Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Hero of Ages

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Sanderson’s books are puzzling. Take their surface, their visual ideas and the overall story and you’re left with a rollicking adventure that occasionally goes deep. Add his stilted, unoriginal prose and method of solving conflicts and you’re left with a generic Fantasy book that doesn’t insult the reader. After reading his essays and his view on the genre I’ve come to the conclusion he’s an awful writer who stumbled upon some great ideas.

The problem with Sanderson isn’t the story itself, but his approach to storytelling. He views his stories as a mechanical process, with the purpose of everything is get to the end. Characters, magic and objects have meaning which is determined only by how much they can solve conflict.

If we’re talking reality, this view can make sense. Life is full of conflicts and we need tools to solve it. Literature and Philosophy can be such tools. The difference is in the nature of conflicts in real life, and conflicts in fictional world. The conflict in real life is imposed on us. By that, I mean we don’t fully control it. We can instigate, but never design it from scratch. I can go out and start a fight with someone I don’t like, but I don’t control all the elements – our personal histories, which influence the conflict, are out of our control. The other person’s reactions and choices are also out of my control.

Fictional conflicts are the opposites. You build them from scratch. This is something many people forget when they talk about stories. Authors fully control their work. Authors can – and should – impose laws on their work, but even those laws are something the authors can control. Creating a problem just so you could solve it is like the brilliant Useless Machine. It’s a contraption that you turn on so it would turns itself off. If the purpose of everything in your story is that you’d solve the conflict, why create the conflict in the first place?

Sanderson’s parts fit nicely, but I see nothing admirable about that. Complexity doesn’t equal depth, and depth is what matters in fiction. Compexity can be engaging in activities that are thinking for thinking’s sake, but Chess also involves human interaction and a real conflict whose elements you don’t fully control. Reading the Mistborn novels is like playing Chess against yourself, only with a fancier dressing.

It was so disappointing when Sanderson took an important symbol and turned it into the final plot coupon. Sazed’s story is absorbing. It is the existensial crisis made physical, questioning what the hyper-intellectual who only researches, instead of providing answers and doing things, will do when the world is ending. The idea is sometimes explored, but Sazed mostly stares off into space and ruminates. By the time he takes the center stage, he realizes all his knowledge is the last screw to seal the Bad Ending’s coffin.

Too many scenes are about doing Allomantic stunts. Sanderson writes them like they’re a blow-by-blow account of a role-playing game. Even in those role-playing games, they are the most boring parts. No one cares about Fallout‘s battle systems. Planescape: Torment is a towering achievement because of the writing. These games can employ a battle system, because the person experiencing the art actually gets to use them.

Fantasy authors often forget that the position of the reader isn’t like the writer’s. The author may feel like he’s discovering a new land when writing. For the reader, it’s all laid out, no exploration of thought needed but just an info dump. The author may feel like he’s using a complex system of game rules to solve conflicts, but the reader only gets to observe it. The reader doesn’t actually use these rules. Imagine if a sports caster told you exactly how the basketball player’s legs work.

All these details in those big fights don’t matter. They don’t affect anything. Remove them, and the battle will be slightly shorter. In general, battles don’t work in literature. Violence is visual and immediate, something that’s hard to replicate in the relatively calm activitiy of reading. It’s also swift, so exact descriptions of it come off as silly. People don’t experience violence like Sanderson writes about it. It’s always over before we know what happened. He never once tries to capture the thrill of violence.

The story is more focused this time around. Stalling, the defining feature of the second book, is gone. Sanderson also deserves credit for his ability to structure stories. He never gets lost, never rambles too much or digress. He understands epicness doesn’t have to come from how many miles your characters walk, but the scope of the conflict. So making his story about stopping the end of the world is a good idea, and there is an energy in the final scenes, the emotionally appealing concept of the world torn between creation and destruction.

I want to hear Sanderson tells such a story. He can tell it without losing track, but when it’s covered in dull prose I lose hope. Many a pointless sentence fill the book. Inner thoughts drown the books in obvious or unnecessary details. I truly don’t understand why authors do this so much. I sometimes edit out of kindness prose of young writers, and they do it all the time. Are they afraid that nobody will understand? So long as you don’t write like Hegel, we can understand you just fine.

I do give him credit for not digressing too much. Scenes do gel together for a coherent story. One arc does feel like it’s separated from the main story, but Sanderson tells it like it’s self-contained, with its own conflict and resolutions. It doesn’t exist just to add details, but as an actual story. His descriptions are often to the point.

His exploration of themes is particularly bad. He wants to say something, and his fairly sparse story means ideas emerge clearly. For all the talk of worldbuilding, there aren’t too many details to keep up with. When the ideas emerge though, they’re just there. Sanderson does nothing with them. The secondary arc is about the evils of revolution, but all it has is a bunch of extremists using the government for their own selfish needs. There is no understanding or insight or sympathy towards them. It doesn’t reveal anything about this archetype, but perpetuates an empty pattern. The final antagonist also stands for nothing but death’n’destruction. It’s fun enough in a simple story, but Sanderson aims higher – a complex machine which has no reason to exist but to turn itself off.

