So, you’re a busy adult or college student looking for an anime recommendation, huh? Well, I’ve got just the thing for you. It’s a shonen anime that has 500 episodes and three movies so far, and… oh. Too big a commitment, eh? Well, there’s also this great one-season anime that’s only 13 episodes, and… huh? You can’t manage that one either? Well… um… there’s this great stand alone feature film movie that’s… what?! Are you kidding me? How busy is your life?!
… Well, how about 26 minutes? Can you spare me 26 measly minutes? … Good. You had me worried there for a second. That means you actually can commit to the short feature Typhoon Noruda, and I promise you it’s a half-hour you won’t regret. It’s a great, beautifully-animated little story that punches well above its weight in terms of run time.
Typhoon Noruda opens with a radio announcement of an incoming typhoon and a fist-fight at a rural, coastal high school between two students there, Azuma and Saijo. These boys have apparently been best friends until recently, but Azuma’s decision to quit the baseball team that was their shared social activity for years threatens to rupture their bond of friendship. With the arrival of the typhoon, the high school students are forced to shelter in place.
While off by himself, Azuma happens to look out a window and notice a girl standing on top of an electrical tower during the worst of the storm. When lightning strikes and she falls, he rushes out into the storm on his own to rescue her. When she comes to, Azuma discovers that he may have just met the potential avatar of a vague, impending apocalypse. He wants to help the strange girl named Noruda… but he may not get by without a little help from a friend, himself.
Before talking about anything else, I want to address the short length of this film and a bone to pick I have with negative press that generated from some amateur reviewers on Amazon and other sites. Typhoon Noruda caught a lot of flack from some quarters because of how short it was, arguing that it should have been longer. However, these same reviews completely ignore the fact that it’s an incredible representation of the “short feature” subgenre of film. Noruda manages to not only tell a good story in 30 minutes, but it also depicts it beautifully, represents its characters well, contains a complete and self-contained plot, and even “means” a few things. That’s something many far-longer media projects fail to achieve, and it deserves kudos for this economy of storytelling. This mini-movie is the animated equivalent of a short story, not a novel, and it needs to be viewed in that light to judge it fairly.
Getting to the film itself, its visuals are almost certainly its strongest point. This film is beautifully drawn and animated, and its cloud and water effects deserve special praise. They aren’t quite on the level of Weathering With You or Children of the Sea, but they still blow away most of what you’re likely to see in other anime. The character models are appealing and realistic, and this film contains no “fanservice” scenes worthy of the name, so it’s safe to show to kids. (There is a brief scene at the very beginning where Azuma walks in on the mystery girl while changing, but nothing about that scene felt designed to titillate, and I think the only people who would find something dirty in it are those who have less-than-pure minds to begin with.)
I don’t have much to say about the music, but it is quite beautiful and complements the story well. It’s quiet in spirit and features mostly piano and strings, and the piano in particular often has a sort of rhythm to it that makes you think of falling raindrops. I can’t say that any of it is “hummable,” but it does well as accompaniment to the film. The ending song by Galileo Galilei (“Arashi No Atode”) was fantastic and a highlight of the film for me, not only because of its great tune, but because of the song’s on-point lyrics given the story’s themes.
The animation is top-notch, and the whole production has a “Ghibli” look to it – perhaps not surprising given the director’s background as a former Ghibli animator, but there’s also a vague “something” about it that feels different. With one or two notable exceptions like Princess Mononoke, most Ghibli films have a sense of their being a built-in “children’s film” safety net, a guarantee that things won’t get “bad” beyond a certain point. This film lacks that in a good way that creates some actual suspense and uncertainty at the outcome.
In terms of the story, I want to again praise this film for its economy of storytelling. This film feels much longer than it is thanks to how much content it manages to include, and it does that through a couple of clever narrative tricks. First, the named cast of this movie is really just three characters: Azuma, Saijo, and Noruda. Many others appear, but they are ultimately just part of the background. It also parcels out just enough information for everything to make sense. The downside to this is that it does leave you wanting more, and I especially wish we had a bit more background on Noruda’s past and an ending that got to take its time with a longer wind-down. However, given the run time, these felt like necessary concessions, and they also allow viewers with a little imagination to make their own suppositions about events to flesh out the plot points the movie doesn’t explicitly spell out.
Thematically, this film can be said to be “about” three things – two of them plot-related, and one that’s more of a vibe or feeling. Plot-wise, the story of Azuma and Saijo is a parable about how important it is to have good and honest communication between friends so that one person’s motivation doesn’t get mistaken for something else entirely, and no assumptions are run away with prematurely. In a more subtle way, it’s also a good lesson on the important of persisting in things you aren’t naturally or immediately successful at – a lesson front-and-center in the film’s action climax, but also present elsewhere.
Finally, the film captures a sort of vague, dream-like quality one gets from sheltering in place during a bad storm, especially at night. In those moments, human beings are suddenly reminded that we are not creatures totally apart from nature, but something subject to the same forces that affect animals in the forest or strays in the streets. At the same time, the darkness and “unknown” qualities of the storm make you feel like anything could be happening out there, out of your sight… even fully abnormal or supernatural events. This film captures a bit of that imaginative, eerie quality in Noruda and the events surrounding her.
All told, I really have nothing but good things to say about Typhoon Noruda. It’s a great little story, compactly-told and well-animated. While I would have welcomed it being just a touch longer (even 45 minutes), I can fully appreciate it as a great example of what it is, and I hope you will do the same.
In terms of how to access and watch this movie, that’s unfortunately a little trickier than it was just a few years ago. It was licensed and released in North America by Sentai Filmworks back in 2018, and for a long time it was exclusive to their streaming app, HiDive. However, it has since been delisted from there. Surprisingly, it also received a physical release on Blu ray. This felt like a puzzling decision at the time, since I believe it’s the third-shortest stand alone physical title Sentai has ever released (behind only the 25-minute “Hot Springs” OVA of DanMachi and the laughably-short, 15-minute “Drifters of the Dead” OVA of High School of the Dead). The Typhoon Noruda Blu Ray has also since gone out of print, but the fact that it got a physical release at all means it is still out there in the world and watchable… another case-in-point for my belief that every anime ought to get some sort of physical edition, even if just in limited quantities.
Thankfully, this Blu Ray won’t cost you an arm and a leg despite being out of print, at least at present. At the time of this review, it’s still available on Amazon for less than MSRP, and can probably be found on eBay thereafter for cheap as well. The quality of the physical release is pretty solid — audio/video is excellent, and it contains a few extras in terms of interviews with the creators. Given the paltry run time, I do wish Sentai had sweetened the pot with a bonus soundtrack, but I’m also thankful this one got a physical at all. It does contain another bonus short film (much shorter than Noruda, at only about 5 minutes) from the same director called Control Bear WONDER GARDEN that’s a cute and delightfully well-animated animation nugget in its own right.
Whether you watch Typhoon Noruda as an “appetizer” before a longer feature with friends or family, or squeeze it in as a manageable commitment in a busy day, be sure to check it out somehow. It’s a great anime to experience for the first time and easy to revisit, and my bet is that its gale-force winds aren’t the only thing about it that will blow you away.
Joro’s having girl problems, and I feel bad for him, son! He’s got 99 problems, and that bench is one.
… Okay, now that I got that out of my system, let’s talk about Are You the Only One Who Loves Me?, or Oresuki for short. I’m excited to review this anime, but it so resists easy summary that it’s hard to know where to begin. Is this thing a harem comedy anime? A biting satire on the harem genre? A cock-eyed retelling of the Wife of Bath’s Tale (from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) with a distinctly anime flavor? An experiment in storytelling that veers wildly between train wreck and absolute masterpiece? Try all of the above! Before we delve into the details, though, let’s return to Joro’s tale of woe.
Oresuki introduces us to Amatsuyu Kisaragi, better known by his nickname of “Joro” (meaning “watering can”), a soft-spoken high school boy who seems to have it all. He has a best buddy in the friendly and charming school baseball star, Taiyo “Sun-Chan” Oga; a cute and bubbly childhood friend in Aoi “Himawari” Hinata (meaning “sunflower”); and a stunning senpai in the lovely and intelligent student council president, Sakura “Cosmos” Akino. Joro is thrilled when Cosmos and Himawari separately ask him out for dates one weekend, but that Saturday under a brilliant golden sunset, Cosmos sits down with Joro on an ornate white bench and confesses to him that she loves… Sun-Chan. And that she wants Joro’s help in hooking him. This obviously isn’t the outcome Joro expected or wished for, but he goes into Sunday’s date with Himawari only slightly deflated until she also sits him down on an ornate white bench and confesses to him that she loves… you guessed it… Sun-Chan.
Joro keeps his composure until he gets home, but in the privacy of his room, he explodes into a volley of curses and pissed-off outrage that shows us a completely different person—more calculating, conniving, and cynical—beneath Joro’s mild-mannered exterior. To put it mildly, he’s none too happy at discovering he’s actually the background “buddy” character of his own story rather than a bona fide rom-com protagonist.
However, with the grumbling thought that at least one of the girls had to “lose” and he might be able to date the loser, he decides to honor his promises to help Himawari and Cosmos get closer to his best friend. After an intensely frustrating day assisting them, he finds himself in the school library getting scolded by a bespectacled girl with a sharp tongue and a difficult-to-read face—Sumireko “Pansy” Sanshokuin. Suddenly, Pansy drops three bombs on him. First, she knows about his unpleasant predicament with his female classmates, because she’s been stalking him. Second, she’s aware of his “true” self, and she prefers that version of him. To deliver the coup de grace, she leads him over to an ornate white park bench that has somehow materialized in the library, much to Joro’s horror. He mentally cheers on Sun-chan for all he’s worth, but to no avail – this confession of love from a girl of questionable tastes and character is for him. He then utters the mental cry that gives the story its title: “Are you the only one who loves me?!”
Part of me wants to keep recounting the story, but it would do a disservice to you as a viewer by robbing you of quite a roller-coaster of discovery. What I found fascinating about this story is that no one in this series—not Joro, not anybody—is who or what they initially appear to be on the surface. Every major character has levels of complexity that go deep, and sometimes the noble and the appallingly selfish aspects intermix with one another. Along those lines, I also thought it notable how willing each character is to play hardball where their own happiness is concerned. This presents a completely different scenario than, say, ToraDora, where the cast almost causes a romantic tragedy by trying too hard to avoid hurting one another. Oresuki takes an opposite tack, where everyone is testing the limits of how hard they can stomp on one another without breaking something precious.
The interest created by these elements is greatly helped along by some outstanding production values that bring the story vividly to life. Oresuki was the final project of the animation studio Connect, a subsidiary of Anime Obscura favorite Silver Link that recently got absorbed back into its parent company. It was a hell of a swan song, with appealing character designs, beautiful backgrounds, some creative artistic moments, and background music that enhanced the scenes.
Speaking of music, the jazz-pop opening tune (“Papapa” by Shuka Saito) is an absolute earworm and one of my favorite anime openings of recent years. The ending (“Hanakotoba” by the voice actresses of of Pansy, Himawari, and Cosmos) may not stick in your head quite as long, but it’s a lovely, emotional tune that beautifully bookends each episode.
Another highlight of Oresuki that deserves special mention is that our boy, Joro, is one of the funniest damn protagonists to ever headline an anime. A significant portion of the cast taps on the fourth wall from time to time, but because we’re in Joro’s head the most, we see that he frequently takes a sledgehammer to it. This could become irritating if the show became too enamored with its own meta-humor, but thankfully Joro acknowledges it and moves on in a way that surprises us and makes us laugh because of its brevity—he’s far too busy (and beleaguered) to waste time feeling self-satisfied about his meta knowledge. (“Damn… it’s that bitch from episode four again!”) Moreover, Joro is such an asshole… but such a relatable asshole with surprisingly shiny silver linings… that the viewer can’t help but cheer on this bitter “background character” as he wages all-out war on common rom-com tropes.
