Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places: The Great Happiness Space

Love is just another commodity

these men are willing to sell.

I was excited to watch my first documentary about a slice of Japanese culture the other day, and the topic was appealing, too. After all, I’m planning a trip to Japan sometime in the near future, and after watching one of my shoujo favourites, Ouran High School Host Club, I’d joked about visiting a host club for myself. Who wouldn’t want to have tea with a cute boy who fawns all over you? I imagined that this documentary would be slightly seedier than Ouran, but I had no idea how vast the difference would be between my beloved fictional host club and real life.

If you think that this is merely the latest Japanese boy band, you’re sorely mistaken.

The Great Happiness Space follows the daily (or rather, nightly) comings and goings of the most popular host club in Osaka, Rakkyo Café. Various hosts and their clients are interviewed, but the documentary most closely follows a young man named Issei who is both the owner of Rakkyo as well as the most requested host in the establishment. At this point I’ll go ahead and address my preconceived notions: I know that Ouran is a work of fiction, and is completely unfeasible because it takes place in a high school for the super rich. However, I imagined that an actual host club would follow somewhat along the same lines: women pay to have a drink and some conversation with a man of their choosing, and it would be sort of like a maid café without the cosplay or undertones of submission. As it turns out, host clubs are more like frat houses with light prostitution thrown in.

Hmm, I’m feeling funky and slightly dangerous tonight. Got any guys who resemble Steve Buscemi?

First the women choose a host from a book of glamor shots, then they sit back and let their host of choice talk with them and convince them to buy massive quantities of alcohol. Many of the hosts interviewed had a specific system for talking to the women and making them feel special which included scolding her at some point. I suppose because that’s what real friends do? It’s probably just my Western sensibility at work, but if I’m paying someone to flirt with me and he starts scolding me, I’d want my money back. Still, whatever they were doing seemed to be working. The female clients interviewed were all fairly smitten with the hosts and continued to return night after night, pouring hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars into the place in a single visit. Drinks were the main source of income, and hosts would try to convince the women to purchase a “champagne call.” That entails all of the hosts standing around the woman, chanting and yelling encouragement, while she chugs an entire bottle of champagne from what looks like a plastic beer pitcher with glowing ice cubes in it. It was difficult to tell who drank more, the women or the hosts. Many hosts drink far past any healthy level on a nightly basis, then have to pretend not to be drunk as they chat up the women. The goal is to get every women there to buy ten tons of booze, no matter if they’re buying for the hosts or themselves. As for the club itself, it was dark, filled with strobe lights, and looked like any run-down club you might find anywhere.

Issei talks about how well he plays the game.

The hosts spoke to the camera about not trusting women, about wanting actual love relationships but not being sure if that would ever work for them. Sometimes they would sleep with a client, but they tried not to do that in order to keep them coming back for more. As for the women, most of the repeat clients were sex workers, which explains how they are able to spend such massive quantities of money during each visit. One woman spoke about how ashamed she was each time she sold her body and how she wanted to stop, but then each time she thought, “Well, now I can go to the host club!” That part got under my skin the most: first men buy their bodies, then the women have to spend all of the money that they made in order to buy transient feelings of love and self-worth. It was a perpetual cycle of hopelessness, and it was truly heart-wrenching to watch.

If you’re ever on vacation in a foreign city and you come to a section of town with human menus plastered everywhere, feel free to take that as a bad sign.

It seems that Jake Clennel, the British director, set out to expose audiences to the seedy underbelly of host clubs, and in that he did his job well. Having never been to Japan or experienced anything even remotely akin to a host club myself, I can’t tell if this documentary was specifically skewed to highlight the worst case scenarios of the industry, or if the business really is as sad as it seems. All I know is that it was highly unsettling to watch: I began the film as a bit of a lark, so I certainly wasn’t prepared for my shoujo bubble to be burst quite so tragically. Yes, I know that no real host club could ever be as shiny and filled with roses as Ouran, but still, the thought of such a place was rather charming. I loved the idea of a Tamaki or a Kyoya pouring me tea and calling me “princess” as a bit of light-hearted fun. However, Rakkyo was more like a sordid frat party where you’re more in danger of losing thousands of dollars than your virginity. There were no roses, no violins, no fine china, and no commoner’s coffee. Instead it was dingy booths, strobe lights, and cheap champagne disguised as expensive bubbly to go along with an army of jaded guys wearing suits and bleached visual kei haircuts. It was crystal clear what sorts of emotions the director was trying to invoke in his audience, and regardless of what the reality of a host club is like, he succeeded in making them out to be truly devastating, even more so to outsiders not familiar with the culture.

