First Impressions: The Rose Of Versailles

Is she woman or man?

Would a rose raised as a thorn

still smell as sweet?

There are a few things that I tend to obsess over. (Okay, more than a few, but still.) Anime is one of them. 80s movies and 80s music are two more. And I constantly research the French Revolution as though I were getting paid for it. (If only!) So when I heard that there was a famous shoujo anime from the 80s that takes place at Versailles in the years just before the French Revolution, well, you can imagine my excitement. Actually, it debuted on television just a couple of weeks before I was born! Talk about a sign. And so today I bring you my first impression of the gender-bending classic The Rose of Versailles.

General Jarjeyes must have been wearing his bad idea breeches that night.

Here’s the skinny on episode one: General Jarjeyes is pissed off that he gets a daughter instead of a son, and so, on the very night that she’s born, he declares her name to be Oscar, and she will be raised as the son he never had. (Of course, if gender roles were seen for the ridiculous social restrictions that they really are, the sex of his newborn wouldn’t be an issue. Oh well, in a perfect world…) Flash forward fourteen years to 1769, and we see teenage Oscar fencing with Andre, the grandson of Oscar’s nursemaid. Meanwhile General Jarjeyes hopes to secure the position of Commander of the Royal Guard for his son/daughter, which entails protecting Marie Antoinette. The King of France states that if Oscar can defeat Gerodere, the rival son of another nobleman, at fencing, then she will indeed have the job. However, Oscar refuses her father, stating that she has no wish to babysit some girl. They fight, and as Oscar stalks away General Jarjeyes yells that the duel is set for noon the next day, and she better be there.

Here I’ve provided a collage of Gerodere getting his ass handed to him for your enjoyment.

The day of the duel arrives, and the entire court waits with bated breath to finally catch sight of Oscar, the famed beauty. Oscar, though, has other plans. Instead of appearing before the court, she waits for Gerodere to pass by in the woods. Once he appears, she tells him that she has no wish to be the Commander of the Royal Guard, but just so he doesn’t think that she’s scared of fighting him, she challenges him to the duel then and there. He scoffs and does the expected blustering about not wanting to harm a girl, then quickly gets his ass handed to him. The King and Oscar’s father are both furious, but instead of being punished, Gerodere explains to His Majesty that Oscar really is the best person for the job. Now all General Jarjeyes has to do is get Oscar to accept. He implores Andre, her best friend, to convince her to take up the position.

Andre and Oscar, chillin’ out max and relaxin’ all cool.

Andre takes Oscar horseback riding, but unbeknownst to him, she heard her father’s conversation with him and is expecting Andre to beg her to do the right thing. Yet Andre truly wants what is best for Oscar, and thanks to his grandmother he understands that her reluctance isn’t just about “babysitting a girl,” but choosing to live her life as a woman or as a man. Oscar yells at Andre and he baits her into having a fist fight. After they both release some aggression, Oscar rides away in a rush with Andre shouting, “Now is the time to become a woman again!!” When Andre returns he and the rest of the household are greeted to the sight of Oscar walking stoically down the stairs in the Commander of the Royal Guard’s uniform. With her father’s blessing, she and Andre ride off to go and meet Marie Antoinette, as well as Oscar’s destiny.

Oscar steels herself for thirty-nine episodes filled with changing room shenanigans and jock strap jokes.

There was nothing I couldn’t love here. As I mentioned before, Versailles in the years before the Revolution is a period in history that I just can’t get enough of, and it was well represented in the surroundings as well as the outfits of the characters. Speaking of which, the characters, while not entirely fleshed out yet, have the potential for some extraordinary storylines, especially the Lady Oscar. Several aspects reminded me of the singular episode I saw from Revolutionary Girl Utena: the dated yet fantastic artwork (though Rose isn’t quite as angular and pointed as Utena), the youthful and rebellious protagonists, the elaborate duels, the totally rad 80s theme songs (even though Utena is from the 90s, it still has a very 80s vibe to me), and of course, the gender-bending. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: all the best anime series have gender-bending, and from the tiny bit of Rose that I’ve seen, this one is ripe for some truly excellent comedic mix-ups, dramatic issues, and romantic problems. I only wish it were more widely available to English-speakers! Besides being expensive, all of the DVDs of this series that I’ve found for sale are either subtitle-less or in French. While I’m sure that forty episodes would improve my elementary French-speaking skills, I’d rather absorb the story in my native language before taking on such an endeavor. Ah well, c’est la vie. I’ll continue to search the web for any and all episodes that I can, because The Rose of Versailles is a series that I definitely need to see more of.

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Can You Keep My Secret: Maid Sama

At school she takes orders from no one.

At work she serves all with a smile.

At long last I finished watching Maid Sama, or Maid Sama! if you’re being particular, or Kaichō wa Maid-sama! if you want to be precise (translation: The President is a Maid!). While I wrote a rather glowing First Impressions review of episode one, my adoration for this particular shoujo waned a bit throughout the many weeks it took to finish this anime. But before we get into that, I’ll provide a brief overview of the series:

Misaki: she works hard for the money, so you better treat her right.