Finally, perhaps the most pleasant surprise to be found in Oresuki is the strong mystery element that underpinned every single one of this anime’s various arcs. If this anime has a moral, it is that people are often not who they appear to be on the outside, but that teasing out and discovering this hidden person can be a fascinating and worthwhile process of discovery. The viewer tags along on that path with Joro as he sleuths around and digs through the motives (either hidden and real or public and false) responsible for the crazy messes he keeps getting dragged into. The stakes are sometimes minor, sometimes nail-bitingly high… but always, always entertaining. It adds a delightful bit of story spice to what could otherwise be a pretty silly affair.
With all of that said, any bold creative experiment carries a high risk of failure, and Oresuki is not a show without its problems. I almost quit watching it twice.
The first time I nearly gave up on the series was after the first story arc. Every single character came out of that looking so bad that I was despairing of finding anyone likeable enough to keep me coming back. All I’ll say there is that if you start feeling the same thing, watch one more episode. Beginning with the next arc, everyone redeems themselves to a surprising degree. I also felt like the series “slumped” a bit in the middle—not enough to recreate the negative feelings engendered by the first arc, but enough to hurt momentum.
Oresuki had two big flaws, though. I’m going to make some people really mad with this first one, but it’s my honest opinion: Pansy is easily one of the least interesting characters in this series, and promoting her to a lead role nearly kills it at points. The concept of Pansy sounds great on paper. Like the old witch who becomes a lovely and faithful wife only when trusted from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale, the calculating Pansy may not be the sweetheart Joro wants, but she often proves to be the one he needs. Also similar to that witch, Pansy reveals herself to be breathtakingly beautiful (and curvy!) once she drops her conservative and plain dress and hair, and she does so only after Joro willingly puts his full trust in her and his fate in her hands. That much of her character concept was really creative and cool.
Where the concept starts to break down, however, is that Connect was terrible at creating an ugly duckling character. She looks from the start like what she is: a stunning babe attempting to Clark Kent her way into anonymity and doing a bad job at it. This makes Joro’s dismay at her confession and his impatience with her throughout the series a bit hard to swallow. Furthermore, she’s too perfect. Virtually nothing is there to connect the viewer with Pansy on a human level. On top of having the body of a voluptuous goddess, nothing ever rattles her, and she displays almost inhuman levels of calm and self-possession. If she has a sense of humor at all, it’s so bone-dry as to be virtually imperceptible. In theory, her “stalker” persona could convey some moe awkwardness or at least amusing cringe, but it’s never paired with any social consequences or nervousness on her part that might make it funny or endearing.
Pansy can show deadpan irritation, she can be a happy and flirty “ara-ara” seductress, and she can evince slight physical discomfort when something makes her sad or worried. That is the absolute limit of her emotional range according to what we see on screen for most of the series. A few of the later episodes finally, mercifully humanize her somewhat by having her display other physical reactions to stress—clutching her wrist tightly behind her back, pressing her lips tightly together—but this sort of thing should have been done much earlier and more often, and even those behaviors aren’t particularly memorable or charming.
The other girls in the series are all considerably more flawed, but they are also orders-of-magnitude more interesting as people. Compared to Himawari’s cute mixture of being ditzy but really perceptive, or Cosmos’s adorable verbal awkwardness whenever she gets flustered, Pansy’s bland perfection came across as sadly… boring, at least for this viewer. Minor flaws and insecurities make us human, lovable, and interesting, and she needed more of them. It’s not a series-ruining problem, and I liked and appreciated Pansy much better after the final arc after we finally got a few glimpses behind her alternating stony-faced facades, but I firmly believe she could have been a much better main heroine by being a more imperfect one.
Oresuki’s second major flaw takes less space to explain, which is that it breaks Rule #1 of Anime Obscura’s “8 Rules For Making a Perfect Harem Anime” by including far too many romanceable options for such a short series. (Specifically, six to nine girls for 12 episodes and an OVA, depending on how you count it.) This is less of a problem than it could have been thanks to how vibrant even this anime’s minor characters are, but it still robbed time that could have been better-utilized giving us a more expansive look at the inner lives and personalities of the main cast.
Despite being one of the series’ cutest characters, Sasanqua has no plot-related reason to be there at all, and Tsubaki could have been written out of the story entirely if you just said Himawari or Cosmos was the one whose family ran a restaurant. I’m not saying these characters absolutely should have been removed, because I enjoyed them. The series didn’t have sufficient space to do them full justice, though, and that’s a bit of a shame. As with my complaints about Pansy, it wasn’t a total deal-killer, but it certainly wasn’t a strength. If Oresuki returns for a second season and it doesn’t continue to throw more characters at us at such a fast rate, this may become less of a problem moving forward.
I don’t want to close this review on a negative note, though, because I loved this series despite the minor frustrations I’ve mentioned. Thankfully, the OVA finale provides me with a great opportunity to pivot back to talking about what makes it so fun to watch. While getting there felt like a long and bumpy road for a series so short, Oresuki actually has one of the most heartwarming and satisfying endings of any anime I have ever watched, bar none. The final arc not only introduces a charming, formidable antagonist, but it raises the emotional stakes to levels not even seen in the opening story arc. The actual TV series ended on a cliffhanger in December 2019, with the finale of the story not appearing until 9 months later in September 2020.
The movie-length OVA circles back years before the series began in places in order to explore the backgrounds of our cast and to explain the friendships, rivalries, misunderstandings, and insecurities that have been driving this crew of misfits forward all along, for good and for bad. On top of that, we get to see Joro combine his loveable-best and loveable-worst traits to try to salvage a nightmare loss scenario of his own making. The OVA and the series itself close with two quiet scenes that put the spotlight on two key relationships that evolved throughout Oresuki, and in the process these scenes completely reframe the anime’s full title. Those scenes were very sweet, they were unexpected… and they were honestly beautiful. More than anything else, they were proof-positive that this quirky, experimental harem anime transcended the boundaries of satire and its own subgenre to become something truly special in its own right. The finale also brings the series to a decent stopping point that would certainly allow for a second season, but wraps things up neatly enough that it feels “complete” even if that never happens.
Oresuki isn’t the first anime to deconstruct the harem subgenre. Perhaps most notably, School Days steered its story into a train wreck of an ending on purpose just to prove it could. Oresuki aims for a result that requires a bit more finesse, though. It picks up the harem subgenre’s tropes, examines them with care, catalogs them, and struts around wearing them as a silly hat. Then, against all odds and logic, it constructs a Ferrari out of them and roars off into the sunset. I won’t pretend it’s perfect, but I strongly encourage anyone who loves a good love story… or a bad love story… or a good bad-love story… to give it a try. Oresuki is truly outstanding. It doesn’t get nearly enough respect yet, and I refuse to be the only one who loves it.
If you want to watch Oresuki, you can stream it on almost any of the major anime streaming sites. Crunchyroll, VRV, HiDive, and Funimation all carry it on their channels. Unfortunately, the series has yet to receive any sort of physical release on Blu Ray or DVD in North America… and equally unfortunately, it’s licensed by Aniplex of America. That means that if we do get any sort of physical release, it is likely to be painfully expensive unless they happen to sub-license it to Sentai Filmworks or Funimation. (Aniplex has increasingly tended to release their own titles in recent years, so I don’t think that scenario is likely.) To be honest, though, I’d even be willing to pay the “Aniplex premium” to have Oresuki as part of my physical anime collection. It was thoroughly charming, short enough to conveniently revisit, and a true creative success.
And at this point, there’s really only one thing left that needs to be said. Cosmos is best girl.
I decided I shouldn’t bury the lede when it comes to this review: over time and several repeated viewings, Dusk Maiden of Amnesia has gradually become my all-time favorite anime. That’s no small statement to make for an “old-taku” like myself who has indulged in this hobby for 20 years and counting, but it’s an honor I don’t feel ambivalent about awarding it. Through a combination of its wonderful characters and engaging plot, its gorgeous and creative visuals, its heartfelt soundtrack, and the way it plays to some of my subjective favorite fictional themes, Dusk Maiden of Amnesia claimed the very top spot on my personal list of favorite anime and still holds that position today.
I started the first draft of this review quite some time ago when the series was much newer to me, which is probably a good thing when it comes to objectivity, but even then, I had already decided Dusk Maiden was pretty special. Now, with Halloween approaching and the series getting a new physical re-release from Sentai Filmworks, this seemed like the perfect time to share my thoughts on this sweet and spooky classic.
Sometimes you need to read to the second line of an anime’s synopsis to get to the hook, and Dusk Maiden of Amnesia certainly falls into this category. It’s about a young guy and three girls who form a club dedicated to investigating paranormal phenomena at their high school. Decent start, right? But how about adding in the fact that one of the girls, the founder and president of the club, is actually the high school’s only known ghost and has been dead for nearly 60 years? Aha, now that’s more like it!
The experience of watching Dusk Maiden of Amnesia is a lot like reading the synopsis, in that it gets more interesting as it goes by gradually feeding you new information that casts a fresh light on what you already knew. Despite its many supernatural elements, this series is more of a mystery/romance hybrid than a horror anime, and once all of its puzzle pieces fall into place, the portrait it creates a love that endures through pain, difficulty, and even death itself is truly beautiful to behold.
The action of Dusk Maiden begins when Teiichi Niiya wanders into the dilapidated, abandoned old school wing of his high school and gets a scare from a beautiful girl suddenly appearing behind him in a room he thought was empty. The girl laughs at his shock and assures him that she meant no harm. However, as they walk down the hall together moments later, she shocks him again with the blunt admission that she is Yuko Kanoe, the spectral “Yuko-San” who features in almost every ghost story told at the school. Whatever doubts Teiichi may have harbored about Yuko’s ghostly credentials are dispelled once he discovers that almost no one else can see her… and after he finds Yuko’s skeletal remains hidden in a basement room. Yuko, a happy-go-lucky sort of ghost, also reveals that she has lost almost all memory of her past and would be interested to learn more—almost as interested as she is in learning more about Teiichi, who she quickly develops a crush on. To aid with both goals, Yuko decides to start a Paranormal Investigation Club that Teiichi becomes responsible for representing.
The club soon acquires new members in Momoe Okonogi, a ditzy ghost story enthusiast who can’t see Yuko at all, and Kirie Kanoe, Yuko’s tomboyish great-niece who can see Yuko and doesn’t completely trust her. The club’s carefree early days take a grim turn with the appearance of a second, considerably more menacing ghost at the school and by clues that Yuko’s final days among the living may have been anything but serene. With the threat of the second ghost, new attacks of amnesia, and the shadows of a dark past looming ever greater, can Yuko get a happy ending the second time around? Or will it all end in darkness for her and Teiichi?
There’s a lot to dive into with this anime, but I’d like to start with the outstanding visuals and music. Dusk Maiden was produced by Silver Link, the anime studio that also produced Watamote, C3, and a number of other anime that are notable for their creative artistic direction. Like C3, Dusk Maiden loves to paint beautiful scenes using the odd, vibrant colors generated by night and sunset lighting, and the results can be truly gorgeous at times, as seen in the poolside scene above. Its visual similarities with Watamote relate to how what we see as viewers is influenced by what the emotional state of the characters. You’ll see things like the backgrounds being physically crushed into wreckage (in the mind’s eye) to represent characters on the verge of a panic attack, warping and distortion to represent surreal moments, or dark and troubled coloring leeching across lines and shapes to represent simmering anger. Dusk Maiden engages in this to an even greater degree than most of its peers, though, and perhaps more than any other anime I have ever watched except Maria-Holic and the Monogatari series.