The Great Happiness Space is a run-of-the-mill documentary with nothing truly special or even engaging about it save for its risqué subject matter. However, if you’re anything like me, that subject matter will stay with you long after the credits have finished rolling. My best piece of advice to anyone who decides to embark on this sad and desolate journey is to have some shoujo anime nearby in order to cleanse your brain after viewing this documentary. I’ll take animated fictional love over this version of Happiness any day.

Rating: ★★ Watch if you’re curious or, say, writing a paper about host clubs, but be prepared for the unsettling feeling that follows.

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First Impressions: My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho

She’s no ordinary foxy lady.

This girl might love or kill you.

Yup, another first impression post this week. I’m at the point where a bunch of series have almost ended, at which time there will be a flood of full reviews. Until then, time to start lots of new series, wheee! Today’s first impression is another Kdrama, and one that I’ve actually wanted to check out for quite some time: My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho. I adore folklore, fairy tales, and cultural tidbits from all over the globe, so a comedy about a girl who is actually a nine-tailed fox is something I couldn’t miss.

Meet Dae-Woong, our everyman hero. You can tell that he’s “of the people” by his flannel and Dark Knight t-shirt.

In episode one we meet Cha Dae-Woong, a student and aspiring actor who survives on the money that he begs, borrows, and steals from his wealthy grandfather. Since he’s an orphan, he’s been raised by said grandfather and his aunt, both of whom spoil him to a degree but also try to push him in the direction of growing up to become a respectable person. However, when he uses his tuition money to secretly buy a motorcycle, his grandfather has had the last straw, so he forces Dae-Woong into the car and tries to make him go to boarding school. Dae-Woong fakes needing to use the bathroom and manages to escape in the back of a produce truck. After he sneaks out of the truck at a gas station, he manages to hitch a ride with a passing monk who takes him to the temple where he lives. Dae-Woong borrows the monk’s cellphone and tries to remember his aunt’s phone number, but the reception is bad so he makes his way down to a secluded part of the temple that’s devoted to the Goddess of Childbirth. While there the phone dies, but he hears a voice that commands him to go inside and draw nine tails on a fox sitting in a painting with the Goddess. Understandably he’s freaked out, but Dae-Woong does what the voice tells him to, then bolts out of the temple and into the woods…where he soon falls off of a cliff.

See my nine tails? That’s the last thing you’ll ever see if you mess with me, pretty boy!

The fox disappears from the painting, and a pretty girl comes across Dae-Woong’s body. Her nine tails swish in the moonlight, and she blows an energy bead into Dae-Woong’s mouth. The next morning Dae-Woong wakes up and isn’t even hurt, and the pretty girl explains that she’s a gumiho (a nine-tailed fox spirit) who gave him her energy bead which prevented him from dying. Dae-Woong thinks that she’s crazy, and demands to see her tails. She says that she can only show them to him in the moonlight. At that Dae-Woong keeps trying to lose her (first in the forest, then later on in a nearby town) but the gumiho keeps finding him, saying that she has to stay with him because he has her bead. Finally Dae-Woong yells at her, telling the girl that he doesn’t believe what she says. The girl becomes serious and says that she’ll find him again, make him believe, and then he’ll die. This actually gets under his skin, and he keeps thinking about the girl as he rides the bus back to Seoul.

If you guessed that this guy is our villain by his villainous haircut, you’d be correct. Angled haircuts are to Kdrama villains as black hats are to bad guys in old Westerns.

Meanwhile, a man who seems to be a vet visits the temple where the painting resides in order to check on the monk’s dog. When the monk explains that the fox is no longer in the painting, the vet gets a strange look on his face. When he leaves, he tells his cohort that they’ll be hunting a new kind of creature, a mutant of sorts, but one that’s adorable. When Dae-Woong arrives back at his school he talks to his friends and learns that his aunt wants him to stay away until she can smooth things over with his grandfather. One of his friends notices sever bruises on Dae-Woong’s back, and he wonders why he doesn’t feel pain. Dae-Woong begins to slowly believe what the girl in the woods said. The other friend says that he can stay in the room above the gym that they’re in, then Dae-Woong is left alone. After playing basketball by himself for a time, the gumiho shows up. She unfurls her tails in the moonlight, then tells him that she’s going to take back her energy bead, which means that his previous injury will kill him. She leans in and begins sucking the bead out of his body…and that’s where the episode ends!

Oh, well, if you’re sure you’re fine, I’ll just take this old thing back. Thanks!