Occasionally, it’s fun and it concludes. Mostly, it’s a Useless Machine, but not as amusing and not as offensive as George R. R. Martin. I understand some people dig epic fantasy, but this is 700 pages. Dunsany wrote a brilliant novel with only 230 pages, and reading it three times will keep revealing new things and is a better usage of my time.

2 heroes out of 5 ages

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No Game No Life

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12 episodes of praising Instrumental Reason doesn’t make for good fiction, but it makes it clear why the anime blew up so much. Popularity is never a result of quality, but of fitting in with the zeitgeist, the common biases and worldviews of an age. That’s why Game of Thrones is so popular since it shows a masculinity that’s dark, therefore intelligent instead of the happy-go-lucky nonsense of 80’s action films. As for this anime, its popularity comes from how blatant it is in showing Instrumental Reason to be the supreme reason. Imagine those vegans or marijuana advocates who think that their pet issues would solve all the world’s problems.

Before we discuss why this anime is so bad, let’s clarify what I mean by ‘Instrumental Reason’. I capitalize it because it’s a useful term. To use Charles Taylor’s definition, it is reason which is about efficiancy and problem-solving. It asks how fast we can solve a problem, what is the best way to solve a problem.

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Take the case of a busted wheel. When your wheel’s gone bust, you don’t ask what it means, what ramifications it will have on pop culture or on our perception of gender and reality. All that matters is that we change tires as quickly as possible, and that the tire will be good enough to last as long as possible. While there are theories dissecting the meaning behind games, when we play chess we don’t think what the game means. Rather, we asks how we beat the game.

In contrast, there is what I’d call ‘reason of meaning’. By that, you ask what is the nature of things. We don’t just ask how to end racism and poverty, but what exactly is racism and poverty. We’re interested in understanding these issues, defining them, understanding what is bad. Instrumental Reason leads to a lot of money for hi-tech buffons, but it cannot solve all problems since it doesn’t tell you what the problem, or the meaning of things is.

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Sora and Shiro are one pair whose world is in Instrumental Reason. While games have meaning, the meaning is related to the mere act of playing. We don’t question whether or not we should win a game and what is the nature of winning chess – the rules decide that. The world of Disboard is a world where every problem isn’t just solved by games, but by Instrumental Reason.

That means it’s a world that doesn’t have any meaning at all. The nature of any problem doesn’t matter, since there will be an arbitrary equation that must solved. Once we solve this equation, the problem ends. The anime tells the story of a megalomaniacal brother-and-sister who beat people in games, gain power and minions and occasionally pay lip-service to morality.

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Now, if the series was an examination of such Instrumental Reason, it would’ve been fine. If Instrumental Reason was merely a dominant storytelling tool, then it could still have a decent story. By that, I mean that the show works similar to Death Note and Code Geass. The story moves mainly by challenges facing the characters, and the characters need to solve them. The viewer gains pleasure from trying to solve the riddle along with the characters. However, the meaning of these challenges isn’t important.

Instrumental Reason is so dominant in this anime that these challenges don’t even pretend to have meaning. Death Note may have been a series of riddles, but underneath it there was supposed to be a story about the morality of executing criminals. It failed because it didn’t create situations where we examined the issue, but rather only asked ‘who will win?’. In similar fashion, the only question this anime asks is ‘how will Sora and Shiro win?’.

As a storytelling tool, it’s incredibly boring. It’s essentially watching a staged game. The whole thrill of watching sports is that you don’t know who will win and nothing is decided until the last moment. Stories which use Instrumental Reason make you watch a man playing chess against himself, only with more narrative fluff and (in the case of anime) pretty visuals.

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So as a story, this is a complete failure. Really, it’s about nothing. Only near the end it says something about the nature of games, but the whole thing happens in an alternative reality. Once the characters are thrown into it, no mention of the real world. Without admitting there is a real world where not everything is a game, it cannot explore the nature of games. Many throw the word ‘escapist’ around and it’s always debatable how escapist a show is, but can anyone debate this? The characters literally escape the real world so they could play forever.

If the story is an absolute failure, at least it could do well in other aspects. Sadly, it’s all bad except for the art. The art is easily some of anime’s best. It’s such a shame that a highlight in anime art is glued to a horrible story. Look at those vibrant colors, how every scene doesn’t have so much a depth of detail but a depth of color. It creates the feeling of a truly fantastical world. It applies to character design, too. While the series is shameless in fanservice, each character gets its unique touch, unique eye shapes and hairstyles. Shiro isn’t the best design, but her design is a good case in point. Her hair isn’t just long but has a distinct flow to it. Jibril is another excellent case. For a character who floats around half-naked, they sure thought about a lot of unique touches – the asymmetrical gloves, the gardient in the hair.