Misaki Ayuzawa is the class president of unruly Seika High, which was, until recently, an all-boys school. She has taken it upon herself to rule with an iron fist and whip the slovenly boys who dominate the school into shape in order to make the female students feel more welcome. This is all well and good, and she does manage to command respect from students of all genders. However, due to money troubles at home, Misaki has secretly taken up an after school job at a maid café called Maid Latte. If you’re unfamiliar with a maid café, it’s where cute girls wait on patrons while wearing costumes, call them “Master,” and generally provide subservient fantasies to anyone with enough money to purchase a dish of ice cream or a cup of coffee. Misaki knows that her reputation and respect would be ruined if anyone at her high school found out where she works. So, naturally, the most popular boy at Seika High discovers her secret part-time job. All other girls bore Takumi Usui, but something about Misaki’s deceptive double-nature intrigues him, so he begins hanging out at her place of employment, teasingly flirting with her in a dominating manner whenever he’s around. The rest of the series is pretty much Misaki dealing with her double life while trying to sort out her confused feelings about Usui.

Misaki and domineering Usui: sexy or chauvinistic? It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

What was a cute concept for the first half of the season became stale and slightly boring around the middle of the anime. The formula goes something like this: Misaki gets into trouble of some kind, usually via some jerk threatening her friends, her work, or her school, Usui swoops in to save her, but Misaki ends up saving herself. Even so, Usui leans in and says something flirty and domineering, then Misaki blushes and calls him a pervert before the credits roll. While some have criticized this series as suggesting that all strong women secretly want to be dominated, I don’t feel that’s a fair judgement. Misaki makes a good female lead; she’s smart, ambitious, and overall a pretty decent role model for a shoujo story. If it was all an act and she was just a damsel in distress waiting for Usui to save her, then it would be super lame. Her saving grace is, of course, the fact that she does usually pull herself out of the jams that she gets in, be it through her physical strength or her forceful words. I don’t have a problem with her carrying on a flirtation with a dominant male, especially as Usui is never violent or seriously threatening to Misaki in any way. He was playful and teased her, but if she ever actually got freaked out he backed off. She’s a strong character, so it makes sense that she would be drawn to a strong love interest.

Hey there, new love interest! Too bad you didn’t show up a little sooner. Oh Hinata, we hardly knew ye.

My main problem was with the formulaic episodes that began to blur together around episode twelve or so. My interest was piqued again when a former childhood friend of Misaki’s appears as a love interest as well as foil to Usui, but I felt that he was introduced far too late into the show to add any lasting spice to the story. Also, like so many anime series before, Maid Sama just kind of…ends. There is some resolution, but not enough to be very satisfying. Speaking of which, the only character we get a full backstory on is Misaki, which is disappointing because Usui was interesting but a little too mysterious. I wanted to know more about him but never got much more info than what is shared in episode one.

“Don’t call me Nyan Cat, I hate that freakin’ video! Besides, do I look like I fart rainbows?!? Huh? Yeah, didn’t think so!”

Overall, it was fun to watch, especially if you enjoy shoujo, but I don’t see a lot of rewatch value for me personally. The art was typical with nothing really new there, and the music was the same. The subtitles go by rather fast in this one, which wouldn’t be a problem except for the constant added words in the background as well as explanations of Japanese culture at the top of the screen. There was a lot of rewinding and pausing in order to read everything, and that got to be a bit of a headache at times. I was a little shocked at a couple of episodes in the beginning that seemed to casually suggest that Misaki was in danger of being sexually assaulted (though luckily nothing of the sort occurred) and those instances remained jarring even when the rest of the show devolved into fluff storylines. But all in all, I’m glad that I watched this series. It was a pleasant shoujo with some unexpectedly sexy moments, and I bet that the manga is even better than the anime. It’s not my favourite series by any stretch of the imagination, but you could do far worse than spending some time in the world of Maid Sama.

Rating: ★★★ Definitely check this out if you enjoy shoujo, but don’t expect to be blown away.

Who’s That Girl?: Kobato

Her past is mysterious, her journey unknown.

All she has is love.

I just finished Kobato a matter of minutes ago (it really takes a long time to complete a twenty-four episode anime when you only get one episode per week via On Demand!) and, wow. I have so much to say about this intriguing anime.

Kobato, magically falling from the sky like rain. Or bird poo. Magical bird poo.

As you might recall, dear reader, I wrote a rather positive First Impressions review of episode one. To briefly summarize the overall story, Kobato appears to be a chipper young girl, but she’s actually from “somewhere else.” She arrives on Earth (in Japan, presumably, though if a specific location was provided I can’t seem to recall it) in the company of a grumpy talking stuffed dog named Ioryogi. His sole purpose is to help Kobato carry out her mission of collecting kompeito, which in reality is a type of Japanese candy, but in this story the kompeito are actually people’s broken hearts. Whenever she heals a broken heart, the glass jar that she carries with her gains a kompeito. Only when the jar is completely full will Kobato gain her wish, which is “to go to the place I want to be.” (Yeah, nothing vague about that, is there?) To pass the time Kobato works at Yomogi Kindergarden alongside a grumpy tsundere named Fujimoto. She also encounters a whole host of other people who are, for the most part, completely charmed by her optimistic cluelessness. A bit later on, just to make things more interesting, a stuffed bunny holding a flower appears out of the sky (I swear I’m not making this up) to inform Kobato that she only has four seasons to complete her mission, otherwise it will be bad.