One of my favorite visual moments in Dusk Maiden was a moment where Yuko suddenly felt a crushing sense of loneliness at being left by herself in the evening, and the frame of the screen grew smaller, and smaller, and smaller as her anxiety at her isolation increased. It was a startling effect that heightened the moment’s emotional impact, and the whole series is full of neat little visual tricks like that. The music is atmospheric and always appropriate to the scene, and the opening and ending (“Choir Jail” and “Calendrier”) are both memorable and intense. There is also a single vocal track that is only played twice in the series, “Requiem”, and it’s such an emotionally powerful standout that I guarantee you will know it when you hear it.
I usually watch Dusk Maiden in its English dub, and I can highly recommend that version. Teiichi’s actor (Clint Bickham) has been hit-or-miss with me on some Sentai shows, more as a matter of casting than of the quality of his performances, but he does a fantastic job here and is a great fit for Teiichi. Jessica Boone sounds extremely natural as Kirie, and Brittney Karbwoski put in one of the best, funniest, and sweetest performances of the series as Momoe. Emily Neves did an absolutely outstanding job as Yuko, and there’s an unusual quality to her performance here that I really wish I knew whether was intentional or not.
Different generations have different vocal quirks – modern American women sometimes have a touch of “vocal fry” as they speak, and American women in the 1930s to early 1950s often had a very slight quaver in their voice, especially during laughs or giggles. As a ghost who grew up in the 1940s and died in the early 1950s, Yuko should (and actually does) sound a bit different than Kirie or Momoe, and I noticed that Neves’ performance includes a teensy bit of quaver in the character’s laughter. Again, I have no way of knowing if this was intentional, but if it was, it was a really cool touch. I also appreciated how lifelike and vibrant the English script localization was in general. While being very true to the subtitled Japanese script, the English dub dialogue feels completely natural and unstilted throughout.
It is worth mentioning that the series is not all scares and tears; it contains quite a few funny moments, with Momoe in particular always being good for a laugh or eight. Combined with her tendency to easily flip out, Momoe’s inability to perceive Yuko and her total misunderstanding of Teiichi’s interactions with her provide frequent opportunities for comedy. Yuko herself will also cause some grins, as she’s a bit of a prankster, and her occasional attempts to play the part of a “scary” ghost are amusingly lame.
For good or for bad, it should probably be mentioned that this series occasionally gets heavy-handed with “fan service” moments, especially in the lighthearted first half. Yuko is stacked like a (haunted) brick house and is virtually shameless when it comes to her spiritual body, so although the show never features graphic nudity, you should expect lots of cleavage on display and semi-frequent states of undress. Veterans of raunchier harem anime won’t even bat an eye, but it is something to bear in mind if that bothers you.
One of my favorite things about this series is the way it treats the “rules” of life as a ghost, which I would describe as ¾ Beetlejuice and ¼ Casper. Other than being placebound, ageless, invisible to most people, and immune to the needs for food and sleep, Yuko is very much a normal girl with a normal person’s limited capabilities. At one point, Teiichi expects her to start floating or phase through a wall, and she gives him an annoyed look and snaps, “I can’t do anything you can’t do.” Dusk Maiden presents a picture of the afterlife as a stunningly mundane affair where the similarities to mortal life are more striking than the differences. Much like with the unfortunate newlyweds from Beetlejuice, Yuko’s ghostly state presents more limitations than advantages, and it makes unraveling the mysteries of her past that much more challenging and engaging.
Another thing that I loved about Dusk Maiden was the maturity it treated several topics with. Being emotionally honest with people, learning to be kind and forgiving to oneself, falling in love, letting go, sticking with people through “for worse” as well as “for better”… all of those themes are present in this anime. Our cast handles them in ways that are realistic and age-appropriate for high schoolers, but they grow up fast and make the viewer proud to root for them. I’m terribly tempted to start gushing about how certain plot points illustrate these themes, and equally tempted to discuss how emotionally-satisfying I found all aspects of the ending… but that would be unfair to you as viewers. It’s worth experiencing how things unfold firsthand.
In terms of things I would have liked to see done differently, my only regret regarding this series is that it wasn’t a few episodes longer. In particular, I wish the first arc where the Paranormal Investigation Club was checking into different rumors at the school had been expanded on just a bit. With that said, since most modern anime come in episode-count multiples of 13, it might be for the best that things were left as-is. It’s possible they could have doubled the series’ length and kept the story just as tight, but that’s not a given. Ideally, I think something along the lines of 16-18 episodes would have been perfect for this show, but if my only complaint about an anime is that “I wish there was more of it,” that’s not a bad problem to have.
You have several options when it comes to experiencing Dusk Maiden. It’s available to stream on HiDive, which features both the subbed and dubbed versions and the 30-minute OVA sequel. It’s also available to purchase as an excellent physical release on Blu-ray from Sentai Filmworks, which in addition to the standard clean opening and ending also includes a bevvy of extras like commentary tracks for every episode, Japanese commercials, and a slightly-extended version of the final episode. However, if you find yourself a mega-fan of this series like I am, the 2013 first-edition Blu-ray and DVD releases of this series (now out-of-print) contained one other very cool bonus as a pack-in: a two-CD original soundtrack! This OST contains all of the series BGM, two versions of “Requiem” (instrumental and vocal/original), and three versions of “Calendrier” (TV edit, full-sized vocal, and instrumental; however, instrumentation differs slightly from the version found in-series). The only notable absence from the CDs was a vocal rendition of “Choir Jail”, which I assume was excluded for licensing reasons. The 2021 re-release is identical to the 2013 version in every way except for the missing bonus soundtrack, so if you can’t find the older edition or if the price is too rich for your blood, the 2021 re-release is still an excellent product you’ll be very proud to have in your anime collection.
To sum it up, Dusk Maiden of Amnesia is a multi-category winner. It is one of the best romance anime I have ever watched, with Teiichi and Yuko ranking behind only Ryuji and Taiga (ToraDora) as my all-time favorite anime couple. Although not a horror anime in the traditional sense, it is also my favorite ghost-themed anime series, with only Ghost Hunt and Requiem from the Darkness even in a similar league. The only reasons I can think of that a viewer might not like this series are if you have a strong distaste for its fan-service elements or if its particular mashup of genres (mystery, horror, supernatural, and romance) simply don’t appeal to you. Other than that, I can give this one a virtually unqualified “highly recommend.”
This Halloween, don’t forget or overlook this hidden gem. Whether you watch it an episode at a time or all at once, Dusk Maiden of Amnesia is worth pulling from the anime graveyard to watch again and again.
Why one of anime’s most depressing comedies might not be such a downer after all
“This is a story about a girl… an unpopular girl… and her story that really doesn’t matter.”
The anime Watamote opens its first episode with these words spoken by the show’s narrator – the first of the only two lines he utters in the entire series. It’s said as our heroine, Tomoko Kuroki, is looking up the slang term mojyo (unpopular girl) online. The baggy-eyed teen proudly swivels her chair to face the viewer.
“Ha! That isn’t me. I’m not one of those unpopular girls.”
As the viewer discovers in the ensuing 13-episode emotional train wreck, Tomoko couldn’t be more wrong. She expects her debut into high school will bless her with all sorts of social benefits and respect she didn’t have as a shy middle-schooler, but it actually just brings further isolation – so much so that she forgets how to talk to people who aren’t her immediate family! While Tomoko does manage to (mostly) overcome that particular difficulty by the end of the first episode, the episodes that follow are a record of one hare-brained “get popular quick” scheme after another, all of which backfire hilariously.
This frustrates Tomoko to no end, because in her mind, she bears no responsibility for her own isolation other than other people being inherently stupid and horrible. That’s even the official long title for the anime: Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui!, which translates in English to No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!
Our heroine is tormented by the fact that she is becoming the very type of sad recluse she looked down on in the first episode – a solitary teen with no boyfriend, only one regular friend who she seldom sees, and no admiration from her peers. This last item, the popularity she finds so elusive, is important because it’s an absence rather than a vacuum in Tomoko’s life. She isn’t hated or looked down on by anyone – the few who interact with her barely notice her. However, that’s not how Tomoko sees it at all.
For Tomoko, the world is a narcissist’s hell where everyone is watching her, everyone is judging her, and everyone is constantly taking her measure (as a person, peer, student, friend, and woman) and finding her lacking. Through it all, though, she is her own worst and most merciless critic. For all you can say about her borderline-demented view of the world and her ungenerous view of others, there is no one this girl judges more harshly by her impossible standards than herself.
For her, to be anything less than beautiful, popular, and accomplished means total failure in life. It means that she’s a nobody. It means her story doesn’t matter. She has internalized this message to the point where it squeezes her psyche like a vise.
I could recount any number of Tomoko’s spectacular fails here, but I want to skip ahead to the last few minutes of the final episode. After an awkward moment causes Tomoko to fumble her one brave attempt at reaching out to a new friend, she sits at home in her darkened room, reading the same text about mojyo girls she read in the anime’s opening scene. The narrator’s voice speaks again:
“This is a story about a girl… an unpopular girl… and her story that really doesn’t matter.”
Tomoko’s mother calls her down to supper, and Tomoko faces the screen and laughs.
“Seriously… it really doesn’t matter. Hahaha!”
Roll end credits.
When I first watched this episode and ended the series, I thought it was the final depressing coda to a series that cruelly played with the viewer’s hopes for its pathetic protagonist. After all her struggles, not only had Tomoko not gotten anywhere in her attempts to break out of isolation, but she had given up. Further thought put the situation in a new light, though. Yes, Tomoko had given up… but given up what?
In many ways, Watamote is a pointedly Millennial and Gen-Z tragedy. These generations have been supported and encouraged like almost none before them: “You are beautiful, wonderful, and special. You can do anything you put your mind to. You can change the world!” However, that level of encouragement also sets up sky-high expectations with a dark caveat: “If you aren’t beautiful, wonderful, or special, what good are you? Why can’t you accomplish anything? If you don’t change the world, if nobody pays attention to you, you obviously messed up somewhere.”
This shadow message is what torments Tomoko – and not just her, but many others her age and thereabouts. If she is unique, she’s only unique for internalizing all of the negative aspects at once and to ridiculous extremes. If she falls short…
In the anime’s final moments, Tomoko is acknowledging that perhaps, yeah, she did end up falling short of her ideal. She’s a petite, unassuming, flat-figured girl with permanent dark rings under her eyes, just-average intelligence, and no special talents. She has a hard time speaking to others and has only one friend. She’ll probably never be popular, and her chances of changing the world seem pretty slim.
But that’s okay. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to.
Earlier in the same episode, Tomoko placed her phone on her desk with the “record” feature on to find out what others might be saying about her when she’s not around, with an eye toward using it as constructive criticism to help her become more popular. To her disappointment, nobody actually talked about her at all. Even later, when she repeated the experiment after dramatically squishing a cockroach, the conversation was not about her specifically. Ironically, the one time in the episode she is “talked about behind her back” is when the upperclassman girl she idolizes, Imae, praises her as “cute” and “determined” to her friends as Tomoko runs away from her in an anxiety-ridden panic.
One of the most difficult but most healing truths many of us internalize as we grow up or grow older is the old saying that “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” Tomoko fails to grasp that her own desperate need for external validation is the source of her misery, not the lack of popularity itself, and that leads her into absurd behavior that leaves her even more embarrassed and alone. At the end of the anime, she doesn’t yet have quite enough maturity to grasp all of this.