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Sadly, this is where the positives end. Some of the characters are good, but they need a different setting and a different storytelling method. Stephanie Dola could’ve been a light in the dark, a contrast to the world. Her emotional reaction actually could’ve added some ‘reason of meaning’, show us a character who thinks about other things besides winning. Too bad her role is to be slapped around, sexually humiliated and generally used as a tool. If so far you were convinced my rantings about ‘Instrumental Reason’ was just cranking about, here’s the final nail. The anime takes its one character who has a different view than constantly puts it down.

Sora is tied to this problem, and to the misogyny problem. He’s a 20th century masculine stereotype. Writing about transformation of masculinity in fiction is incomplete without him. We see how once the manly hero packed guns, now he’s shagging women and is being a conniving, selfish asshole. What defines Sora isn’t heroism like those in the 80’s movies, but his pure ‘Instrumental Reason’. All that matters to him is winning, all he can think about is winning.

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Occasionally he displays some moral code about being nice to those he lose. We never see the general ethics that guide him, though. Since he’s comfortable using everyone as pieces, he’s more like a Wolf of Wall Street, doing everything to win and using people as means to an end. It fits with the zeitgeist. Go to school, and they will teach you how the only important thing is making loads of money. Whatever technology you invent, whatever content you produce, it doesn’t matter so long as you get money. No surprise our politicians are so corrupt.

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Using people as means, besides pissing off Kant also gives the whole anime a strong misogynistic bent. You don’t just see women in sexy situations, but often humiliating situations. Stephanie gets the most of it. An episode is dedicated to treating her like an animal only to teach her a lesson. He also takes pictures of her nude without consent and there’s the whole ‘laughing at flat women’ thing. I don’t see anything funny about humiliating a girl, taking nude pictures of her and generally framing her as inferior and dumb. Worst of all, we’re meant to cheer for Sora and the characters eventually come to like him. I don’t see how his rise to power demanded treating Dola so awfully.

Contrary to the creator’s idea, I would rather have a beer with Stephanie Dola and not just because she’s a woman. No Game No Life is pure escapist fantasy for the hi-tech age. In an age where we want to just solve problems instead of thinking about their nature, it’s the ideal anime. I’m reminded of a story where some government officials asked how to lower the amount of poor people. Onc offered to change the definition to the American definitions, and then there will be less poor people on the count. Notice how the numbers change but no one asks what exactly poverty is and what’s the actual problem. It’s a comfortable mindset, but we don’t live in Disboard. Our world isn’t clean and ordered where each problems have clear laws. In this world, you have to ask what is the problem, what it means and the whole shebang. Also, you can’t go around treating women like Sora treats Stephanie. Somebody might come and get all 80’s Action Movie on your ass.

1.5 misogynists out of 5

Brandon Sanderson – The Well of Ascension

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Just like that, Brandon Sanderson has turned into George R. R. Martin. A more appropriate title would’ve been ‘The Hell of Continuaton’. There’s no excuse to write such a dull, plodding sequel to a fairly exciting fantasy adventure. What happened? Imagine if a Grindcore band released a twinkly Post-Rock album but kept the noise and the screaming. Actually, that sounds too ambitious. If a Grindcore band did that, it’ll be a push towards new territories. Sanderson had no money for an editor.

Static paragraphs are a disease, especially in adventure stories. These are paragraphs in which literally nothing happens. All we get is the rambling of the narrator or of the character. Since the narrator is often 3rd-person omniscient, we don’t really care about its thoughts. This narrator doesn’t even exist. If it’s the rambling of the characters, a question arises. Why not just write in first person?

It’s a symptom I see in many rookie writers who lack confidence. They don’t see the reader’s point of view or understand what is necessary to them. They don’t understand art is an experience, not a collection of facts. Paragraphs teasing what will happen, what could have happened, what the characters are like litter the pages. As notes, they might be useful. By writing down who your characters are, you have a solid idea of what you should be writing. By writing down what might happen, you have a solid idea of what routes you can take. As a technique to avoid ‘just write the next scene’ writing, it’s brilliant.

These are just notes for a novel, not a novel itself. Bands don’t put all their jam sessions and demos smack in the middle of a song. Imagine if, in the middle of “One Step Closer”, Linkin Park put a random jam session that later gave birth to the chorus of “Numb”. Sure, it’s interesting but what is it doing in the middle of a punchy Nu Metal song? Any time an author puts rhetorical questions in a 3rd person narrative, he’s being a horrible author.