This pic pretty much sums up Fujimoto's and Kobato's relationship throughout most of the series.

What I enjoyed about the first episode became less enjoyable by the third and flat-out boring by the eighth. Episode after episode seemed to have the exact same premise: Kobato wanders around in a daft haze of cheerfulness and naivety until she meets someone who is sad, Ioryogi tries to get her to stay on task, Fujimoto says something vaguely mean to her, Kobato keeps plodding forward with her good intentions, and finally she manages to bumblef**k her way into healing a heart and gaining kompeito. While I found Kobato to be charming, sweet, and silly at first, after just a few episodes she became nearly intolerable. Bless her heart, she’s dumb as a brick, and I find it difficult to stay with a character who has zero common sense. I understood that she was not of this world, but come on, show some growth after a few episodes! I actually thought that the series was only twelve episodes long, so I stayed with it, otherwise I would have probably stopped watching.

Ioryogi seriously needed to explain a few things a bit sooner. I'm all for anticipation, but c'mon, ya gotta give me *something*!

Finally episode twelve rolled around and we got some answers about just who the hell these characters are and where they came from. Not a great deal, but enough to make it interesting again. Then I discovered that there are actually twenty-four episodes in the anime, and my heart sunk. However, after episode twelve, the series got exponentially better. I actually found myself looking forward to watching each new episode week after week, which was a complete 180 from the first half (when I was literally forcing myself to keep watching). An actual plot began to unfold in which there were several stories going on at once, and we finally got to see these characters more in-depth than before. To my amazement, little by little I found myself completely sucked in, so much so that by the final episode I had to pause the TV several times in order to wipe the tears away from my eyes. It was that engrossing!

Wait, you think I'm deep?

Kobato really was an emotional roller coaster to watch. First it was just cute and pleasant, then it was boring and predictable, then it was interesting and involving, and finally it was intense and heart-wrenching. Once you finally receive all of the backstory in the final two episodes, it doesn’t seem that complicated. However, after reading up on the manga, it seems that the story is even more involved than what’s explained in the anime. Since there are only six volumes, I’m seriously considering checking the manga out in order to find out the entire story. However, even if you only watch the anime version of Kobato, I think that there’s something quite enjoyable to be found if you have the patience to navigate through the fluff at the beginning of the series. The animation is cute, and the music is sweet and strangely touching, rather like this anime as a whole. I really was shocked by how invested I became in these characters, who seem a bit flat and one-dimensional at first but then blossom into figures you truly care about, especially wide-eyed Kobato herself. I would definitely recommend this series to shoujo lovers and CLAMP aficionados, but even general non-jaded anime fans should find something substantial hidden within the sugary-sweet outer shell of Kobato.

Rating: ★★★✰ The initial eleven episodes keep this one from a full four stars. However, the end was emotional and satisfying, and even if I don’t add the anime to my collection, I’ll certainly be looking for the manga.

The Secret Is Out: Arrietty

Many things are much more than meets the eye,

especially little girls.

I’ve been itching to see the latest offering from Studio Ghibli ever since I first saw the advertisements for its North American debut last year. Finally, at long last, I made it to the cinema to take in The Secret World of Arrietty (or Karigurashi no Arrietty) and all I can say is, wow. I was definitely not disappointed.

I'm not the only one who thinks that Borrowers resemble mice...

The story is based on Mary Norton’s novel The Borrowers, which I’ve never read, so I can’t say how close the adaptation is. However, I do remember watching the Saturday morning cartoon The Littles, so I kind of understood the gist from the get-go: Arrietty and her parents are miniature people, roughly the size of mice, and they live in the floorboards of a house located in a particularly lush and green area of Tokyo. They survive by “borrowing” things such as cubes of sugar and tissue paper, tiny things that no one would notice if they went missing or not, hence they adopted the moniker of “Borrowers.” It’s very important that none of the “beans” (human beings) ever sees them, because, well, humans are humans. You never know which one might try to catch a Borrower and keep it prisoner, or show it off for money, or dissect it, or do any of the zillions of crappy things that humans in literature and movies are known to do.

One for shoulder, first class, coming right up!

One summer a sick boy named Shō (Shawn in the US version) visits the house his mother grew up in, which is also where Arrietty lives, in order to recuperate. Shortly after his arrival he spies Arrietty, much to her dismay. He tries to befriend her, but her parents warn her that beans bring nothing but trouble. Shō doesn’t give up, however, and though he has the best of intentions, his actions unintentionally draw attention to Arrietty and her family. After a couple of dramatic events take place, Shō teams up with Arrietty in order to make things right.

Imagine a gentle harp playing in the background and you're halfway there.

Oh, Arrietty, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. First of all, the music is stunning. The entire soundtrack is by Celtic musician Cecile Corbel, and while a Japanese film with a Celtic soundtrack doesn’t seem like it would necessarily be a good fit, it’s actually incredible. The vocals are lovely and lilting, and the harp makes the natural setting come alive, especially in the rain scenes where every pluck of the strings mimics a drop of water on the leaves. As a longtime lover of Celtic music, I know that the genre can get a little heavy at times, hearkening back to those 90s Pure Moods compilation CDs. However, the soundtrack to Arrietty is as far from the Celtic clichés as night and day. It would be a gorgeous album on its own, but paired with the film it perfectly enhances this Western tale in an Eastern setting.