I enjoyed this episode, though I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It’s been more of a straight-up comedy than a romance, the latter of which is usually what has been the basis of the Kdramas I’ve seen thus far, but I’m enjoying it. One scene involving the aunt farting in an elevator had me laughing uproariously. (What can I say? Fart jokes are universal.) I like all of the actors, and the two leads are cute but not too precious. So far they’re both selling the story well. The music is typical K-pop, bouncy and fun. I really enjoy the folklore of the story, and I hope that more legends are explored or shared further in. There are some cheesy effects, but also some really nice ones, most notably a scene that looks as though wood carvings have come to life (very reminiscent of the exquisite video game Okami). And the temple of the Goddess of Childbirth looks like it’s borrowed straight from Faerie Tale Theatre, which I adore. Overall, My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho isn’t quite as romantic as I expected, but whether it keeps barreling down a path of pure comedy or if it blooms into a slow-building romance, I can’t wait to watch more. In fact, I think I’ll do so right now!

First Impressions: Someday’s Dreamers

Country girl, big city: it’s an old tale.

But this time she’s got magic.

When I first saw the cover of today’s First Impressions, I assumed that it would be a heavy drama along the lines of Ef: A Tale of Memories. And to be fair, I’ve only seen one episode, so the drama might be just around the corner. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how light and charming the first episode of Someday’s Dreamers turned out to be.

Yume meets random nice dude in the big city. At this point I assumed she was about to get robbed, probably because I watch a lot of Batman cartoons.

Yume Kikuchi is a young mage who has just arrived in the big city (that’s Tokyo, for the record) in order to register with the Bureau of Mages and complete a sort of apprenticeship with an assigned mentor. However, being fresh off the farm, she has trouble crossing a busy street in order to reach the subway. A nice young man sees her plight and helps her with her bag. As they cross, Yume trips and is almost hit by a speeding car. Luckily, being a mage, she causes all of the cars near her to levitate for a moment, then lands them gently back on the pavement. The young man asks if she’s a mage, and she says yes. He thinks that’s cool, and helps her the rest of the way to the subway. Yume wants to thank him, but he insists on nothing. As her train is pulling out, she looks back at the young man and uses magic to fill his shirt with so much money that he looks pregnant as a way to repay him.

“So my first assignment is to magic you guys up a couple of shirts, right? ‘Cause seriously, this is ridiculous.”

Finally she arrives at the building she was told to find in a letter. (She was also told to make her way there without using magic, but she blew that twice.) Another young man, this one barely wearing a shirt, introduces himself as Smiley and helps her with her luggage up the stairs to his boss’s apartment. In a moment more Smiley’s boss arrives, Masami Oyamada, the person Yume was told to find. Masami is also shirtless, having just come down the stairs from a shower. In a sweet and funny scene Yume blushes and requests that both men put on shirts. After everyone is clothed Masami looks at Yume’s records and wonders why the daughter of a famous mage would be assigned to him, then he goes on to fill her in on her upcoming duties. Yume confesses that she believed that Masami would be a woman based on his name, and as such had planned on boarding with him. Masami says that even though he’s male, there’s an extra room upstairs, so her boarding with him will be no problem.

The sad pizza of loneliness: the pepperoni even tastes like discs of salty, meaty tears.

After Yume gets settled she wanders downstairs to the salsa bar that Masami runs. Smiley also works there, and he tells Yume that if she wants to stay she’ll have to dance. She hurries back up to her room, feeling homesick and thinking of her family back in the country. Soon a pizza arrives at her door, ordered and paid for by Masami. Yume eats then falls asleep. The next day she and Masami have a lovely breakfast together and then walk over to the Bureau of Mages. Masami jovially chats with the receptionist while a man clearly hiding from Masami motions Yume over to him. He asks what Masami is doing there, then he tells Yume that he hopes she’ll become a good mage. Suddenly, the young man who helped Yume onto the subway comes bursting into the Bureau with a huge sack filled with the money that she created in his shirt. He demands that the money be taken back by Yume, saying that he doesn’t want her to pity him. Everyone stops and stares as the massive bag o’ bills topples over and spills onto the floor. Fin!

Let’s toast! To the beginning of a beautiful new…friendship? Love interest? Mentor-and-student connection? I just don’t know yet, but I can’t wait to find out!