Narrative questions are always answered, so asking us ‘will he be able to save her’ is pointless. We’ll see in a few pages. As for philosophical questions, they must not appear since fiction is expression of philosophy, not an essay about it. I did put some rhetorical questions in this review. The purpose was to make you imagine, to focus your attention by varying sentence structure and expressing disdain at such techniques. In narrative prose, they make zero sense.

What’s odd is that it’s the only bad technique Sanderson falls into. In all other aspects, he remains fine. His story is still shallow, but he avoids the long-winding descriptions of Martin or his misogyny, or his multiple plot threads that go nowhere. Sanderson describes rooms using, at best, 3 sentences. It’s never profound, but he emphasizes the right details. The plot is also tightly focused, with a small arc inside the gigantic save-the-world one. The book was padded to 700 solely because of these static paragraphs. If Sanderson got rid of them, we would’ve been had 300-400 pages of a shallow but exciting story. Did Sanderson pad it so it would look cool on the Fantasy shelf?

As for the story itself, it’s just as shallow as the previous one. All hints of something deeper, more original are gone. As a role-player, I noticed there’s a scale between games heavy on playing a pesonality and games playing on skill. The latter are elaborate puzzle games with a bit of pretending, whereas the former are an improvised theater. The former are more fun, since they’re more emotionally engrossing and memorable. Whenever I jump into a game I always aim for that direction and find myself not doing anything. My character has a lot of skills which I’m supposed to use but forget about. I don’t care how good the paper says I am with a sword. I want to understand my character, get into his mindset and interact with other characters.

Sanderson comes from the opposite tradition. His magic system exists solely for RPG’s, with instruction manuals and technical information but little meaning. This is a world where people can influence emotions, store attributes yet the psychology of this never appears. I don’t buy the excuse that they all had to go into hiding. That’s just Sanderson avoiding confronting the meaning behind his magic. As a role-playing system, it seems exciting. Reading about it is dull.

All these details about what they push, how they push, how they recover strength is so dull. When someone tells you their character in their RPG has 80 STR, do you care? Does it make you want to play the game? The problem with writing about fictional fighting is that it’s so arbitrary. Sanderson dispenses a lot of physical facts about non-physical objects. Non-physical objects don’t have physical traits. All fiction is symbolic since in the end it’s just some ink on the page. The action scenes consist of unimportant physical information with nothing symbolic. Conflicts are elaborate chess games, with enemies having a weak point you need to use V.A.T.S. to target. One scene even features a dungeon crawl. To his credit, the final confrontation had some emotional depth.

His characters remain his strong point. Even if by this point they won’t ever have a complex psychology, they have personalities and distinct dialogues. His dialogues are the most excited parts and not just because dialogues are exciting by nature. He gives his characters obvious quirks that affect all of their speech patterns. Even when Ham isn’t musing philosophically, he has a more thoughtful tone. Breeze’s conceit is always apparent, sometime more and sometimes less. That’s why even if Sanderson’s story is, at its heart, shallow his characters are alive enough to make it exciting.

His story mode also eschew the typical long journey story mode for a more static one. Most of it is spent waiting for the big climax, but by sealing our characters in a small area he gives them a lot of room to interact. His story is less driven by action and more by character interaction. If there was any opportunity to launch his story into something truly special, it was here. Sadly, it padded by a lot of static paragraphs. The ending is also disconnected from the main story. Whereas the novel’s center is the siege, the ending brings back the Hero of Ages myth. Sanderson isn’t very good at splitting his books and dividing them into individual stories. That’s sad since they are here. He only needed to finish the book when the siege was over.

Sanderson doesn’t deliver on the promise of Mistborn. Then again, I heard this was typical, run-of-the-mill fantasy. Sanderson’s storytelling is more energetic, more character driven and his writing isn’t so stiff. It helped make the first book an exciting adventure, but this one is a good writer in search of an editor to help his writing give shape. I’ll still tackle the final book but I’m worried.

1.5 failed ascensions out of 5

Makai Senki Disgaea

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Without even trying, Disgaea steps over all those anime about a hero who Wants to Become to the Best. It’s not a deliberate, focused exercise in style or cliches. The only idea behind it is to deliver a simple adventure about becoming an overlord. This form will never die and that’s okay. You can fit many ideas into it. Somehow, Disgaea manages to get it right without fitting any ideas.

Other great works in this style – JoJo and Kill la Kill – have a bigger purpose than simply telling a story. One was about testing the limit of how macho you could get. The other comes from the head of Imaishi, and that guy never stops hallucinating. After all, we’ve seen this pattern of Hero Defeats Enemy plenty of times. Relying on it means falling back on cliches, and cliches are always terrible when they’re crutches.

Disgaea has no such lofty ambitions. It doesn’t push the monomyth further, or tries to get more steam out of its formula. In fact, it has no ambitions besides telling a fun story about an exciting adventure. Unambitious anime are rare, and often terrible. Plenty of time anime fail despite having big aims and trying hard. There was a lot less effort put into Disgaea than other shows, but the result is great.