Tomoko doesn’t yet realize that people might love her for her sort-of-lame self, or that they might find her eccentricities endearing or even kind of cool rather than embarrassing. She doesn’t yet understand that being truly loved by one or two people can bring a person more joy than shallow admiration from a crowd. She doesn’t quite understand all of that yet… but she does finally catch a glimmer of truth that all of her desperate flailing after popularity is an absurdity. It isn’t making her happier. And in the final analysis, it really doesn’t matter.
Watamote is a very dark comedy, without a doubt. It’s understandable why the series is so cathartic, and I can see other readings of the ending that aren’t nearly as rosy as my own. However, I think what we may have seen in Tomoko’s parting quip is a tormented soul who is finally learning to let go of unrealistic expectations for herself that are doing her more harm than good. The fate of a normal life is not a tragedy, and we are foolish and blind to our own blessings if we make it one. Tomoko Kuroki may never become popular or important, but perhaps she can still be herself and be happy, and perhaps that’s good enough.
No matter how you look at it, that’s a message many of us need to hear.
Today’s review is aimed at our readers who may want to get into the spirit of Maid May along with us here at Anime Obscura, but who may not have a lot of free time. We get it… life is short, work is long, and sometimes even a 12-episode series can feel like a heavy lift. That’s why today we’re profiling Indian Summer, a three-episode OVA about an anime maid that you can knock out in an hour and a half without it even feeling like a binge.
Indian Summer presents us with a sci-fi, near-future world where life is much like it is right now, only advances in artificial intelligence and robotics have allowed the creation of functioning, thinking android robots that people can purchase. The story begins when Takaya Murase goes shopping for such a robot at the retailer Maid Works, intending to purchase a “pet-style” robot hardwired to be dedicated to his pleasure. Instead, though, his eye gets caught by a blonde “domestic-maid” style robot, and he takes her home. As it turns out, Murase is a huge otaku with a gigantic doll collection, and his intentions for his new maid are a bit perverse while not being nearly as perverse as they could have been: he just wants to constantly dress her up in new clothes and cosplay that he sews. Still, for this maid robot who just wanted to live a life of honest work doing domestic chores, it’s a lot to stomach.
She gradually warms to her young master after he gives her a name – Yui – and makes several gestures of kindness that slowly make her fall for him. However, this is definitely a case of “two steps forward, one step back,” as it’s only a matter of time until Murase commits some new offense to drive her patience past the breaking point. During the remainder of the series, the two meet and befriend an expanding cast of neighborhood weirdos. These include Minori, a tomboyish cafe waitress who leans into her identity as this anime’s busty fan service character; Ayumi and Kanae, a daughter and mother who seem to be constantly losing one another; and Kuon, another maid robot who is unable to find a master for some reason despite seeming objectively perfect. What ensues is a little drama, a lot of comedy, and a ton of randomness.
The first thing I want to talk about regarding Indian Summer may sound like a negative, but it’s more of a neutral (but important) observation: if you ask me, the most remarkable thing about this anime is that it exists at all, especially in the West. For all kinds of reasons, this anime feels like something that the market never asked for, either right now or at the time of its release. It was based off a short manga of the same name (Indian Summer / Koharu Biyori) written by Takehito Mizuki that received four volumes in Japan and only kinda-sorta got a US release, with the North American manga license being kicked around between small publishers ComicsOne and DrMaster and only having one or two volumes published. The anime’s Western release was a legacy of the final era of prolific American anime publisher ADV Films, during a time when they were feverishly snapping up every anime license they could get their hands on, right before the big anime market implosion of 2008-2010 took them out. Indian Summer released in 2008 and was one of ADV’s final titles. When ADV went under, it was transferred to their main successor company, Section23 / Sentai Filmworks, where it has remained ever since.
The format also makes this series a bit of an oddity in its time. The heyday of the short OVA series was during the early home video boom of the 1990s, when the VHS tape medium made short, self-contained adaptations of manga that could fit on a single video tape an affordable, appealing, and popular item for anime enthusiasts. However, Indian Summer came out in Japan in 2007, long after this boom ended and the market moved on to favoring 13 episode TV series or single movies. On top of that, its three episodes are all subdivided into two 15-minute segments each, a further deviation from the industry norm. So, with Indian Summer, we somehow got a license that was based off a relatively unknown manga, in an unpopular format, in the niche “anime maid” subcategory with a weird sense of humor, released in America by a company on the verge of dissolution… and yet it’s survived down to the present as an easily-streamable viewing experience. That begs the next important question: does that make us lucky or unlucky?
For the most part, I’d say we’re fortunate to still have Indian Summer. The most important question to answer with a comedy anime is whether or not it makes you laugh, and Indian Summer can be pretty damn hilarious. Yui’s innocence in the ways of the world can make for some really funny moments, with the episode where she gets tasked with watching a baby being easily one of my favorites. Watching her deal with changing a diaper was great, and so were her attempts to commune with the baby by dressing up like a toddler, to everyone else’s discomfort. This series is really good at subverting expectations for comedic effect, and it often bumps right against the edge of being transgressive without ever crossing the line into outright cringe. There isn’t a ton of time or space for the characters to develop within the series, but the cast as a whole is sweet and likable, and the style of most of the humor is good-natured.
This short series also gets thumbs-up from me in the production values standpoint. The visuals are a bit cartoonish to go along with its silly vibe, but the animation tends to be nice and fluid within that framework. I also thought the colors in this show were vibrant and bright. The series has a fair amount of ecchi moments, and these tend to be teasing and playful in a pleasant way rather than getting too uncomfortable. The character models are appealing, though I have to knock them a bit for all being a bit same-ish… their body types differ, but you almost could have face-swapped most of the female characters with no one noticing.
On the audio, this anime is subbed-only, but the subtitled voices are very well done. I’d single out Yui’s voice actress, Eri Kitamura, as doing a particularly great job. (Looking at her resume, she’s a prolific and experienced voice actress, so no surprise there.) The background music is fine without being remarkable, and the ending theme is sweet and makes for easy listening. The opening theme, is… uh… different. By that, I mean it’s damn weird. It reminds me of the opening to Kill Me Baby in terms of sounding kind of dissonant and strange on purpose, but thankfully it’s less grating on the ears than that opening. To give credit where credit’s due, it’s memorable. Murase painting kanji on the girl’s stomachs before launching them into the title screen and Yui’s strange opening spiel about “maido-bravo!” and the chorus of “helpu-meeee!” are something about this anime that always sticks in my brain more than its plot.
Lastly, I should mention that I appreciate Indian Summer for filling a bit of a void in the “short anime” niche. I’m one of those “working people without a ton of spare time” I mentioned in the opening paragraph, and sometimes it’s nice to watch a series that can be quickly and easily finished within a single day or two. However, with Indian Summer’s high randomness quotient, I would actually suggest taking it at an episode per day… which would still only take you three days.
In terms of negatives, that very randomness is probably my chief complaint about this anime. For a series that doesn’t have a lot of time to work with in the first place, it sure squanders a lot of it on strange tangents and gags that don’t really go anywhere. As probably the most glaring example, a full half of the final episode is an alternate-world joke that has nothing to do with the rest of the show. That’s time that could have been spent building toward a heartfelt or dramatic climax rather than cramming what we got of that into just 15 minutes. I realize that this is almost certainly a reflection of the manga it was based on, but the anime adaptation had an opportunity to give its source material a bit more direction and sense of plot-momentum like He Is My Master did. Honestly, part of me almost wishes this 3-episode show had chosen to be a 90-minute movie instead, loosely adapting the manga’s plot points to a single running story with a little more drama and direction while retaining its silly vibe.
Even so, I can appreciate Indian Summer for what it is and what’s doing. This silly anime is unpretentious in the extreme – it just wants to make you laugh with comedy of the naughty-silly variety delivered in short and energetic bursts, and it accomplishes that rather well. I doubt it’s going to top anyone’s list of favorite anime ever, but it’s a fun one to visit, and the short runtime makes it an easy one to come back to if it appeals to you. Indian Summer can be streamed in its entirety on HiDive or VRV. It received physical DVD releases from both ADV and Sentai Filmworks, and while both editions are now out of print, they are still very inexpensive on the used market at the time of this review.
Three anime maid series down, but Maid May is only half-over! Stick around, masters and mistresses, and we’ll see what else we can serve you with.
They say “nothing succeeds like excess,” a mantra that the anime maid subgenre seems to fully embrace. After all, the general idea behind the trope is a wish fulfillment fantasy about being fantastically rich (rich enough to afford live-in servants) and having at least one of those servants be a devoted, sweet girl who wants to take care of you. In a nutshell, traditional maid anime are about having it all. However, one maid anime stands above the rest in terms of pushing excess to its furthest limits. It’s Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite, and it’s this week’s anime review as Maid May continues here at Anime Obscura.
Before I get into the review itself, there’s some interesting history behind this anime and why it has the subheading “La Verite” (“The Truth / The True”). As a franchise, Hanaukyo Maid Team has been cursed with incredibly lousy luck, especially here in the West. It began as a manga by a Japanese husband-wife team under the pen name Morishige, and that manga was popular enough to merit an anime adaptation. However, the original Hanaukyo Maid Team anime (Hanaukyo Maid Tai) was plagued by production problems and quality control issues, and it was canceled after just fifteen 15-minute episodes. The series was rebooted under a new production studio as Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite, the anime we’re reviewing today, with considerably better results. However, the HMT curse seemed to repeat itself for releases in North America. The first three volumes of the manga were released by the small manga publisher Studio Ironcat, only to be canceled when that company went bankrupt. Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite was released by Geneon in its entirety in 2005, but that company also folded just two years later. Sentai Filmworks later picked up the rights to the series in North America and still retains them today without having gone bankrupt, a safe run of over a decade that I think proves the Hanaukyo Maid jinx didn’t carry on into the 2010s or beyond.
… Whew! In short, Hanaukyo Maid Team’s luck as a franchise has been about as bad as its protagonist’s luck was good. Speaking of ol’ Taro, let’s get into the story.
Taro Hanaukyo is a teenage boy who knows his life is about to change in a big way after his mother’s death. In accordance with his mom’s last wishes, he prepares to move in with his grandfather, who he has never met. However, Taro discovers to his shock that his grandfather is one of the richest men in Japan and owns a gigantic estate. Moreover, old Hokusai is also apparently an eccentric (and likely a bit of a pervert) who insists that his vast staff all be lovely young women wearing maid uniforms. They are the Hanaukyo Maid Team, a group which includes not only traditional domestic maids, but chefs, gardeners, security guards, scientists, inventors, accountants – everything the Hanaukyo family might ever need to remain fabulously wealthy, secure, and comfortable. There’s literally a maid for every aspect of daily life, including more questionable activities like bathing and getting dressed. There are also three nubile identical triplets who serve as the master’s “bedwarmers,” a role that is exactly as wholesome and innocent as it probably sounds.
In a final twist, Taro’s grandfather gave him the Willy Wonka treatment by departing the mansion right before his arrival and making Taro the new head of the family. The maids are beyond excited to meet and pamper their new master… to a degree that’s borderline dangerous to his physical and mental health. Thankfully, Taro is a humble lad with a good heart and a chill spirit, and with the help of several key maids, he takes to his new life like a duck to admittedly-troubled water.
Taro is an interesting character in that he ought to be contemptible, but he really isn’t. Even by the low standards expected of a harem anime lead, Taro is a total wimp. He’s supposedly in his late teens, but looks like he’s in elementary school, and he virtually never stands up for himself or puts his foot down when the situation gets out of hand. He can also be a bit whiny at times. Still, it’s hard to hate the guy because he’s neither a lech nor an absolute crybaby. Taro has a nearly invincible level of chill and humility, and – perhaps I’m revealing a bias here as a working adult I wouldn’t have shared as a teenager – Taro quickly reveals himself to be a damn good boss. He shows his staff of maids trust, respect, and deference, and he forgives them and helps them improve when they screw up. Altogether, the kid is all right.
