ANIME REVIEW: Typhoon Noruda

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.

ANIME REVIEW: Dusk Maiden of Amnesia

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.

Dusk maiden of Amnesia Blu-ray

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.

ANIME REVIEW: The Devil Lady (Part 1)

NOTE: Every once in a while, I have more to say about an anime than can easily fit in a single review. The Devil Lady, or Devilman Lady, is a thought-provoking, awesome horror / dark fantasy anime that is good enough to merit that kind of multi-part coverage. Today we’ll start with a spoiler-free review of the series to provide an overview—in the follow-up articles, I’ll dive more in-depth into the series’ symbolism, drama, and dark themes.

Lesson learned: never judge an anime by its cover art. I avoided The Devil Lady for years on the assumption that it was just another gory splatterpunk anime, a genre that tends to be strong on creative transformation sequences but pretty abysmal otherwise. However, I found that I underestimated this show. The Devil Lady has heart and a fascinatingly gray moral core.

Devil Lady - Asuka and Jun 1

The Devil Lady is a horror story, but looking below the surface, you could also describe it as equal parts Hellsing, X-Files, and X-Men. It tells the story of Jun Fudou, a beautiful but timid fashion model who finds herself drawn into a battle for humanity’s survival. She has a strange mutation in her DNA that allows her to change into a demonic monster, but unlike most of these “devil beasts,” she retains her sanity and conscience while transformed. Jun is drafted against her will to fight other devil beasts by an ice-cold blonde named Lan Asuka who commands a secret, government-sanctioned paramilitary organization (much like Hellsing – but note that Devil Lady predates it by several years). This is a shadow war – kept out of the media, waged to end the threat of monsters who often look like ordinary people on the surface, and fought against the backdrop of a gradually unfolding conspiracy (much like X-Files). Finally, the show’s gray morality centers around Jun herself, a mutant of sorts who is fighting to save a world that hates and fears her, even as other, more violent mutants call her a traitor and mark her for death (much like X-Men). Get the idea?

It’s a weird mix that could have ended disastrously, but The Devil Lady pulls off its occult formula with flying colors. For starters, this anime is wonderful about taking its time when appropriate. It will slowly set up a creepy scene with music that makes your skin crawl. At other times, quiet, sad scenes with equally sorrowful music will absolutely break your heart. (If you haven’t noticed, I’m a fan of the score.) It also features a manageable-sized cast of characters who almost all develop as the anime progresses. You may be alternately impressed or shocked by how much you end up caring about people you assumed would only be background characters.

Devil Lady - DL Battle 2

The writing is extremely sharp, and its plot twists pass the litmus test of making even more sense after a second viewing. There are some phenomena that are never completely explained, and the extent to which all of this madness is caused by mutant biology versus the supernatural occult is an especially muddy point. However, I feel it’s acceptably ambiguous. You’re provided with all of the information you need to make sense of the story, and it’s okay to leave a certain amount open to the individual viewer’s imagination and interpretation. The rouge’s gallery of monsters is awesome – sometimes a bit weird, even considering the strange premise, but always creative and grotesque. The action sequences are well-done – not usually flashy or impressive from an animation standpoint, but their quality is consistent and does the job, and the character artwork during battle is top-notch.

Devil Lady - Rogue 2

Devil Lady does have a few possible turn-offs despite its quality, though. For one, the animation style looks very dated for a turn-of-the-millennium series, and the artwork can sometimes be noticeably dark in the literal sense. You’ll encounter quite a few scenes with dark-brown figures walking down a dark blue corridor in dim light, and the whole thing can literally be hard to see. (I think a good remaster on Blu-Ray could mitigate this through sharper clarity and contrasts.) There’s also a lot of light nudity, but it makes sense in context to heighten the animal nature of the transformed devil-beasts rather than being there for fan service and giggles. The English dub voicing is apparently a matter of some contention. I personally loved the dub, but I have read other reviews from people normally friendly to English dubs who didn’t care for it, so you may have to try it yourself to judge. Lastly, this anime shouldn’t be attempted by people who are easily depressed, because it can be a humongous downer. Once the engineers start shoveling coal in the main-character misery train, it’s full steam ahead until episode 26, and the sheer volume of unhappiness can become draining after a while.

One quick, last note: despite his heavy billing, this particular iteration of Devil Lady really isn’t manga-ka Go Nagai’s baby at all. Nagai did create the character, and his original manga introduced the characters Jun Fudou and Lan Asuka, but the similarities end there. The anime adaptation completely reworked the story and even much of the basic concept, so, love it or hate it, most of the credit for this TV series rightfully goes to Chiaki Konaka (series creator / screenplay) and Toshiki Hirano (director).

As of the writing of this review, ADV’s release of The Devil Lady is out of print, but it’s not impossibly expensive or hard to find if you get it used. I would love for another anime licensor (maybe Discotek?) to pick this one up and give it the Blu-Ray treatment. It’s honestly one of the best-thought-out and most compelling anime I’ve ever watched, to say nothing of being a great tale of dark suspense, and I have no hesitation at all in putting it in my personal “Top 5” list of favorite anime. The Devil Lady deserves better than to be cast into out-of-print hell, and if we’re lucky, someday she’ll claw her way out.

UPDATE (1/2021): Well, let it never be said that Christmas wishes don’t come true! The Devil Lady is back in print under its original Japanese title, Devilman Lady, and as I predicted and hoped for, it’s on a 1080p Blu Ray by Discotek! I was thrilled to receive my copy, and the results of their efforts are better than I could have imagined. Discotek obviously went back to the original masters for this release, because the quality of the images is leaps and bounds better than the original ADV DVDs. The HD contrast sharpened up the lines just like I’d hoped it would, but I was completely unprepared for how much better the color looked. Reds, yellows, pinks are deep, vibrant, and brilliant, and even the blues and blacks are a deeper and more consistent in a way that helps dark scenes stand out. By comparison, ADV’s transfer looks positively washed-out and almost snowy at points. Discotek also restored the original Japanese title sequence, which ADV had slightly altered to insert an English logo, in favor of keeping the original images but adding subtitles for the kanji. The Discotek release comes on two discs with an outer slipcase, and it does include ADV’s original English dub, which is one part of the original release that I gave high marks. Literally the only bad thing I have to say about this new Blu Ray edition is that they picked a fairly boring image for its front cover. Otherwise, this late 2020 release is simply outstanding. Major, major props to Discotek for giving this classic anime the gorgeous remaster it needed and deserves.