That’s because telling a simple story isn’t that hard. You just need to remember your story is simple. The problem with doorstop fantasy series and long-running anime is that their size comes back to bite them in the ass. If your story is only about adrenaline and a few oddballs, why stretch it to be as long as life itself?

Free of these limitations, Disgaea lets loose with its wacky world. How it compares to the original game, I have no idea. As an anime, it gets everything right. The focus is both on memorable characters, unique set-pieces and a story that’s bigger than its initial premise. Although it’s mostly comic and light-hearted, it has its powerful emotional moments. It’s another anime that proves that if you make your characters feel alive enough, we’ll be swept away by their troubles.

The characters of Disgaea aren’t psychological. They’re of the grand-mythic type, but even there it’s in a basic form. A megalomanic, a pure-hearted angel and a conniving demon. These templates still work because the characters have an inner drive. Each of them reacts to the situations in their own unique way. Even if their personalities aren’t the most original or developed – they’re never as bizarre as Kill la Kill – they’re still lifelike.

The wacky nature of the world adds excite to the adventure. It’s a free-form world. There’s no internal logic to it. Hell is a bizarre place where weird stuff happens. If that makes the world shallow, these lone set-pieces still achieve the lifelike quality of the characters. The pacing is focused. Each episode stands on its own and has its own arc.

It’s important for your story to consist of such arcs. Stories that only build up put all their eggs in one basket, and can easily fall apart (Especially if your adventure goes on for a lifetime or two). Disgaea‘s adventure is fun because every moment is meant to be fun. In fact, the series often puts its big climax on the afterburner. It’s more focused on what happens now.

These set-pieces are often bizarre and silly, but why shouldn’t they? Adventure stories are that their best when they’re wild. We’re attracted to adventures because the events are often bizarre in exotic places. The silly nature of Disgaea‘s world makes it both more lifelike and more immersive than any WHOA WORLDBUILDING work by Western fantasists. Sure, Maritn filled with world with details and names. He never made something as attention-grabbing as the Prinnies.

Looking back, the expansion of the climax isn’t so unexpected. The hint that the show is more than Laharl becoming overlord are at the very beginning. It’s still a great decision. When the climax arrives, it’s huge. One climax leads right into another, but it never overloads. Every episode has its own inner story. Thus the climax doesn’t explode from too much content. Rather, it’s divided up and allowed to build tension.

While it gets the basic formula right, Disgaea is still an unambitious anime. That’s the flaw that follows it in every episode. It doesn’t feel like only an advertisement, but the art and the basic nature of things point to an unambitious team. The art is great, but the animation quality is fairly low. It’s not a minimalist art style yet the lack of details in the background make it feel like the creators didn’t think it deserved it.

The character design is also great, but everyone on the side is piss-poor. One episode has a one-time antagonist that looks like it was designed in one minute. The creators are clearly capable of great character design and good background. The visuals drastically improve in the climax (The Prinny redemption episode is especially beautiful). Until then though, it looks so basic and uninspired it takes you out of the anime. Animation quality isn’t everything and art style is far more important. Here, though, the animation quality affects the art when the character design is boring and the backgrounds aren’t as wild as they should be.

The story is also, in the end, about nothing. As the mighty Digimon Tamers proved, an adventure story can definitely be full of meaning. Disgaea doesn’t even try although it’s capable. The Prinnies are a brilliant creation. They’re hilarious and an episode proves they can be emotionally powerful. The series never plays around that. The series never pays too much attention to Laharl’s psychological development although it could. It’s not pretentious. It simply doesn’t try to add psychological depth or even cover it up. I don’t know what is worse – not trying, or covering up.

The flaws prevent Disgaea from being great, but it’s highly enjoyable as a light adventure. Many anime can still learn from this – the characters have inner drives, each episode is focused on a single arc and the climax is bigger than the synopsis says. There really isn’t much to dislike here, although some will be turned off by the lack of ambition.

3 Prinnies out of 5

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders I

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The glass ceiling shines gloriously bright here. Isn’t the trouble with glass ceilings that they’re invisible? Yet the flaws here are so obvious. The series is no major experiment. Creators who fall to such obvious flaws often can’t get the basics of storytelling. I haven’t seen an anime that gave up so miserably since Sword Art Online. There’s no other way to describe what happens to the series halfway through. You literally see the band members running out of ideas, but the concert is still rocking.

It’s not a major disaster like Sword Art Online because the nature of giving up is different. That anime hinted at psychological and philosophical insight only to deliver a boring monomyth about an asshole and a helpless princess. Stardust Crusaders simply gives up on pushing its idea further. It’s content with sitting in the same place, offering good variations but never breaking out of the mold. I’m not sure what it says about the creator that they managed to create 10 episodes that barely add anything, yet are still a lot of fun.