As an anime, Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite follows the tried and true formula of “Introduction, Exploration of Cast with Character-Centered Episodes, Final Dramatic Arc, Conclusion”. Thankfully, the largest of these sections – the character episodes – are buoyed by an excellent supporting cast, most of whom bend traditional tropes just a bit. We have the strict, samurai-like head of security, Konowe, who is probably the most traditional of this anime’s characters, but a well-realized one. There’s also Konowe’s subordinate Yashima, a lovestruck lesbian with heart-eyes for her boss who happens to be a really cute dark-skinned anime girl as a great bonus. (Not sure if she’s supposed to be of Indian, African, or Polynesian extraction, but whatever her ethnicity, Yashima is adorable.)
Rounding out the cast further is Ikuyo-chan, the mansion’s resident mad scientist and probably its chief troublemaker. Ikuyo is a major geek and an aspiring manga artist, but her penchants for strange inventions and trolling people with false rumors are her main contributions to the mansion’s chaos. There’s also Ryuuka Jihiou, the visiting and nutty rich girl whose family is almost as wealthy as Taro’s, and the afore-mentioned “bedwarmer” triplets Lemon, Marron, and Melon, whose chief joy in life is attempting to seduce their boss.
Probably my favorite character in the whole series is Cynthia/Grace, a girl who possesses enormous talent but is burdened with a multiple personality disorder. I’m a sucker for stories of people whose dissociative identities get along either really poorly or really well as they try to navigate their daily lives, and while I won’t reveal how that plays out with this character, I do feel like it was handled thoughtfully and well in her case. Finally, we have the chief maid, Mariel, who is also Taro’s main love interest in the series. I initially felt Mariel’s demure and obliging personality made her disappointingly boring for a main heroine, but some of the later episodes reveal some secrets about her past that make both her and those traits considerably more interesting in retrospect.
As a point of observation, it’s important for potential viewers to know that the second episode rather than the first sets the tone for the rest of the series. Hanaukyo Maid Team is one of those anime that opens on a rather lewd note to hook the attention of viewers who are here for that kind of material, but at its core, this anime is much, much more heartwarming than it is pervy. Sure, Taro’s maids arguably constitute one of the largest anime “harems” of all of time, and Lemon, Marron, and Melon routinely throw their bodies at him, but romance and sex are not at the heart of this show or even at its forefront. The vast majority of it is about Taro and his staff of maids coming to appreciate each other as people in the platonic sense, and the number of them who are “after” Taro in a serious, romantic way arguably ranges between one to three, depending on how you interpret the girls’ intentions. Even among those who “like-like” him, most are subtle in their pursuit. Both the dramatic parts of this anime and its comedy aspects are well-executed, and while it won’t be everyone’s thing, the quality of the writing is higher than you might expect given the premise.
From a production values standpoint, Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite is extremely average – perhaps just a touch below average in the visual department. The character designs are nice, with goofy facial expressions sometimes being a high point. However, the animation itself is pretty lackluster and comes across as quite dated. Even compared to its competitors from the early 2000s, HMT doesn’t look great. (It’s not hideous – just “adequate” in an unimpressive sort of way.) However, there was a really bizarre exception to this. I am almost certain that Episode 11 of this series was animated by a completely different team than the rest of the series, and perhaps even by a different production company. Where we had been seeing minimal animation and a lot of “flat” shots with the camera facing forward-facing characters, we were suddenly treated to tons of odd and distorted angles, a lot more animation, and cartoonish facial expressions out the wazoo. On the negative side, several characters are drawn strangely in parts of this episode, especially some shots of Konowe where her face looks half-melted. To put it in context, imagine if a single episode of a series like Fruits Basket had been handed over to a new team to animate it in the style of FLCL or Kill La Kill.
I’m not certain what happened here, but I do have a theory. That episode was unusually action-packed compared to the entire rest of the series, and it’s possible that either the normal animation team had a panic attack and asked for outside assistance, or the production company overseeing them decided in advance (or after the fact, but prior to airing) that a different team’s services were required to do this episode justice. In any case, the old animation team was back to wrap things up for the epilogue in Episode 12. The one-off episode wasn’t a bad choice – in fact, it came across as a visual improvement except for the few odd shots of Konowe – but it’s another notch in the “damn, HMT had a weird and troubled production history” saga.
Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite fares slightly better in the musical and audio department than in the visual one. The background music for the series tends toward the classical and orchestral side of things, matching the anime’s gentle spirit and aristocratic vibe very nicely. The ending tune, “We’ll Serve You,” is sung by Lemon, Marron, and Melon and has a slightly jazzy vibe that I enjoyed quite a bit. I’m more on the fence regarding the opening tune, “Voice of the Heart”. It’s very sweet and matches the tone of the series, but it’s also a bit nostalgic and slow, making for a lethargic introduction to each episode. Typically, anime openings tend to be punchy, driving, and energetic to get viewers excited, and ending themes are emotional and slower. HMT essentially got that formula backwards. Again, both are good songs, but I wish it had switched them or come up with something that conveyed more excitement for the opener.
I should also mention that the English dub for this series (done by Geneon) is excellent. Geneon dubs have a bit of a mixed track record for me, sometimes coming across as being a bit low-energy, but that isn’t a problem here. The sweet characters sound sweet, the wacky characters are appropriately energetic, and the performances in general are quite good. I started singling out some English VAs as exceptional when first writing this review, but I soon realized my list encompassed more than half of the cast!
I won’t lie to you and tell you that Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite is an all-time anime classic or top-tier, “must-watch” viewing material. It’s simply too average in too many ways to merit that level of praise. Nevertheless, it’s an anime I do recommend giving a try if you like the comedy genre because it was thoroughly pleasant to watch. This anime has a sweet core, it gets a lot of things right on the comedy side, and I thought its cast was interesting and likable. It also has a great final arc with much more drama than I would have thought this series capable of generating at the outset. While this last point won’t apply to all viewers, I also found this series strangely nostalgic despite viewing it for the first time this year. It’s very representative of the kinds of anime I was watching in high school in early 2000s that got me hooked on this medium in the first place, and it’s a fine example of a series done right from that era.
Watching Hanaukyo Maid Team today is easy enough, as the series can be streamed on either HiDive or VRV. However, if you’re a physical media collector, this one could be a big headache to procure. This anime was released twice on DVD, first by Geneon in a three-volume set, and then by Sentai Filmworks in a single “complete collection” set. Both are out of print and shockingly expensive, with a complete version of either release commanding prices of $50-120 USD on eBay at the time of this review. No Blu-ray of the series has ever been released. Because it is so pricey for a used release, I would recommend collectors only go after this one after you have already watched the whole series and ascertained whether or not it’s worth that kind of price tag to you. If you’re a completionist, want a more affordable physical memento of the series, or just loved this anime and count yourself a big fan, there was also a soundtrack CD released by Geneon back in the day that isn’t half-bad and is considerably cheaper than the anime itself.
In any case, Hanaukyo Maid Team is good fun. Even if it isn’t a top-tier anime, it’s perhaps the ultimate example and last word in maid anime, and here at Anime Obscura, we’ll take off our frilly French maid bonnet and curtsy to that accomplishment any day.
It’s a tale as old as time… A poor, downtrodden girl who recently lost her home wanders onto the grand estate of a fabulously rich young man with a reputation for having a bad temper. Something about her strikes his fancy, and he hires her on as a servant in his mansion. He turns her into his miserable debt slave. Then she spends her days getting chased around the mansion by a horny alligator…
Wait, wait! Something’s wrong! This isn’t a tale as old as time at all! In fact, this is a tale so effed-up it’s only ever been attempted once. It’s called He Is My Master, and it’s how we’re kicking off “Maid May” here on Anime Obscura. This strange co-production by Gainax and Shaft is a difficult one to review because there are such broad chasms between its good and bad aspects—but we’ll get into that in a moment.
He Is My Master tells the story of Izumi and Mitsuki Sawatari, two teenage sisters who run away from home to protect Mitsuki’s pet from being sent away to be put down. While passing a huge walled estate, they see an advertisement on the front gate for maids to serve in the mansion—room and board included. Thinking this might be their meal ticket, they wander inside only to encounter the mansion’s sole occupant, Yoshitaka Nakabayashi, a boy Izumi’s age whose rich parents died and left him alone but fabulously wealthy. Yoshitaka turns out to be a bit of a pervert and a real jerk, and the Sawatari sisters temporarily flee the mansion to get away from him. However, after a complicated series of events that include the revelation that Mitsuki’s pet, Pochi, is a giant alligator(!), Izumi accidentally breaks a vase in Yoshitaka’s house that is worth a staggering amount of money. He demands that the sisters, and specifically Izumi, pay for the vase through their manual labor as his maids. What follows is a long and strange odyssey where the bizarre misfortunes that keep befalling Izumi leave her deeper and deeper in debt to this teenage monster as she tries to gain the courage and the means to steer her own destiny.
Before I get into the good aspects of this anime, I have to acknowledge the giant allig—er, elephant in the room: a lot of things about this anime are seriously messed up. Despite her chesty physique, Izumi is only 14 years old, yet 90% of the plot and the humor of this series revolves around the entire cast sexually harassing her. Everyone from Yoshitaka to her family and her classmates to her sister’s horrifyingly rapey alligator is constantly flipping up her skirt, putting her in suggestive situations, tearing off her clothes… you name it. Even if Izumi is drawn like she’s much older than the story states and the cast’s age isn’t a major plot point, this treatment of an underaged girl still teeters on the razor’s edge of whats’ considered socially allowable even in a transgressive animated comedy. Even leaving the sexual escapades aside, this anime is breathtakingly mean-spirited at points in terms of the abuse and manipulation Izumi gets subjected to. Now, it’s important to note that this anime is a satire of the whole “anime maid” genre, based on a manga that is explicitly a “gag manga” with a mean streak. If you keep in mind that subverting the audience’s expectations of something more wholesome is the whole point of the story, you’ll have a much better time with this anime.
It also helps that Izumi herself is such a capable and likable heroine, honestly one of my favorite characters in an anime I’ve watched this year. She’s the sole rock of sanity in this story: a humble, brave, kind-hearted, rational, and strong young woman who can stand up to a barrage of abuse that would crush a weaker girl. Speaking of strong, she’s also impressively powerful, and it’s hinted throughout the series that the constant backbreaking labor Yoshitaka is subjecting her to might be strengthening her to a level that borders on superhuman without her quite noticing. Her only real weakness is that she sometimes lets the insanity of the situation surrounding her overwhelm her good judgment, and she makes spur-of-the-moment decisions that play into the nefarious hands of those trying to take advantage of her. Despite those missteps, Izumi’s attempts to find her voice and her agency as a person, along with her flailing efforts to pay off her debt to Yoshitaka, form the core conflict of the story.
The other main characters in the series are also memorable and great additions. Yoshitaka reminds me of Montana Max from Tiny Toons more than any other fictional character, because money is the source of his power, but his willingness to leverage it in outrageously unethical and immoral ways is what makes him such a formidable antagonist. Izumi’s sister, Mitsuki, at first appears to be either an airhead or a sweetheart, but as the series progresses, we discover that she’s actually an airheaded sweetheart who rivals even Yoshitaka in her ability to manipulate others by leading them into zany “contests” she sets up. On an endearing note, Mitsuki seems to think her sister is the best thing since sliced bread, and most of her plans seem to revolve around getting others to feel the same and fuss or fight over her… at least at first. (More on that later.) The rest of the main cast is rounded out by Anna and Pochi. Anna is the pathetically lovestruck “third maid” who enters service in the Yoshitaka estate, a bit of a pervert in her own right who would be disturbing if she weren’t so adorable. Pochi is the alligator. The beer-drinking, porn-watching, rapey, thousand-pound alligator. He’s one of a kind in anime, and that’s probably a stroke of good fortune for our collective sanity.