"Arrietty, can you handle being the center of attention for 94 minutes?"

Besides the soundtrack, the rest of the movie is equally awesome. The animation is even more excellent than previous Ghibli offerings, displaying beautiful scenery, well-animated characters, and an astonishing attention to detail. (My favourite was the dragonfly wing quill in Arrietty’s study.) As for characters, Arrietty is kind and courageous, and even though her parents slip into the stereotypes of worrisome mother and stoic father, Arrietty is always relatable, as well as enjoyable enough to carry the film on her own merit. In fact, all of the other side characters are more of a framework set up in order for Arrietty to shine, and this she does with gusto. Shō, the other lead, is also easy to relate to, with a gentleness that anyone watching might hope they would display if they ever discovered something as magical as Borrowers in their bedrooms. He makes well-intentioned mistakes, but who doesn’t do that? Besides that, his actions make sense and never jar you out of the story with an eye rolling “Oh no, don’t do that!” moment found in so many movies trying to establish conflict. In fact, the smoothness of everything, story and otherwise, is really quite commendable.

Arrietty perfectly illustrates the face I made as I watched this entire movie: delight and joy.

By this point in my life I’ve seen many, if not most, of Studio Ghibli’s animated films, and I must say that The Secret World of Arrietty is firmly ensconced in my mind as one of the best of them all. Interestingly, this is the first Ghibli movie I’ve watched that was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Hiromasa Yonebayashi directed, though Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay with Keiko Niwa) and I wondered if it would be missing something as a result. I was pleased to discover that Arrietty contains just as much magic and fantastical wonder as any Studio Ghibli film that came before, as well as another positive portrayal of young girls on par with the ones that Miyazaki movies are known for. In some ways this film might be more accessible to a Western audience thanks to its traditional story structure, but that doesn’t lessen its power in the slightest. Studio Ghibli is still creating some of the finest animated movies in the world, and the big secret of The Secret of Arrietty is actually that this unassuming movie about a very little girl will most definitely stand the test of time beside its Ghibli brethren as a wonderful film for all ages.

Rating: ★★★★★ Love this, love her, want the DVD for certain.

First Impressions: Revolutionary Girl Utena

She doesn’t give a damn about gender roles.

She only wants justice.

I wanted to check this series out for one reason and one alone: I saw the cover art and thought that it looked cool. The title on its own wouldn’t be enough to get me there; visions of moe girls wearing too-short skirts while blasting off into space come to mind, and that’s not really my cup of tea. But the cover art was sharp and shadowy and cool, enough so that I sought this episode out.

Utena, proving that the rules are on her side. Screw you, dress code!

This episode begins with a wee fairy tale (with gorgeous art that totally reminds me of the anime fairy tales that I used to watch as a kid) then flips over to a school where we meet our main gal, Utena. Turns out she insists on wearing a version of the boy’s school uniform in lieu of the girl’s, and since there’s nothing in the rule book against it, the pinched-face teacher who objects can do nothing about it. Utena goes about her day, enjoying the company of a girl named Wakaba, who playfully refers to Utena as her “boyfriend.” While gazing out of a window, Utena spies a girl named Anthy getting yelled at by a guy. She assumes it’s a lover’s quarrel until he slaps her. Utena is alarmed, but is relieved when she sees that another guy has stopped it.

Bishōnen bastard in action.

Later on Utena and Wakaba encounter a group of boys reading a love letter that has been tacked to a board and making fun of it. It turns out that the letter was written by Wakaba and given to Saionji, the very same green-haired bastard who was hitting Anthy outside. Utena seeks Saionji out and, noting that he’s captain of the Kendo team, challenges him to a duel. He smirks a bastardly smirk and offers to meet her in the forest behind the school. Once Utena arrives she discovers a strange gate that just happens to open with the help of the rose ring that she wears. Immediately she finds herself walking up a long winding path toward what appears to be an upside-down castle. Saionji is at the top, as is Anthy. An epic battle with epic music commences. Utena kicks ass, and the bastard is taken down. Meanwhile the guy who stopped Saionji earlier has been watching the duel from afar and says that Utena has “lit the fire to my heart.” Our heroine is leaving the school when Anthy appears and says that she is the Rose Bride, and from that day on, she belongs to Utena. The end!

BATTLE!

I LOVED this episode. I loved everything from the art and the music, both of which were deliciously dated, to the characters and story. Utena is like a more badass version of Misaki from Maid Sama, and as much as I enjoy Maid Sama, it’s kind of awesome to have a female protagonist who not only talks the talk but also walks the walk. She wears what she wants and stands up for what she believes in, and the yuri undertones only seem to make her more popular. Anthy is still a mystery, but I very much look forward to finding out what is involved with all this “Rose Bride” business. Saionji has beautiful bishōnen hair and is a complete dick, making him someone whom you love to hate. The story was great: elements of shoujo, elements of yuri, and elements of fantasy, all rolled up into a delicious sushi ball of delectable goodness. I seriously can’t wait to watch episode two. If the rest of Revolutionary Girl Utena is as great as its promising beginning, then I’ll have proof that sometimes it’s worthwhile to judge a book by its cover!