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The improvement over the first installment is that this one lives up to the title of ‘bizarre’. The previous season gained its energy from pushing archetypes to the extreme. Nothing about it was weird, thought. It was all archetypical, tough guys posing and using battle startergies. Stardust Crusaders throws the same passion for archetypes into bizare-ness.

There are about 15 villains of the week here, and each of them is a puzzle in its own. Anytime you think they ran out of ideas, something new comes up. No villain is truly like the other. The creators use this to play with genres and story types. You get the dream narrative, the killer car, the hostile creepy-looking town and the ghost ship. It’s a prime example of why people who whine about good guys winning miss the point. Of course the good guys will win – there’s no reason for them to lose unless ‘the world is unjust’ is something you explore. The fun thing about these stories is how they solve the puzzle. Just like the first series, it’s never about shouting and brute strength. Each villain is a puzzle to solve. In a way, it’s a mish-mash of mystery and battle shounen.

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Yet this successful formula is exactly what keeps the series down. The series’ ideas never progress. There’s no gradual change in tone or characters. Events happen, but they’re too self-contained. It’s a heroic journey that’s told as a Slice of Life anime. The disconnection between the events lowers their meaning. An anime about a band of heroes fighting a different enemy every time can be fine, but it clashes with what the series is at heart. The result is something that’s stuck in-between. It’s too Slice-of-Life for the journey to feel like it actually progresses, and too journey-like for the episodes to truly deviate from each other.

It doesn’t help that the series gives up at some point. What’s worse, sitting comfortably behind your limits or trying fruitlessly to break them? The Stands eventually lose their meaning. They carry Tarot card names but their powers have little to do with it and the creators don’t even try to come up with names. What started off as using Tarot and colors as inspiration for villain was dropped in exchange for weird superpowers. They’re entertaining superpowers, but it only reinforces the disconnection between the events.

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The series stops halfway through the actual arc. You’d think that would be a problem, but the lack of conclusion comes more from the format rather than splitting up the series. It’s these aforementioned flaws that make the last episode feel anticlimatic. All these events and enemies, and in the end nothing changed. Our heroes arrive in Egypt, so what?

Stardust Crusaders is never bad. What’s frustrating is that it always threatens to be way better than its predecessor. The characters are way better – distinctively quirky and silly. They each contribute something to the group but have enough agency to create as much conflict as they solve. The focus also never locks in on one character. They each have equal screen time. It’s so balanced it’s easy to forget Jotaru is kind of meant to be the main character. Both the enemies and the characters are more bizarre, sillier, more mythic and lifelike than the predecessor. The art is also more colorful and varied. While it doesn’t play so much with colors, the scenery is varied and the characters suffer less from Same Face Syndrome.

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The glass ceiling is tough to break. Maybe the series didn’t even try, but chose to sit under a different ceiling. It’s still recommended to anyone who’s into fighting and macho dudes. The genre hardly gets better than this unless you’re going full retard with Kill la Kill. It dodges all the problems long-running shounen shows have – there’s focus, no babbling, no info dumps and it actually ends. Despite doing pretty much everything right, the result is only a good anime and nothing beyond this.

3 stands out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

Big Order

 

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Sakae has a bizarre, messy mind. For all the flaws in Future Diary, it’s a masterpiece. The low points – and there are many – are there because there’s few anime like it. Future Diary had no main tradition to draw from, no main road to follow. A lot of great anime follow clear traditions, building on obvious flaws and emphasizing strengths. Even the abstract Serial Experiments Lain belongs warmly in pre-millenium tension art.

It’s hard to decide whether Future Diary falls more on its good side. Expecting Big Order to fulfill that series’ promise is silly, since there can never be another one like it. If the premise sounds familiar to you, you’ll be disappointed. The structures aren’t similar at all. Still, the little you can expect is that the anime will fail in a spectacular fashion.

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The crucial flaw in Big Order isn’t the lacking characters or the plot. The bad traits of Future Diary are amplified, but at least they have the same energy that one had. The problem is that the core of the anime is generic. Remove the layers, the odd designs, the violence and the messy plot and you’re left with some kind of a battle shounen about saving the world for this one person we love so much because we’re related to them by blood.

I never wanted to say this about a work by Sakae. Big Order is normal. Everything good about is just a cover on a generic story.

The beginning is good enough. The power of Orders is close to be symbolic rather than battle skills. There’s a little exploration about the nature of wills, how our wills are limited and they could even do something the concept of losing loved ones. Two characters get completely different wishes despite losing their family. The conflicting nature of wishes is addressed and by the time the antagonist is revealed, he’s given some time to express himself.

The character design isn’t as expressive, but Sakae still goes wild with it. There’s a nun with bunny ears, a twintailed girl with a flower in hair, two long-haired dudes and a square guy. Everyone wears weird outfits and the design plays with body structure and size. Characters who appear for barely 10 minutes in the whole show get a memorable design.