In addition to its interesting characters, He Is My Master has several other things to recommend it. Perhaps more than any other element, I absolutely loved the sense of structure this anime displayed. He Is My Master predated Ouran Host Club by about 7 months when both of them launched back in 2002, and it beat Ouran to the punch on the “huge debt caused by a broken vase” motif. However, while Ouran used that as a vehicle to connect Haruhi with a harem of cute boys, He Is My Master uses it to plunge Izumi into crushing debt slavery, and the sense that it’s getting a little worse every day is palpable throughout the series. Almost every episode ends the same way, with Yoshitaka furiously planning how he’ll make Izumi pay for her insubordination as a counter displays to the viewer how far she is currently in debt. It works like an ominous mirror image of the money meter that used to end each episode of the live-action sitcom Two Broke Girls to show how much money they’d saved to open their bakery… though Izumi’s finances only ever seem to move in reverse. At the same time, the end of each episode also hints at activities Mitsuki is doing behind the scenes on her sister’s behalf, and those start to escalate just like her debt does, creating an interesting sort of tension over which will win out in the end.
There are several other high points to cover. For one, this anime is frequently hilarious in a dark sort of way. The first half of the series in particular constantly had me pausing the show to lean my head back, cover my eyes, and laugh in disbelief that “yeah, they just went there.” I also appreciated the anime’s art style, which I feel represents an improvement over the manga for some characters, especially in the decision to make Pochi more cartoonish. The opening and ending songs are both top-tier, beautiful, memorable tunes to bookend the craziness in between. The in-show animation and background music are not going to blow your socks off, but they are fine for a show where characters are this stylized.
So far this review has been all about the positives, and up through episode 6, He Is My Master was almost all positives. By the middle of the series, I was so enamored with it that I fully expected it to become one of my favorite comedy anime. Episodes 7 and 8 were a bit bumpier, but still solid. However, after episodes 9-11, I was so dismayed that I got ready to finish this anime in the full expectation of halfway-hating it. I’m happy to report that the final episode went a long way toward rehabilitating my opinion of it and making me appreciate it again, but a certain amount of bad taste remained. So, what happened here that made He Is My Master almost fly off the rails in the third act?
A few factors fed into this. Only the first manga volume of He Is My Master had been published when the anime’s production began, so the second half of the anime was an original story that didn’t appear in the manga at all for the most part. Even if there had been more manga content available, the anime’s producer felt that in order to draw viewers along, a one-to-one conversion of a self-described “gag manga” simply wouldn’t do. He wanted to give the anime more structure and a broader, overarching plot. I actually agree completely with his creative decision on that point and think he was on the right track. The plot the anime’s writers came up with was a good one, and it gave the series a sense of forward momentum and tension that made it more engaging than it would have been otherwise. I especially liked the focus he latched onto of Izumi gaining confidence and seizing more control of her life as a result. However, there were two, maybe three aspects of the second half that I have trouble describing charitably… they were basically botched.
The second half of the series brought in far too many throwaway characters who were introduced in a way that made them seem like major players, only to have them move the plot forward for just one episode before disappearing into the background. Even the character who served as a surprise final antagonist seemed to come out of nowhere and disappear into nowhere in the space of a single episode, creating a jarring sense of main character turnover. The second half also felt a bit less funny overall. Granted, some of this may have been necessary as the plot itself gained seriousness, but I feel like the dip in quality there was noticeable and unfortunate considering how big a selling point it had been at first. The latter episodes still managed to be extremely funny at points, but you can tell that He Is My Master tends to generate the biggest laughs when it’s drawing from its manga source material.
What irked me worst of all, however, was the change to Mitsuki’s portrayal in the second half of the anime. In the first half of the series, the blonde cutie was an intriguing and amusing puzzle. On the one hand, she was constantly putting Izumi into humiliating situations as part of her contests, and Mitsuki also made her the unwitting center of a scheme that took on an outsized importance in the second half. However, all of her mischief seemed to come from a good place: Mitsuki loved Izumi, she loved watching other people fawn over her, and she wanted to help her (even if she had strange ways of doing it). In the second half of the series, though, her ability to control the events and people around her became so godlike as to become unnerving… all the more because Mitsuki was not acting like a benevolent sort of goddess, but one in the Greek mold who likes to make mortals squirm for her amusement. In the final episode, Izumi gives her some side-eye and says, “You think anything is fine as long as it’s fun, don’t you?” Mitsuki’s reply? “Well, yeah.” The way things play out in the final arc seem to suggest Mitsuki is putting everyone through hell just because she’s bored, not because she’s thinking of her sister or trying to do something nice, and it made her come across as a bit of a smiling psychopath. This was a huge, regrettable blow to her likability as a character for me. This problem could have removed without harming the overall plot if the writers had humanized Mitsuki more by highlighting her good intentions or allowing her to make more mistakes and miscalculations she had to work through. But, it is what it is.
As I mentioned, the final episode went a long way toward making me feel better about the anime as a whole. It course-corrected on several problematic trends, showing that there were some strings even Mitsuki wasn’t pulling and didn’t directly control, and it also rehabilitated a certain other character who was shaping up to be a big disappointment in the final act. Several consecutive plot twists brought us to an ending to the series that was far, far more satisfying than what I had been expecting in the lead-up to episode 12. There were a handful of things that I would have preferred to see happen differently, but overall, it was so much better than what I’d feared I was heading into that I don’t feel like complaining about it.
He Is My Master is an oddball to try to assign a final rating or assessment to because of the ups and downs that I mentioned. When it’s good, it’s fantastic, and when it’s bad, it can be intensely frustrating. Overall, though, I have to tell you that I developed a real soft spot for this weird little maid anime. I love its characters and its twisted sense of humor, I found its plot very engaging and well-executed for the most part, and I loved its structure and pacing. For the rest, including the unnecessary barrage of new “major” characters at the end and the jarring tone shift in Mitsuki’s portrayal, I can acknowledge its flaws but also feel inclined to forgive them. This anime is original enough, funny enough, and memorable enough that I think it deserves to be cut some slack.
If you’d like to give He Is My Master a try, the easiest way is to stream it on HiDive or VRV. However, if you think this anime even might be your jam, I’d like to suggest you pick up a physical copy, for a couple of reasons. First, while I don’t want to get into a politics discussion here, He Is My Master is an anime that I can easily imagine being taken off streaming platforms entirely someday due to shifts in the culture that occurred after it was made. The way Izumi is constantly being sexually harassed was already borderline-unacceptable back in the early 2000s, and in the “Me, Too” era, its status as a poster child of how not to do consent puts a huge target on its back. If the anime community ever experiences a “wokeness renaissance,” He Is My Master will be one of the first things to go. This anime is also extremely cheap. Its publisher, Sentai Filmworks, currently sells both the DVD and Blu-Ray for just $30 USD at full MSRP, at $21 as their regular online store price, and I have literally seen the DVD version sell for as low as $2 (two measly Washingtons) during some of their holiday sales. (Since both releases are in SD, the DVD’s picture quality is just as good as the Blu Ray’s for this release.) Finally, the physical release is a good value in terms of the extras. Besides the anime episodes, it features TV spots and trailers, a really interesting interview with the producer about the process of adapting the manga to an anime, and creditless versions of all of the opening and ending tunes. (For the ending song, I was surprised in retrospect that there were so many visual differences by episode; it was very subtle about it.)
To sum things up, I can promise you that He Is My Master won’t be everyone’s cup of piping hot tea served in a priceless silver tea set for their beloved Goshujin-sama. It’s lewd, it’s crude, it’s mean as hell to its long-suffering heroine, and if you’re looking for a traditional rom-com, you’re barking at the gated front door of the wrong mansion. However, if you’re the kind of person who will like it, I suspect you’ll really like it. He Is My Master weaves a great tale of a girl learning to believe in herself and to find happiness no matter how desperate her finances become and no matter how many asshole employers and lascivious reptiles she has to punch in the face to do it. It’s not uplifting in the traditional sense, but it’s a hell of a ride, and one well-worth taking if you embark on watching it in the right mindset.
Greetings, all! I apologize in advance that this “review” is going to less of a thorough review than a rambling series of connected thoughts. I just got out of the movie theater from watching Demon Slayer -Kimetsu no Yaiba- The Movie: Mugen Train and had a couple of insights I wanted to share about Demon Slayer in general and Mugen Train in particular.
When it released in Japan in 2020, Mugen Train pulled off the amazing feat of becoming the highest-grossing film of all time in that country, dethroning Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which had held that title since 2001. If you haven’t hopped aboard the Demon Slayer train in the metaphorical sense and aren’t already deeply invested in the adventures of Tanjiro and his sister Nezuko, you may wonder how this film pulled this off. If you’ve been watching this anime, though, I suspect you may have a good idea. Now that it’s receiving a limited theatrical release in the United States, it’s time to catch everyone up!
What’s the big appeal of Demon Slayer?
Demon Slayer is a shonen martial arts / battle anime in the same vein as Dragon Ball Z, Yu Yu Hakusho, Naruto, My Hero Academia, and Fire Force. This particular anime is set in Japan in the very early 1900s in the Taisho era, so you’ll see electric lights coexist along samurai-era architecture and rural peasants and semi-modern city-dwellers intermingle on the streets. It stars a young man named Tanjiro who lives in the mountains with his family. One day, a demon slaughtered his entire family while he was away in town, leaving only one sister, Nezuko, who becomes “infected” with their blood and transforms into a demon herself. However, Nezuko’s inner goodness and her love for her brother allows her to resist the bloodlust that normally accompanies demonhood. Tanjiro pledges to protect her, to find the demon who did this to her, and by killing him, avenge their family and restore her to normal. Along the way, they meet plenty of horrific demons and quirky, lovable allies who help them in their fight.
What follows is one of the best-realized anime of this subgenre that I have ever watched. Ufotable, the anime studio behind Fate Zero and Fate/ stay night: Unlimited Blade Works does the honors with Demon Slayer as well, and they live up to their usual high standards and thensome. I actually think they do a slightly better job with Demon Slayer, in fact, because certain “shonen anime” things they did in Fate that felt like awkward fits with its high fantasy style (such as “faster than the naked eye” combat, “Naruto runs,” and so forth) come across much more naturally here. The series is absolutely gorgeous, with each episode easily the quality of a feature film in terms of its animation and artistry.
Good as they are, though, the production values aren’t what has made this series a cultural phenomenon. It’s the anime’s heart and heartfelt-ness. Most modern shonen anime do a good job of including drama and emotional moments as the characters grow, get stronger, fight, and win or lose high-stakes battles. What makes Demon Slayer a bit unique is that those moments aren’t the icing on the action cake – they’re swirled all through the cake. Demon Slayer is at least as much about its cast’s mental, emotional, and spiritual growth as it is about their ever-increasing ability to kick ass. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s even more about that. You get more tearjerker moments in the first 26 episodes of Demon Slayer than you probably get in the entirety of Clannad, and the fact that this doesn’t seem to hurt its amazing action scenes one bit is an incredible achievement.
I seldom watch shonen action series like this anymore because they always seem to be a million episodes long with 75 out before I even noticed the show, so it always feels too daunting to leap into. I was fortunate to finally get in on the ground floor for once with Demon Slayer. Watching it has been a treat and something I fully intend to keep up with. Even at present, it’s only 26 episodes and this one movie in, so it’s not too late if you want to try it out yourself. Catching up right now isn’t too tall of an order… though I can’t promise that will be the case several years from now.
