Twitter timeline made, feel vibrant and colourful.

And naturally, I also really enjoyed the story which spanned through a few months without feeling forced or rushed, it all felt extremely natural with the intersperse between the real life and MMO segments. It achieved this by having an incredibly quick pace which didn’t fill us in on all the details of the world of the game like so many Isekai Anime would do because world-building isn’t really the focus of the series. This in turn allowed for a clear focus on the characters (their MMO versions at least) who in addition to being positively adorable with their interactions, also conveyed an extreme likability in their need to communicate with one another. The commentary from the main character Moriko enhanced this by displaying the underlying thought pattern behind certain dialogue choices.

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Sharing this image partly because it works along with the text as a visual demonstration of both the MMO setting and the cuteness of the characters. Mostly for the latter.

 

The fact that the characters aren’t very heavily written or imbued with complex personalities actually worked in the episode’s favour because it allowed the audience enough information still to piece them together and subconsciously decipher them on their own. All the while allowing the narrative to flow seamlessly. The term “relatable” is frequently applied to this series due to Moriko’s struggles with social interaction and general antipathy toward the outside world, but I think such a description actually undersells the intensive realism conveyed through the directorial focus on Moriko’s behaviour patterns and how much it gets under your skin.

And it’s here where I stop providing a conventional glowing review of the experience, and confess how this directorial focus I just mentioned, haunted me last night. I didn’t initially. Not while I was watching the episode because I was mostly focused on how much fun I was having watching it. In fact, the episode itself  wasn’t the last thing I looked on my computer for before going to bed. That was a discussion about Bondrewd from ‘Made in Abyss’ comparing him to both Griffith from ‘Berserk’ and Shou Tucker from ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ (two of the most heavily despised characters in all of Anime) which mostly got me thinking back to end of the Golden Age Arc, the intensive violence of it all and the tragedy of Griffith’s story, the torture he went through which led him to be psychologically broken enough to do what he did. Yeah, very nice things to think about when going to bed.

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Sometimes you just stop for a moment and have to reflect on what you’ve been going through.

 

But going back to ‘MMO Junkie’, this combined with, of all things, ‘Berserk’ and it’s portrayal of trauma made me feel a bit restless. And of course, since I can never get to sleep the instant I get into bed as much as I would like, this left me alone with my thoughts as I always am when I go into bed. This usually makes my last browsing topic the thing which I end up consuming my mind. Now, this was hardly the most unsteady night I’ve ever had. I’ve had nights where I’ve thought about people who I completely despise, and actively kicked the air in my bed as a result of the violent reaction in me they stir up. I was actually extremely calm this night. Melancholic even. But as I thought of the brutal finger tortures in ‘Berserk’ and then thought back to ‘MMO Junkie’, I was allowed to both expand my appreciation for its more quiet excellence, and realise what caused the episode to resonate with me.

Moriko herself is perhaps the best part of the episode, which may appear obvious because of how utterly cute she is, but her sweaty character design with her messy hair and visible wrinkles played second fiddle only to her actions outside of the MMO experience. The way that she nervously wandered the world around her, whether it be the outside or her own room, the way that she felt terrified of other people, or even trivial details such as the visceral sound effect her stomach produces when she is hungry. This visual anxiety is something which I naturally connected to, but as I thought about it deeper in bed, I also realised it reflected how terrified I truly am.

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Those of you who know me through Twitter may know that I can often be a bit overtly sexual, but I’m also very anxious in regards to sexuality. And so going through a virtual experience similar to sex is something that I can recall from how many times I’ve wandered onto such platforms like an idiot not knowing what they’re doing. Hence: this scene.

 

It made me think about how uncomfortable I am with even the people closest to me. How much I feel scared about being open with them, and how in some cases it would actually be better not to dispel everything about myself to them (would you tell your family about your specific sexual preferences?). And yet it made me feel like a caged beast somehow. More than those aforementioned moments of violent rage I mentioned earlier. Despite the fact I had showered relatively recently and thus didn’t have a particularly sweaty or dirty body at that time, and still don’t as I write this, I felt really dirty somehow. Like my worst thoughts were consuming my entire form.