Thank You For The Music: La Corda d’Oro

Love and devotion to your craft

can be the most fulfilling pastime.

It’s shoujo week on Otaku Haiku! Well, truth be told, it’s always shoujo week, because I love the genre dearly. But I’m pleased as punch that I finally got the chance to finish a series that I began back in May of last year, and it turned out to be an excellent anime at that.

Kahoko gets a magical violin AND a bevy of cute and talented guys! Talk about lucky!

La Corda d’Oro: Primo Passo begins with a brief backstory about a musical fairy and a man who was inspired by it to open a school that honors music. Flash forward to modern times and Seiso Academy, which has a general studies course for regular students, but its pride and joy is the music department. Music students study, well, music, and wear special uniforms, and are considered the elite at Seiso Academy. One day a general studies student named Kahoko Hino is running late, and on her way to class she sees a living, breathing fairy, in fact the very same musical fairy who is immortalized as a statue in front of the school. The fairy, whose name is Lili, is delighted that a human can see it, and as a result the school bells ring, signaling that a new musical competition will soon begin.

Kahoko's harem, with two token girls and a fairy thrown in for good measure.

A handful of very skilled students from the music department are chosen to participate, as well as Kahoko. Kahoko is understandably puzzled because she’s never played a musical instrument in her life. However, Lili gives her a magical violin that only she can play. Her hands will move as if by magic whenever she decides to perform; however, she has to have heard the song first so that the violin can play the melody that’s in her heart. Through the magical violin Kahoko is introduced to the world of classical music, and she discovers more about herself as she goes from reluctant participant to earnest music lover.

Len Tsukimori is the show's most tsundere guy, but he's just darling when he sleeps.

I loved watching this series. Since all but two of the competition participants are male and each forms a special bond with Kahoko, this anime is definitely classified as a reverse harem. Yet even though I find reverse harems completely delicious, what I really enjoyed was Kahoko’s growing love for music. Indeed, this series is, more than anything, a love story between a girl and her violin. All of the main drama revolves around her feelings of guilt at not being able to actually play the violin, and the guys are just eye candy in the background. That’s not to say that each of them isn’t a fully developed character. On the contrary, we see portraits of each participant’s life and how both music and Kahoko affect them. However, if you’re looking for romance, this shoujo is light on reverse harem love. Music is really what ties this entire series together, and as a music lover, I was utterly enchanted by that aspect.

Kazuki Hihara is my fav of the harem. He even makes me like the trumpet, and I generally loathe brass instruments.

The art isn’t vastly different from any other anime (though all of the main characters have interesting shades of hair colour) but the music, both in the storyline and what is actually heard in each episode, is what makes this series special. As soon as I read that this was a show about a girl who receives a magical violin from a fairy, I knew that I had to see this anime. I wasn’t surprised to discover that both it and the manga originated from a role-playing game. There’s not a lot to Kahoko other than her growing love of music, hence it’s easy to see how she would make an ideal video game protagonist. However, that combined with the typical (but still highly enjoyable) reverse harem cast of guys made it work as an anime.

Lili turns yet another young mind onto the power of music. When schools lose funding for the arts, at least there are musical fairies to help out! Oh wait...

Overall, I think that this would be an excellent series for anyone who loves classical music, especially for younger anime fans (there’s zero fan service, which is a bonus). There is romance, but as I stated before, the real story is a deepening love of music and learning to dedicate yourself to something that you’re passionate about. Though Kahoko seems a bit musically regressed to anyone who has ever listened to any classical music, she makes a good character to follow on her journey. This would especially be a wonderful show for anyone who has ever thought about taking up a musical instrument. There are two episodes that comprise a sequel series called La Corda d’Oro: Secondo Passo, which I have yet to see, but apparently it ends on a cliffhanger, as it was produced to drive up interest in the video game. While I can see it working on that level, and I do enjoy video games, I’m even more tempted to try my own hand at playing my favourite instrument, the violin. Watching these characters perform and deriving such joy from it makes me think that perhaps I’m not too old to give it a go for myself, and that’s the real magic of La Corda d’Oro.

Mo Money, Mo Problems: Boys Over Flowers

Shoujo love: if you think you know this story,

you may yet be surprised.

Happy new year, otakus! In February I’ll have been blogging about anime for an entire year, which I can hardly believe. I’m working on a few fun changes for Otaku Haiku, and of course there’s the awesome anniversary special to look forward to, but for today let’s start the new year off right with my review of a most excellent shoujo series: Boys Over Flowers.

JanDi encounters the F4 as well as the disdain of the rich, which smells like aftershave and dollar bills.