The highlight of the show is DAISY, a bizarre creation that deserved a better anime or at least a cameo appearance in the revamp of Future Diay, whenever someone gets around to make it. That little touch of having her hang upside down adds a lot. It emphasizes the distance she views humanity from. Although she’s meant to be a fairy who grants wishes, she’s always distant and slightly cynical towards the whole thing. It gets nowhere, but every time she appears she injects some life.

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Oddly enough, the most normal creations in the anime are the main characters. People who wanted a Future Diary copy were disappointed. In fact, it often feels like the anime tries too hard to distance itself from its big sister. Why is that? Future Diary is unique enough to be worth revisiting. If Sakae wants to do something new so much, why is he falling back on cliches?

Yukki/Yuno were deeply flawed human beings. People disliked them for their nature, but they missed the point. They were supposed to be imperfect. Everyone in that series was imperfect, was full of desires and selfishness. This gave them humanity and made it believable at its most surreal. Eiji is a likable guy who only wants to live happy with his sister, but he has no desires, no motivations whatsoever.

He’s responsible for humanity’s worst horror, and that concept of guilt is explored for a while but abandoned. Scenes showing how much everyone hates Eiji are that type of deep moments Sakae can conjure. How everyone gathers around televisions, how they wallow in their hatred for this one person is frightening. Even if he is that horrible, what about this hatred? It’s the cult of anti-personality, and even if you think it doesn’t exist just look at how everyone reacts to Trump or Hitler.

Since Eiji is, at his heart, a generic moral hero who only wants to defend his loved ones this means nothing. His only drive in the series is protecting his sister and the guilt kind of drives him, but was it necessary? He’d want to keep his sister safe even if he didn’t cause a great destruction. We never see the psychological effect of guilt, of knowing everyone hates you. Occasionally there are hints Eiji is actually working alone, but that’s never expanded upon. The whole ‘one man and his sister against the world’ could work even just as a fun show, but it never goes there. The guilt is just another element in the many tired speeches about protecting Sena.

As for her, she’s an object. Everyone cares deeply about her happiness, but why? Her connection to Eiji is only by blood. It’s not that we don’t know how their relationship is. It simply doesn’t exist. Whenever they interact, she’s simply being cute and he’s being nice. If her cuteness was integral, if that charm was emphasized, exaggerated and played with then fine. She’s never portrayed as a character that captures people’s heart. Rather, it’s the lifeless trope of hapless girl who’s convenient to rescue.

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It doesn’t help that the few times we get insight into other characters, it always has to do with protecting loved ones. The Future Diary had the ‘dark past’ cliche, but at least each character had a slightly different past and reacted to it different. Characters may have different Orders, but they all wish they could’ve rescued their friends or family and they don’t gain different conclusions out of the loss.

Loss is one of the worst experiences you can go through. If we all experienced in the same way though, it wouldn’t be so harrowing. Misery loves company, and by listening to how others felt when their parents or friends or spouses died would’ve helped us through. Loss is such a harrowing thing, and how you lose someone affects how you react to it. Big Order only plays with the emotional weight it has. It gives the characters a convenient excuse to do what they do. That’s better than making them plain evil, but it’s not enough to make them wholly human. They’re not given motivations, but batteries in different colors.

The only thing the show has going for it is Sakae’s wild imagination. The little he had left was for wacky set-pieces. There are odd situations and turns all over the anime. Gates open to mental spaces, characters become pregnant by touching their ears, an obstacle course – somewhere here an incredibly fun anime is hiding. But Big Order doesn’t have the conviction Future Diary had.

That one jumped from genre to genre, but it approached each with so much conviction you could create 10 seperate anime out of it. Big Order is more scared of becoming a clone, so it does away with anything resembling Thriller, chucks away most of the romance and piles on the action. There aren’t many tonal shifts and doing away with the death game scenario looks silly with what you have left. If it concludes with people sacrificing themselves to make a non-character happy, what’s the point?

There’s energy and verve here, but Big Order is a mess without directions. Notice the use of plural form. If it was an amalgam of genres that didn’t gel, it would be brave enough to be interesting. Instead, it’s too scared of its big sister. So it pushes forward, one wacky set-piece after another. Without a core, or multiple ones to rely on all it has is cliches. This is a perfect examples of when tropes are a bad thing. The anime uses them only because it has nothing to say, because it’s too afraid to explore its themes and too afraid to pile on the ideas. So yes, there’s a Rock God and a pentagram of some sorts and gates and an upside down fairy, but it’s just another story about protecting the little sister. Try BioShock instead.

2.5 floating girls out of 5

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

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Imagine if Dragon Ball Z was actually good, or if Kill la Kill wasn’t so weird.