So how was the movie, Mugen Train?
To answer very briefly, Mugen Train was very solid without completely knocking my socks off. I’m not going to go into a full summary or review, but rather wanted to hit upon a few key thoughts I had about the movie.
Mugen Train felt like watching three seamlessly sewn-together episodes of Demon Slayer in a movie theater, which is either its biggest weakness or a saving grace, depending on how you look at it. Ufotable’s incredible job on visuals and sound in the normal TV series mean that there was really no way for this feature film to look better than its television counterpart, but it does look every bit as good as it. In terms of its pacing and structure, it also feels like three episodes with no break rather than a self-contained movie. The only aspect of Mugen Train that truly felt “film-like” was the last-second appearance of an extra villain. That was not a strength, though, as it felt like he appeared just to fulfill a certain job in terms of a mood the movie wanted to create, rather than feeling like his appearance there made sense or flowed naturally from the narrative. He literally came out of nowhere, with no prior mention in either the movie or TV series. There was also zero hand-holding in terms of introducing any character or piece of the story to those who haven’t been faithfully following the series up to this point. Structure-wise, as a self-contained feature film, Mugen Train was a bit of a mess.
On the other hand, I just got to watch three episodes of Demon Slayer on a screen the size of my entire living room with booming movie theater speakers. It was not a bad experience in any sense of the word. I thoroughly enjoyed it! All of the good features about Demon Slayer in general that I mentioned earlier were present here in full force: kick-ass action, beautiful art, great emotional moments, and just an excellent viewing experience all around.
One last minor gripe that applies to the series as a whole, but perhaps to this movie in particular: it reminded me that as much as Demon Slayer is a breath of fresh air in its willingness to dive deep into heartfelt drama, it’s an absolutely by-the-book representative of its shonen action subgenre in other ways. Once I figured out which shonen-anime role or trope certain characters fulfilled in this movie, I was quickly able to predict the general arc of the entire film. I didn’t see every tiny detail coming, mind you, but I easily divined where the general arc of it was heading, and I was not one bit mistaken. Certain things were going to happen with (or to) certain characters to produce a certain emotional result in the audience, and it played out so predictably that I felt a little disappointed in its lack of originality in that regard.
It also failed to blast the anime’s stellar opening tune (“Gurenge” by LiSA) through those booming movie theater speakers, which I thought was unforgivable. What the hell, Ufotable? It would have been the easiest and most effective moment of fan service they possibly could have provided, and would have had that whole theater full of weebs and otaku out of their seats and cheering. Ah, well.
If “really fun” rather than “mind-blowing,” what’s behind the hype?
Mugen Train’s breakout success was not due to the quality of the movie itself (respectable as that was), but due almost entirely to the sky-high quality of the TV series that preceded it. As I mentioned, the Demon Slayer TV series was absolutely outstanding, and after 26 riveting episodes, it ended on a cliffhanger leading directly to the events of this movie. Mugen Train is also an integral part of the overall narrative of Demon Slayer. Unlike, say, the Dragon Ball movies, it’s 100% canon and key to following the story moving forward. It was also the first direct continuation we’ve had of the story in general after a silent year where the COVID pandemic has given us viewers plenty of time to wonder how things are going with Tanjiro and Nezuko.
Should I watch Mugen Train?
You get two answers on this one.
If it’s your first introduction to Demon Slayer, then no, you shouldn’t just yet. You will be as lost as you can be, because the movie ain’t stopping its train (literally or figuratively) to explain jack-shit to you.
If you’ve watched the first 26 episodes, then absolutely go watch it. It is as vital to the broader story as any episode and serves as a mini-arc within the series as a whole. It was also an absolute blast to watch, and if you get the chance to see it on the big screen in particular, you should do it. If you’re in the USA, check here on Fandango to see if it might still be showing in a theater near you. If not, keep an eye on the Funimation Channel streaming service for a home release later this year.
I feel certain everyone has had one of those “midnight movie” experiences where you’re looking for something to watch for a few minutes before turning in for the night, but stumble across something so weird that you wind up sticking with it all the way till the end credits, only to wonder if what you just watched was actually real at all. I had pretty much that experience last night with Take the X Train, a bizarre short movie from the golden era of high-budget 1980s anime. The high production values could have made it an internationally-renowned classic, but I suspect it never made it that far because it’s so damn weird.
The plot of this anime movie is honestly not the easiest thing to piece together, much less summarize, but it essentially tells the story of a seemingly-normal guy named Toru who works as an unappreciated peon in the marketing wing of a Japanese railway company. Out of the blue, he starts having intense nosebleeds while spacing out and imagining the whirring gears and levers of a dark train. One evening after a night out with his girlfriend, he goes to a subway and has a paranormal encounter with an infamous ghost train, which the media dubs the “X Train”. The X Train is seemingly made out of pure electricity and can mainly be seen through two electric sparks that resemble the front wheels of a train traveling down the tracks, trailed by lightning, and it leaves a power surge like a huge EMP in its wake. After excitedly telling his circle of friends and coworkers about the encounter, Toru is kidnapped by a strange government agency that seems to believe he has ESP and some sort of connection with the X Train. They force the goofy Toru against his will into a battle against this spectral, psionic locomotive, with results about like you might expect… only not.
It’s hard to know where to begin talking about this movie, but the music might be a valid jumping-off point. It opens with a dedication to Duke Ellington, whose famous “Take the A Train” is referenced in this anime’s title. Ellington’s jazzy, off-kilter piano music also provides the soundtrack for the anime, and it feels oddly appropriate in highlighting the absurdity and mismatch of protagonist and antagonist. The animation quality is extremely high in this film, with some of it rivaling the best work done by masterpieces of the same period like Akira, Wicked City, and Demon City Shinjuku. It also has a similar fascination with body horror. I can’t get into the most notable example without major end-of-movie spoilers, but Toru’s throbbing temples and nosebleeds when having his extrasensory connections with the X Train are a good minor example of the unsettling gross-out visuals one would find in a movie with that focus.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also say that this movie can be incredibly funny at times. Some of the more juvenile humor lands flat, but some of the funniest moments involve things as small as an animation of Toru’s eyes roaming from left to right after something otherworldly has happened, all the while keeping this goofy-ass perplexed expression on his face. The art style is also fairly unique. There are no attractive-looking characters in this anime; every single character design displays a hint of the grotesque in their caricatured expressions, but at the same time reflecting more realism than most anime in reflecting how people actually look. Finally, Toru himself is a thoroughly likeable main character, an everyman with enough pluck to make him admirable but also lame enough to make him funny and relatable.
So, why is this movie so thoroughly unknown, and why did it never even receive an official release in the West outside of a fandub? I can think of several reasons, frankly. First and foremost, this anime is defiantly odd in a way that will certainly appeal to some people (me included), but the humor of a subtle sort that would fly straight over the head of about half of its audience and might not appeal to another half of that group where it actually landed. Its art style is a similar acquired taste, as is its music. Duke Ellington might be a critical legend and beloved by jazz aficionados, but experimental, free-form, discordant piano music is not usually showcased in movie soundtracks for good reason. Soundtrack music generally functions as a way to accentuate the emotions present in a narrative. In this film, it feels like a way to highlight how creative artists (both Ellington and those who made this movie) can do whatever the hell they want, and you can take it or leave it.
More than anything, though, I suspect that Take the X Train never achieved the same level of critical success as its peers because its humorous ethos refuses any pretext of self-importance. Akira makes an excellent counterpoint in this regard. Akira wants you to take it very seriously, and its production values, music, and style – which almost mixes cyberpunk themes with Lovecraftian “horror of the unknown” – all work together to cement a solid argument for that expectation. Does it all work together as a logical whole with no loose ends? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But enough is left spookily vague and suggestively “important” that we want to give it the benefit of a doubt. Take the X Train works on an entirely different wavelength. The exaggerated art style, the goofy protagonist, the odd musical choices, and its profound sense of the absurd all seem to imply that “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and neither should you.” And yet, I can’t help but feel that this is a red herring bait that we shouldn’t take. Take the X Train actually does have some deep things to say: about the helplessness of an individual against an oppressive system, about the role of the underappreciated worker in society, about how doing the right thing is worthwhile even if it doesn’t always promise a good result. But where this movie is concerned, these will forever be deep truths wrapped in a really elaborate joke. And as with most good comedy that contains that, many in the audience will gulp down the joke without ever even tasting the hidden truth below the surface flavor.
Take the X Train is “anime obscura” of the best kind – one of those odd little hidden gems that would be great to invite a few good friends whose taste in humor and understanding you think highly of to watch with you and talk about afterward. Plus, at only 51 minutes, it isn’t a high “ask” in terms of runtime. A big thank-you to the Roku Channel The B-Zone for introducing it to me. You can also find the subtitled movie for free on YouTube currently at the link below.
The anime I’m reviewing today hardly qualifies as “obscura,” but it has been so eclipsed by its more recent remakes and spin-offs that the original isn’t as well-known or well-respected as it once was. Undeservedly so, in my book! So let’s summon some heroic spirits and shine a spotlight on the 2006 anime adaptation of Fate/stay night, which helped springboard a humble indie visual novel into the now-sprawling Fate series of anime and video games.
Tracing the chronology and history of Fate could be a humongous undertaking, but to kick things off here, just know that Fate/stay night was originally a visual novel created and published by the Japanese game company Type-Moon back in 2004. In 2006, it received a 24-episode anime adaptation from Studio Deen that removed the game’s adult content and unified the game’s three branching paths into a single storyline. That anime is what we’ll be discussing today.
Fate/stay night opens with a mysterious girl named Rin Tosaka performing a magical rite to summon a tall, tanned warrior, nearly destroying her house in the process. It then quickly cuts away from Rin to introduce us to Shiro Emiya, a cheery and very deliberate “do-gooder” teen who was the only survivor of a catastrophic fire that struck his neighborhood when he was a boy. The man who saved and adopted him later died, leaving Shiro alone in his near-palatial house. He lives a fairly normal and happy life thanks to a female classmate and friend who helps him with cooking and chores (Sakura) and his wacky homeroom teacher and big-sister figure (Taiga), both of whom eat breakfast with him every morning. Aside from his tragic origins, the only other unusual thing about Shiro is that he knows and can use a little bit of real magic, having been taught some beginner spells by his late adoptive father. Shiro’s peaceful life is suddenly shattered when he stays late after school and sees Rin and her warrior, Archer, battling with another strange warrior named Lancer. Being a witness to this event puts a target on Shiro’s head, and Lancer is on the verge of assassinating Shiro to keep him quiet when Shiro accidentally summons a warrior of his own, an intimidating blonde woman in armor named Saber.
After some dust settles, Rin explains to Shiro that he has stumbled into a contest called the Holy Grail War that pits seven teams of sorcerers (magi called “masters”) and their summoned warrior spirits from the past (called “servants”) against one another in a battle royale. Once the fray of contestants are reduced to a single master-servant team, the Holy Grail will materialize, and master and servant are each granted a single wish by the Holy Grail. Shiro’s status as a master is a big surprise to both him and Rin, because an amateur magus like him was highly unlikely to become a master in the first place, much less be able to summon a servant as formidable as Saber. Shiro reluctantly agrees to participate in the Holy Grail War, mainly to prevent a repeat of the disaster that almost claimed his life ten years ago. Friction soon arises between Shiro and Saber due to the incompatibility between his relatively pacifistic “wait-and-see” approach and her warlike seriousness, and his lack of ability as a magus means Saber cannot heal from injuries as quickly or reliably as other servants. Still, as deadly new masters and servants make their moves and the danger level grows ever greater, a mutual dependence, respect, and something perhaps greater than respect grows between Shiro and Saber. It is an open question, however, whether even that bond will be enough to help this mismatched duo survive a war where every other contestant is either an experienced sorcerer or the spiritual reincarnation of one of history’s greatest heroes.