I wrote about the setting in detail in my First Impressions post, so I’ll just sum it up briefly here: Geum JanDi is cute, spunky, and comes from a very kooky, but very poor, family of dry cleaners. By being a good Samaritan she is given a full scholarship to ShinHwa, a very ritzy, private school for the super-rich. Once there she encounters the F4, a group of four of the wealthiest and cutest guys around. They can also be a**holes. Everyone at ShinHwa either admires them or fears them too much to do anything about their evil ways, but not JanDi. Soon she begins having encounters with the group, and the leader, Goo JunPyo, gets more and more upset about this poor upstart until he gets it into his head that she must have a crush on him. After that turning point (which is very early on in the show) he begins wooing her in his blunt and aggressive way. The problems arise one after another, from JanDi’s initial hatred of JunPyo to jealous schoolmates to the big bad of the entire series, JunPyo’s evil mother, who hates the hold that JanDi has on her son.

Sorry my friends had you beaten up. They can be dicks. How about ice cream and a living statue to make up for it?

Yet for every bad thing that comes JanDi’s way, something equally good works in her favor: she has a low-key job at a porridge shop with her best friend, and thanks to her earnest and caring nature she gains powerful friends such as a famous model, JunPyo’s sister, and the rest of F4. Most notable on her friend roster is JiHoo, the quiet, musical member of F4. He starts out viewing her with detached fascination, but soon their friendship grows to be the strongest on the show. Perhaps there’s even more than friendship on their minds… but what about Goo JunPyo, who began courting JanDi in earnest and seems to have true feelings for her? And how will the rest of F4 react? And don’t forget JunPyo’s evil mother, who seems intent on destroying JanDi…

Even JanDi's bestie gets a side story with a member of F4! This show has layers, man!

That’s just the tip of the iceberg in this shoujo Kdrama. There’s romance in spades, as well as heart-wrenching drama and action. Sometimes it gets to be too much, and the situations become melodramatic to the point of being laughable, but even so I never stopped enjoying this immersive series for a second. The episodes seemed long at first, but the more that I watched, the more surprised I would be when the closing credits flashed onscreen. The white subtitles bothered me less as well because I was so eager to continue the story and find out what happens next. Speaking of which, the show is excellent about ending on cliffhangers, constantly drawing you back for more and more. There were many sleepless nights as I drank caffeine so that I could watch “just one more episode!” However, the series as a whole came to a definite conclusion, which is an aspect that I enjoy and find refreshing (especially after watching so many open-ended anime series).

Every smile on this show means that a heartache is just around the next corner...

The cast is adorable. JanDi is genuine and sweet, and though she makes some questionable decisions (especially based on her own sense of pride) she was never stupid, which made her identifiable and the sort of girl you’d want to be friends with in real life. The boys of F4 are indeed super cute, and each plays his part perfectly, especially Minho Lee as the blustering and prideful, but at times sweetly innocent Goo JunPyo. The story was originally a Japanese manga called Hana Yori Dango, and it’s currently the best-selling shoujo manga of all time. As such, it was turned into an anime as well as a live-action television drama in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. While the Kdrama is the only one that I’ve seen thus far, I can’t imagine loving another version as much as this one. Everything from the setting to the characters came to life beautifully and drew me in completely. If you love shoujo like I do, you really can’t afford to miss Boys Over Flowers in any form, but especially the excellent and enthralling Kdrama.

Rating: ★★★★★ There may be better Kdramas out there, but I’ve yet to find one as addicting and indulgent in romantic fantasy as this one.

Anime Of Yesteryear: Daddy Long Legs

Classic novel turned anime film.

A rich man, a poor girl, and love.

As I was reading up on Masumi, my anime crush from Glass Mask, I noticed that he was referred to as a Daddy Long Legs-esque character. I’ve never read the novel Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster, or even seen the musical starring Leslie Caron and Fred Astaire. However, I did vaguely recall watching a cartoon of the same name when I was quite young. Lo and behold, with a few searches on YouTube, I discovered that what I had seen as a child was a 1979 anime version of the novel with a 1987 English dub. I also found out that there was a forty-episode anime series as well from 1990, but since I haven’t seen that one, today’s review concerns the anime movie from Tatsunoko Productions that I had the pleasure of rewatching after more than two decades.

Dear Daddy: Why can we never meet? Are you grossly deformed? Are you like the Phantom of the Opera, living in the sewers and crazy from years of solitude? Oh by the way, thanks for the new books, they’re swell! Love, Judy

Since I’ve never read the novel I can’t be sure how much the anime movie deviates from the original story, but here’s the skinny on the film’s plot: Judy Abbott has just come of age in the orphanage where she was raised. She confesses to the headmistress that she would like to attend college. The headmistress says that she has to clear it with the board of trustees. After the meeting, the headmistress tells Judy that the richest member of the board has agreed to pay for Judy to attend college. All that she has to do in return is agree to write him a letter once a month, updating him on college life, and she must never know his real name or expect any letters in return. Judy is thrilled, and runs downstairs just in time to see the shadow of her benefactor on his way out. A car’s headlights elongate his shadow, making him appear to be extremely tall. Because of this, Judy nicknames him “Daddy Long Legs,” and addresses her letters as such (which are sent to his lawyer’s office).

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain… writing the checks.