I feel sorry for this anime. It takes a stupid, pointless idea and makes the best of it. The world has dozens of stories about macho dudes beating up other macho dudes because they don’t agree with their morals. In the worst cases, these stories are filled with overcomplicated fight systems nobody cares about, and silly monologues.

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The world of macho dudes who never really die, where time doesn’t exist is a bit tired now. Franchises like Naruto, One Piece and Dragon Ball will outlast the heat death of the universe. It’s bizarre how no author of these mangas pulled a Robert Jordan, but nothing is as bizarre as this anime.

Macho-ness, like most tropes, is bad because it’s boring. The problem with using tropes has nothing to do with sophistication. It’s just that after seeing the same technique for 100 stories, you get bored. You become like JoJo and can predict their next sentences. Bad cliches are used by storytellers who don’t know what kind of story they want to tell. Is it an epic adventure? A silly show about silly people beating each other? An examination of good an evil?

JoJo‘s strength is the focus, unlike all these shows. The anime makes it clear what it wants to be early in the beginning. Then, every single thing that happens connects to that. JoJo wants to deliver a simple story of good and evil. The bad guys are really, really bad. The good guys are really good and charming. If the fate of the world was really in the hands of a macho dude, we’d all be filled with adrenaline. When it’s a bunch of colors on the screen, you need more than this.

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Since JoJo knows its purpose is to deliver excitement, it will do everything it can to raise the stakes. Bad guys don’t come back after being defeated just because you can milk the show a little more. They come back because it raises the stakes, makes us wonder how they can be defeated. The anime establishes that everyone knows what everyone’s next move is, which is exciting because we wonder when will one of these will fail.

Battles in anime always have pre-determined results. Every battle in anime is a man playing chess against himself. So a battle is only as exciting when the writers can challenge themselves, when they find ways to overturn their own schemes. The set-pieces drive the battles, not just meaningless shots of people using fists. Each battle is a progression of moves. It’s an odd way to describe a fight but they’re like a chess game in how every move has a clear influence on what happens next. There’s something thrilling in seeing a person trying hard to beat himself up in chess.

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It’s not the animation that sparks up the battle, which is weird. Most of the time, exciting fights are well animated. They have fluid movements that create a kinetic energy. JoJo opts for more still shots, but its set-pieces and beautiful progression saves it.

The art style itself is very old school and gloriously macho. It’s so old-school it’s jarring at first. Everyone has a Schwarznegger build and dangerously low amounts of fat. Even characters who don’t fight look muscular, with square faces and bodies of an endomorph. This style can be ugly. It does suffer from Same Face Syndrome, but they make up for it in other ways. Where it fails to dazzle in character shapes, it succeeds in customes and hairstyle. Every important character has a unique, often elaborate dress style.

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In fact, beyond the endomorph build, JoJo‘s version of macho is unique. Perhaps it was common in old times, but today it’s rarer. We now love our heroes rebellious, slightly selfish and enforcing their morality in brutal ways. We want Deadpool and Iron Man, heroes who are only good because the plot requires it. The macho-ness of JoJo is the ‘respectable gentleman’, a man who respects even his enemies. The first part drills this the most, but even the second arc with the rowdy second JoJo has it. Wham is an honorable villain. JoJo duels him fairly and with respect, rather than with malice.

So the characters don’t look gritty and tough. Rather, in the language of 12-year-old kids, they look gay. Their customes are elaborate and decorative. They look like men who are so sure of their macho-ness that they don’t mind looking so ridiculous.

The female design also enforces this weird form of macho-ness. JoJo doesn’t downplay the female’s femininity. In fact, it shows it with all the glory. Although there are no ecchi moments, the female characters look distinctly feminine – lipstick, eyelashes, gentle features. A common problem in battle shounen is that everyone is so macho, the show is afraid of femininity. So besides having longer hair and breasts, the females look like men. JoJo doesn’t need sexuality to remember its female characters are female. It’s a macho series that doesn’t view femininity as a weakness.vlcsnap-2016-03-05-23h15m50s208

For all its fun (and it’s a lot of fun), there’s a glass ceiling it cannot break. It’s a great macho adventure about saving the world, but that’s all there is. It does a lot with its style, but it’s always limited by it. Dragon Ball Z looks pathetic next to it, but JoJo is overshadowed by Kill la Kill. For all of its weirdness and energy, it never becomes as absurd Kill la Kill. It aims there and it succeeds enough to not become useless. I’ll definitely check out the sequels, but Imaishi’s cartoon prove there is so much more you can do with macho bullshit and saving the world. The fact JoJo keeps up with it and and is still worthwhile is a point for it.

JoJo is excellent at what it does. There are plenty of silly people who think there’s no value in adventure stories about saving the world. It may not be Kill la Kill, but it gets everything else right – the pacing is focused, the art is beautiful, the fights are coherent. It’s the sort of thing that inspires a lot of anime that can’t measure up to it.

6 skedaddling out of 5 here