This anime was my own personal introduction to the Fate series, and because it has a reputation of being a difficult series to get into, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to follow along. These fears proved unfounded, thankfully. The great thing about Fate is that while it contains its own unique glossary of terms, the concepts behind those terms are seldom hard to understand. (If you want to be fancy and say “noble phantasm” instead of “special attack,” guys, it’s no skin off my nose.) The original Fate/stay night is also extremely well-paced. Characters are introduced at a steady rate where none feel like throw-away cameos, and once introduced, they pop in and out of the action in a way that keeps them on your radar while feeling natural and unforced.
The cast of characters is one of this anime’s strongest points, and I appreciate how low on stereotypes it is. Shiro is self-sacrificing and has an innocent soul, but he’s a creative and unflinching fighter who doesn’t intend to go down easily. Rin is aristocratic, brainy, and sharp-tongued, but she is also eminently reasonable. I also had to smirk at how much of a born educator Rin is. She can seldom resist teaching Shiro any time she notices him getting something wrong, even when it might be to her own detriment later on. Saber is virtually unique in anime in the unbridled sense of nobility and awe that the series imbues her with. She is not a ditz, not a tsundere, not a goofy scrapper, but a cool-headed badass who simultaneously takes your breath away and raises the hair on your neck. You get a sense that if a crew of super-powered spirits were out to kill you, you’d be immensely relieved to have this fearless warrior as your sword and shield. Even Fate‘s more minor characters tend to be multi-dimensional, and that human complexity keeps the plot fresh and unpredictable.
I also wanted to briefly mention here in the spoiler-free section of the review that the chemistry between characters is also a high point of this series. These characters change and develop not only from their experiences and struggles as the series progresses, but also from their interactions with each other. The relationship between Shiro and Saber is the true focal point of this particular Fate anime series, and there’s a constant low-level friction there that’s engaging to watch unfold. Until the middle of the series, the two don’t get along at times because their approaches seem too different. In the second half, a different kind of friction arises when they realize that they are problematically similar in other respects, and they keep trying to correct their own fatal flaw in each other. I also loved watching Rin’s single-minded ruthlessness as a mage become diluted by the humanity that Shiro introduces into her worldview. I could go on, but I would prefer you see and enjoy the rest for yourself.
One area where the 2006 Fate does suffer a bit in comparison to its successors is in the visuals. Understand me, the original Fate/stay night does not look bad by any stretch of the animation. The artwork is frequently gorgeous, and the character designs are extremely appealing. However, the animation is nothing to write home about and occasionally verges on looking a bit cheap by modern standards. There is also a fair amount of reused animation – some flashbacks, especially Shiro’s memories of the fire, get replayed verbatim several times during the series. This anime’s visuals hold up quite well when compared to most other anime produced in the same mid-2000s period, and it does some particularly pretty work with lighting at times. However, it is nowhere near the sky-high visual bar set by the remake, prequel, and spinoffs produced a few years later by Ufotable (Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, Fate/zero, etc.). That doesn’t mean those later ones are better all-around anime – the 2006 version is still my favorite telling of the Fate story thus far, as I’ll explain later – but it does mean you shouldn’t go into this one with visual expectations set by those later versions, or you’ll likely be disappointed.
The music is interesting in that it’s a bit sparse, but everything that is here is excellent. You’ll hear the same tracks reused pretty frequently, but it’s all memorable and very appropriate to the scene. It reminds me of the kind of music I have heard in actual-factual visual novels in the past. I don’t know this for sure, but I wonder if this was done intentionally as a nod to Fate’s origins in that genre, or if perhaps the anime lifted some music wholesale from the original visual novel. Speaking of the visual novel connection, I found it amusing that I could easily pinpoint one or two parts in the anime’s story that had obviously contained steamy bits in the original “18+”-rated visual novel.
I want to talk a bit about the ending, but I want to do it in a way that avoids spoilers for those who haven’t yet watched this series. My spoiler-free summary is that the ending didn’t deliver everything I was hoping for, but it was perfectly palatable, it was very touching, and it did nothing to harm my enjoyment of the series as a whole. More detailed comments with some *MAJOR* spoilers follow, so skip the text starting below Taiga and start reading again after the Fate/stay night logo if you want to avoid those.
My only real gripe about the ending was that it felt thematically inconsistent with the key lessons the series seemed to be building toward from the very beginning. From Episode One onward, we find that part of Shiro’s character is that he thinks virtually nothing of self-sacrifice, whether it’s in big things or small. He wants to be a “hero of justice,” and his conception of that involves always thinking of others first and himself last, if at all.
This personality trait of Shiro’s irritates Saber to no end, and his personal recklessness makes it nearly impossible for her to protect him. We soon discover that this is a case of people who are altogether too similar wearing on each other’s nerves, however, because Saber has just as serious a martyr complex as Shiro does. She tries to fight even when on the verge of death, at one point claiming that “as long as I have my head, I can fight on.” The same single-mindedness of purpose was also a defining trait of hers in her original life as Arturia Pendragon, or King Arthur, to the point that it was misunderstood by her people as a lack of humanity. Even her motivation in the current Grail War is connected to this – believing she failed the people of medieval Britain when Camelot crumbled, she wants to go back to the past and have someone else, someone “better,” chosen as king.
During the course of the story, Shiro and Saber eventually develop feelings of love for one another, and you can see both trying to talk each other into thinking of their own happiness for a change while stubbornly refusing to take their own advice. Saber worries for Shiro and doesn’t want him to get killed. Shiro loves Saber and wants her to live out a happy life in the present rather than throwing it all away to change the past. The anime seems to be building toward two key morals: that one should live for the future rather than the past, and that it’s both okay and healthy to have some regard for your own happiness, because an absolute lack of care for yourself leads a person down a self-destructive path that brings misery to everyone who loves them. This lesson reaches its climax in the second-to-last episode when Shiro and Saber both individually reject the priest Kirei’s temptations to sacrifice themselves or each other for the chance at having the Holy Grail undo their greatest regrets.
However, just as soon as this thematic resolution is reached, we have the rug pulled out from under us by the revelation that the Holy Grail was merely a weapon of apocalyptic power, and that it never had the ability to grant wishes of that sort in the first place. Furthermore, Shiro and Saber are caught in a virtually unwinnable situation where the best possible outcome only means averting a cataclysm but still having Saber fade away. The duo achieves their goal through a combination of courage and love, but that outcome is still the best they can manage. Saber fades from this point in the timeline, only to awaken briefly in her medieval timeline right before her death as Arturia, her happy memories of Shiro allowing her to pass from this world at peace. Shiro, for his part, is not bitter but only has his memories of Saber to hang onto.
It’s bittersweet, and presented in such a respectful way that it’s hard to be mad at the series for the way it played out. However, suddenly shoehorning our main characters into such a fatalistic “no-win” situation at the end did feel inconsistent with the themes it had been building toward until that point. The bulk of the emotional drama of the series prior to that had all been about Shiro and Saber exploring the boundaries between a conscious choice to embrace a future happiness and their feelings of obligation toward loved ones in their pasts. To suddenly drop the bomb that there had never been a real “live option” in the first place felt both jarring and a bit cruel. I guess you could say that it was consistent in having Saber and Shiro fight courageously despite knowing the situation wasn’t winnable – that felt very in-character for both of them – but I think I would have preferred a happier ending where they had a choice. Then again, maybe that’s just my unfulfilled wish to see those two living their lives as a happy couple speaking from behind a mask of logic. Either explanation is definitely possible!
It’s tempting to write off Fate/stay night (2006) for various reasons. Anime with the “battle royale” setup have proliferated over the past 15 years to the point where casual viewers might be tempted away by newer options. Likewise, there is a multitude of Fate series with higher production values that one could launch into, such as Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, Fate/stay night: Heaven’s Feel, Fate/Zero, Fate Grand/Order, Fate/Extra, or Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya, most of which don’t require prior knowledge of Fate/stay night to understand. You could skip over the original Fate/stay night (2006) for all of those reasons… but you really shouldn’t.
You should start right here because the element of discovery plays out more organically and powerfully here than anywhere else. You feel genuine surprise at learning the original identities of Saber and the other servants, you feel moved by Shiro’s unfolding tragic past and Rin’s and Saber’s character growth, and you feel shocked when you learn the full truth about the Holy Grail War. If you start anywhere else in the franchise, you’re going to have various parts of this great story spoiled for you. This iteration is also the only one that tries to incorporate plot elements from all three of the possible branching storylines of the original visual novel (the “Fate”, “Unlimited Blade Works”, and “Heaven’s Feel” arcs), making this the most comprehensive single telling of the story you’re ever likely to see.
On top of that… controversial opinion time… I found that I simply enjoyed Fate/stay night (2006) a lot more as a viewing experience than its most direct one-to-one competitor adaptation, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, and I believe I can attribute that to three things. First, the pacing is better in this version — I didn’t have to suffer through what felt like 7 episodes of Archer kicking Shiro in the face and shouting at him that his ideals will destroy him, or an epilogue that felt a whole 2 episodes too long. I also found most of the cast more likeable, more unique, or both in the 2006 version. This version of Shiro can be a bit stupid at times, but his naivety is endearing in other ways. I thought the UBW Shiro felt rather flat by comparison, and it felt it odd and annoying how he became so inexplicably good at fighting from out of nowhere. UBW Saber was often riddled with self-doubt, and she lacked a certain quality of awe that feels central to the character here. More than any other character, though, Rin Tosaka suffered the worst downgrade between the two adaptations. A mature, bitingly sarcastic young woman with a mentor’s heart in the original, UBW saw her make a disappointing transition to an immature, one-dimensional tsundere who could have been cut-and-pasted from any other anime, and who actually had far less character as a teen than she did in her appearance as a little girl in Fate/Zero. Finally, on a purely personal note, I found the chemistry between Shiro and Saber in the 2006 version far more interesting and engaging than UBW‘s focus on the relationship between Shiro and Rin.
Before anyone starts ripping me a new one for the heretical paragraph above, understand that my preference for the original is just one man’s opinion, not an immutable law of the universe, and it should be viewed in that light. I had an excellent time with both Studio Deen’s original Fate/stay night and Ufotable’s Unlimited Blade Works, but for mostly different reasons. All versions of Fate Stay Night contain some combination of fantasy action and human drama. UBW focused more heavily on the action element and excelled beyond all expectations in that department. Its fight scenes are amazing, and its swordplay and explosions blow its predecessor out of the water. The drama, the plot, and the character-building are the aspects I personally find more interesting, though, and I felt the original exceeded the remake in those areas. Bottom line: a person who enjoys one will likely still have a very good time with the other, because they are different anime in ways that go beyond their diverging plots. (… But you should still watch this version first.)
At any rate, you know what you have to do, magus. Summon this show to your streaming service of choice, and command it to play. Once you finish the final episode, I think you’ll agree it was time very well-spent. At the time of writing, the 2006 Fate/stay night is available to stream on Hulu, HiDive, VRV, and Tubi. Collectors of physical media should note that the series has been in-print in some form or fashion for a very long time and changed distributors several times, and DVDs from Geneon, Funimation, or Sentai Filmworks are easy to find on the used market for a reasonable price. The single best physical release so far was a 1080p Blu Ray released by Sentai Filmworks in the mid-2010s, but that particular edition can be a bit expensive and hard to find these days.