Judy attends college, makes friends, and begins meeting (gasp!) men. The fellas and her roommates seem to like Judy because she’s sweet and pretty, but though she loves her friends and her classes, Judy never forgets to write her letters. In return, she is completely provided for, including non-necessities such as books and dresses. As she matures, there are a couple of different suitors vying for Judy’s attention, but one in particular knows a secret about Daddy Long Legs. Annnd that’s all I can say without ruining the end! This story is pretty much your classic young-girl-coming-of-age tale, with the twist of a ridiculously rich benefactor looming in the shadows, silently pulling the strings and gently navigating the course of Judy’s destiny. If it weren’t told in such a charming and sweet way, this story has the potential to be downright creepy.

Judy meets her roommie’s uncle: compared to a vampire, thirty-three is nothing! And everyone loves a vampire romance.

I recall watching and enjoying this anime when I was quite young. I remember thinking at the time that one of Judy’s suitors, the uncle of her roommate, was way too old for her (thirty-three to Judy’s eighteen). While I’ll still admit that it is a noticeable age difference, it makes me laugh to remember a time when I thought that thirty-three was old. (I’m not quite there yet, but getting close!) The art is basic and not overly detailed, but considering that this was done in the Seventies, it’s not bad. The English dub holds up pretty well, too. The songs played throughout are a little creepy and/or sad, in my opinion, but overall, rewatching this movie was a good experience. Even if I still had the VHS copy of it somewhere, I probably wouldn’t watch it over and over again. However, it has awakened a latent desire to seek out the musical of the same name, and possibly even the book and (if possible) the anime series from the Nineties. Daddy Long Legs makes a pretty good anime, because at its heart it’s shoujo storytelling with all the proper ingredients: a spunky heroine, a few rich and handsome guys, and the trials of growing up and falling in love.

Rating: ✰ A weird but oddly enjoyable trip down memory lane.

The Play’s The Thing: Glass Mask Collection 1

If no one believes in you,

you’ve no choice but to believe in yourself.

Today’s review is another of those that I’d wanted to check out ever since I first began exploring anime. Then, by sheer luck, Anime Network began airing it on demand! O frabjous day, callooh, callay! Admittedly I was mostly interested because I thought that the title sounded cool. Then I found out that it was about struggling actors, and I wasn’t so sure. However, in just a few short episodes, this series became my anime crack. I was thoroughly addicted, and couldn’t get enough!

I’m Maya, and I have more talent in the tip of my nose than most folks ever dream of. Woot!

This is actually the second incarnation of Glass Mask (or Garasu no Kamen, literally Mask of Glass), which was originally a shoujo manga from the Seventies. In the Eighties it became a twenty-three episode anime, then there were three OVAs in the late Nineties, and finally it was redone as a fifty-one episode anime in 2005. The story revolves around Maya Kitajima, an unremarkable thirteen-year-old girl to most everyone who encounters her, especially her overworked mother. However, Maya has an unbridled passion for acting, and one day she is discovered by Chigusa Tsukikage, a famous former actress who had to quit after a stage light fell and scarred her face. Chigusa has been searching for an actress who can properly fulfill the role of The Scarlet Angel, a role that she originated and still owns the rights to, and she sees something special in Maya. Despite her mother’s discouragement, Maya joins the fledgling Tsukikage acting troupe and slowly makes her way through trial after trial, blowing everyone’s minds in the process with her ability to totally become whoever or whatever she portrays on stage (Chigusa tells Maya that acting is about “wearing the glass mask,” so before she goes onstage Maya’s eyes become blank as she puts on the mask of her character).

“Excuse me.” “No, excuse *me*.” (Uncomfortable silence…)

Popular opinion and her mother’s disapproval aren’t all that Maya has to overcome, though. Ayumi Himekawa is the daughter of a famous actress and a notable director/producer. On top of that, she’s already quite an accomplished actress in her own right even though she’s just a teenager. Ayumi is a member of the Daito acting troupe, a rival group who have more money and power than Tsukikage troupe, and the higher-ups want to gain the rights to The Scarlet Angel. When Chigusa won’t sell them the rights, they plot and scheme to crush her troupe, and Maya with it. Ayumi, however, respects Maya, because like Chigusa, she sees Maya’s raw talent from the very beginning. As Maya becomes more and more known for her acting, Ayumi vows to crush Maya in honorable competition and win the coveted role of The Scarlet Angel.

“Umm, Miss Tsukikage, can I go pee now?” “No.” “But I gotta go real bad!” “Utilize the pain in your acting.”

This anime presents different versions of the same storyline again and again and again: Maya is wronged and/or treated like dirt, but every time she falls, she rises up again like a phoenix from the ashes to stun all who see her perform. Instead of feeling bored with repetition, I found myself waiting with bated breath for that inevitable moment when Maya would shine in every story arc. To be fair, she’s given some very difficult puzzles to solve, such as how to perform using no words, or how to enact an entire play without the rest of the cast, or how to go onstage without knowing any of her lines or even the full story of the play. It was quite marvelous to behold, and as someone who loves the theatre and has dabbled in acting over the years, I could appreciate what it took for Maya to keep going. Often it seems like no one is on Maya’s side, not even Miss Chigusa, who is a very harsh (but effective) acting coach, except for a secret admirer who sends her purple roses. This admirer turns out to be Masumi Hayami, one of the men who runs the Daito acting troupe. He acts mocking and cruel whenever he speaks with Maya in person because he believes that she needs him to play the villain in order for her to succeed. However, whenever he can, Masumi acts as a guardian angel, helping Maya out of scrapes without revealing his true nature to her.