The odd thing is that the day that came before this (remembrance day 2017) wasn’t even a bad day as my days go. I got to go out with my family and enjoy a new meal for me which involved a chicken burger with sweet sauce on it as opposed to the usual ketchup or mayo, and I surprisingly enjoyed it more than I thought I would, taking me out of my usual culinary comfort zone to enjoy trying something new which is always a plus. And I got to be temporarily absolved of the College work I was doing for the weekend as I didn’t have any assignments to submit anymore. So obviously it wasn’t the day that made me this reflective. No, it was the whole situation in my life right now, and the fact that I can’t seem to ever simply shake off my depressive thoughts, and the episode I watched which triggered this mind-set for the night in me.

I won’t go into too much detail about specific names in regards to my family or anything, but Cancer is something which runs deep in my family. It’s something which in the last few years has claimed the lives of a few people in my family, which makes me worry about the very real possibility that I will get cancer at some point in the future. If not cancer, death in general is always something which terrified me, no matter how many decades away it is, and like most people I just try to not think about it and enjoy life while it lasts. But in my bed, with nothing left to distract me, my thoughts become my quilt. My fears take over me.

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Hang in there Moriko. Life may seem hard all the time, and may sometimes seem like its intentionally making things difficult for you. But your moments of pleasure make it worth it.

 

This eventually culminated in me imagining a scenario in which I meet up with my dearest friend (who I haven’t gotten to see much this year due to her employment restrictions and being away) and have what starts out as a normal conversation in which we discuss our lives at the moment turn into an emotional breakdown for me when I go into extensive detail about how things are in the family right now. And I began crying, but without tears coming out of my eyes because they can never seem to come out. During this, she would come to me to give me a warm hug and I would tell her how wonderful she is in my irritating nasal voice that I would try my best to mask in my mind so as not to remind me of how much I hate the sound of my own voice.

The thing is, I don’t know if I could do that in real life.. Even though I know she would be extremely understanding and caring, I don’t think I can bring myself to make her feel sad. So when those options are depleted, my remaining course of action is to take it online. If this all came across as extremely depressing, you can at least be assured that my overall mood is fine as I type this. Like I said, this was hardly the most depressing night I’ve ever had. All that stuff about crying was mostly related as being the potential course of action in the scenario I imagined for myself.

But I did know that with the mind-set the episode locked me in, I had to write this Article first thing in the morning. Mostly because I felt it would help me out a lot. Both as a practice for writing, and as a further development in 2017, a year in which, if nothing else, I have been able to come to terms with myself at a greater rate, in often ugly and mostly positive ways. Often through media, particularly my discovery of Manga this year. Whether it be Inio Asano’s ‘Oyasumi Punpun’ which made me fundamentally question my dependent and occasionally overbearing attitude to others and helped me to realise how much I think unpleasant thoughts which could potentially harm others if I ever placed them into action (good  thing then I never have). Or Kaobi Nagata’s ‘Lesbian Experience with Loneliness’ which forced me to confront my own loneliness and how much I desire and need to receive love from people but feel too afraid to ask for it because the world I live in doesn’t just give kindness to me easily. Or my experiences since joining Anitwitter, which initially just started out as a way to become more involved in Anime discussion, but ultimately blossomed into some genuine friendship with people I’ve never met, but who through a myriad of circumstances I’ve been able to relay some of my honest feelings and experiences to.

And most recently, the first episode of ‘Recovery of an MMO Junkie’ which held a subtle portrayal of anxiety which wasn’t apparent at first due to the cloth of delightful humour blanketing it, but used its subtle displays of physical stress to help me reflect on it and realise that the seriousness of the situation, the feelings of isolation kept as subtext for that first episode (I’ll see how the rest of the series portrays it later on, but this article focuses primarily on just that first episode to keep on point about how it specifically affected me). How it made me feel sweaty, dirty, afraid, anxious, pitted me into a pit of self loathing resonated by my wandering thoughts on how much I dislike the sound of my own voice.

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How I looked while writing this Article, but no doubt less pretty.

 

Overall, it pulled me into Moriko’s experiences and how I felt everything that she internally felt without the episode even feeling the need to relay those feelings in detail through excessive exposition and allow me to figure them out for myself. It’s all impressive considering I still wouldn’t quite say it’s the best debut of the season (taking 2nd place to ‘Girls Last Tour). Feelings are a complicated thing to talk about, and sometimes what is left unsaid tells us more than the most harsh of confessions. But I’m glad that the episode made me feel this way and that I was able to get this article out there.
Thanks for Reading.

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.