Masumi is so dreamy! It’s okay to overlook the age difference just this once, right? Um, right?

I love this anime. Love love love love it. As I mentioned before, Maya’s ability to rise above misfortune was thoroughly engaging, and Maya herself is an excellent shoujo protagonist. She might be too trusting, but she certainly learns and grows as the series progresses. Ayumi is a worthy adversary for Maya, one who is impossible to hate due to her honorable actions involving all things theatre. The art is excellent; it’s bright, detailed, and fitting to the story, as is the slightly melodramatic music, which I adored. Maya’s struggles are just as fascinating to watch as her slowly burgeoning love life, which naturally changes and grows as the character ages and becomes a figure in the public eye. There are hints that Masumi might have more than platonic feelings for Maya, but he’s such a gentleman about it that their scenes together feel as though they could have been lifted from the pages of Pride & Prejudice or Wuthering Heights. I kept telling myself that it was wrong, but it felt so indulgent to root for them to get together that I found myself squealing out loud as I watched.

Maya puts on the “glass mask.” Yeah, it’s super creepy.

Sadly, Sentai only released the first twenty-six episodes, and due to low sales they have no plans to release the second half of the series with English subtitles. This would probably drive me insane as it ends abruptly on a cliffhanger, but luckily Crunchyroll.com has the second half available for English-speakers to view. If it wasn’t such a busy time of year I’d be completely glued to my computer screen to find out how this dramatic tale ends, but alas, it must wait for now. But I can guarantee you that the second I have some free time I’ll be catching up on this excellent tale of rivalry, stardom, and forbidden love. Glass Mask is a positively delicious shoujo anime, one that I find highly addictive, and anyone who loves acting and the theatre should make it a point to check this one out.

Rating: ★★★★★ Possibly the most addicting anime I’ve watched to date.

First Impressions: Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth

Travel abroad means adventure, new friends…

and working in a sign shop?

I was drawn into this gorgeous anime immediately from the opening scene of a little Japanese girl, decked out in full traditional Japanese regalia, clip-clopping through the cobblestone streets of late 19th century Paris. That’s all it took for me to fall in love with Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth.

Yune is just flippin' adorable.

The premise seems unassuming enough. A French merchant named Oscar who travels back and forth between Paris and Japan returns to his homeland with a darling little Japanese girl in tow. Her name is Yune, and her parents sent her to Paris to be an apprentice in the man’s sign shop. However, Oscar’s grandson Claude doesn’t take too kindly to his grandfather’s guest. Claude now does the bulk of the work in the sign shop, as his grandfather is too old and his father is dead, and he feels that Yune will only be in the way. Oscar assures Claude that Yune was the best sign girl in her village, and that she’s sure to draw customers into the struggling shop despite her lack of French-speaking skills.

Claude repairing his late father's sign. Too bad it didn't say, "Beware of kimono sleeves!" under that butterfly.

Yune cleans and does her best around the shop, and Claude seems to be warming up to her presence. However, the sleeve of her kimono gets caught on a sign that Claude has just repaired, and it goes crashing to the ground. Turns out that the sign was the last thing made by Claude’s father, and he’d just finished repairing it. Claude is understandably upset and says that Yune should just go back to Japan. Yune is extremely distraught and doesn’t eat dinner that night. Later on Claude shows her that he managed to repair the sign, even though a few changes had to be made. Yune offers Claude a beautiful kimono as an apology, and Claude smiles and says that he’ll sell it for her. He then uses part of the proceeds to buy Yune a children’s book to help her learn French. Oscar passes by an art shop and sees the kimono for sale, and runs to the sign shop to tell Claude that he shouldn’t have sold that kimono because it was very precious and tied Yune to her mother. Claude is aghast and asks Yune if that’s true. She explains that it is, and both men discover that she’s been able to speak French all along. The episode ends with Claude promising to gain enough money to buy the kimono back, and asking Yune to remain at the shop long enough for him to earn her trust. Yune smiles, and later reads her new book, telling Claude how precious it is to her.

"Wow, I traveled thousands of miles just to watch this guy weld? I should have stayed home and gotten a job at Bath and Bodyworks."

I realize that this anime doesn’t sound that gripping when the plot is laid bare on the page, but the gorgeous artwork really makes this slice-of-life story come alive. The art is bright and detailed with overall tones of yellow and brown to convey the old-timey feeling of Paris over a century ago. Yune herself is the brightest spark of colour on the screen with her lovely kimonos and hair accessories. (I feel that this is symbolic; she brings colour into Claude’s life, see?) Though she didn’t get to speak much in episode one, I’m already a fan of Yune, and Claude as well. Yune is kind and sweet without being cloying, and Claude is rough and slightly tsundere without being a vicious a-hole. This anime already had me at Paris during the Victorian era, and the first episode did not disappoint. While not action-packed, the pace and plot never felt slow. I enjoyed reveling in the setting and the characters, and I’m definitely looking forward to watching more of Yune’s adventures abroad.

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