It’s kind of funny how this anime seems like a typical slice of life story except for the part about Yume and Masami being mages. I was shocked when I heard that Yume was a mage, because I was expecting a run-of-the-mill melodrama. It was a nice surprise to find something different in a traditional genre. Apparently this anime came out in 2003, but the animation still holds up very well. I don’t always enjoy the lighter lines and broad details in this type of art, but for some reason it really worked for me in this story. I especially loved that instead of the usual wing of hair sticking up, Yume has almost a heart-shape created by her stray hairs! The music was nondescript and not very memorable, to the point where I can’t even hum the opening or closing themes, try as I might to recall them. The characters were pretty great, in my opinion. Masami was gentle, thoughtful, and charming, which definitely puts him in danger of becoming my newest anime crush. Yume was innocent, shy, and inquisitive, but not annoyingly so. As someone who has traveled far and wide and lived in other states as well as other countries, I very much identified with Yume’s homesickness, especially since she and her family had Southern American accents in the English dub. I really loved how Yume’s accent was understated until she talked on the phone to her family, and then it became amplified. (It’s so true! I never sound more country than when I’m on the phone with my grandmother.) It’s these kinds of details that really struck a chord with me. Overall, I was quite impressed with episode one of Someday’s Dreamers, and I’ll definitely be tuning in to see what happens next.

First Impressions: Ef, A Tale Of Melodies

Another tale, this one told not in memories,

but in melodies.

I told you that I’d check out season two in the Ef series, and by gum, I did just that. (Thanks for showing season two right after the first one, Anime Network On Demand! Now if you could go ahead and show the second season of The World God Only Knows, that would be super.) I figured that A Tale Of Melodies would be an entirely new drama of heart-wrenching proportions, but as it turns out, we get to interact more with the side characters from season one. Hooray for familiar faces!

So, here we are, Yu. Alone at last. I’m so glad I decided to stalk you today!

Episode one opens with Yu Himura, the guy who dresses like a priest and took care of Chihiro in season one. He says some deep things about two towns, then we get to see a flashback of him during his school days. He meets up with the magical nun from season one, who is now also a teen, on the roof of his school, and we finally find out that her name is Yuko. They talk about not seeing each other for ten years and how Yu doesn’t remember her, then she leaves saying that she doesn’t want to see him again. After that we see more of Yu wandering around the school, first running into a creepy teacher who encourages him to join the art department, then finding a girl painting a self-portrait in the nude. Turns out that this gal is his friend (though I didn’t catch her name) and after she gets dressed they walk around town to do some shopping. Artsy gal notices that Yuko has been following them, gets in a huff because Yuko and Yu allude to having some sort of relationship/friendship, and leaves the two of them standing in the middle of town.

Hey Kuze, it’s totally not creepy if I try on your “cosplay” for “lady friends,” right? We’re almost all adults here, after all.

Finally, at twelve minutes in we get the opening credits (which are similar to season one’s) then we switch over to Mizuki Hayama, the blond side character who was obsessed with Kei in the first season. Turns out she’s Renji’s cousin, and she’s staying with him and his mom until she goes off to the school she’s been accepted to. Also noteworthy: turns out the whole thing takes place in Australia?!? I guess due to the names and outfits I assumed the setting was either Japan or some fictional “every place.” Anyway, Mizuki mentions hearing lovely violin music the previous night, and Renji’s mom tells her it must have been their neighbor, Kuze Shuichi, the professional violinist. (All the side characters from season one are coming out of the woodwork now!) Mizuki wants to meet him, but Renji warns that he’s also a pro at being a ladies’ man. Mizuki doesn’t care, so she gets her introduction via Renji’s mom. As a further treat Kuze agrees to let Mizuki spend the day with him. They faff about his near empty apartment, sometimes saying deep things, sometimes just chewing the fat. Mizuki finds his infamous collection of school girl uniforms but isn’t fazed, then asks to hear him play. He begs for a rain check and she obliges. At one point Kuze mentions needing to take medicine, but we don’t know what for. After that they spend time just lying on the floor and staring up at the ceiling, appreciating the simplistic joy of it. Mizuki leaves, and Kuze falls back on the couch in pain. O no! What will happen next?

Deep dramatic scenes are deep. And dramatic.

I really liked this first episode, thanks mostly to my enjoyment of season one. The art and music quality are still quite good, and I knew what sort of story to expect thanks to the first season. I was fully prepared to learn about a new set of characters embroiled in deep drama, but to my delight the story seems to be following up on side characters from season one. I like this not only because it already gives me a starting point brimming with comforting familiarity, but also I was truly curious about some of the characters that we saw so little of the first time around. Thanks to that, I’m probably more excited about watching season two than I was watching the initial season. I just hope that it lives up to its predecessor’s outstanding quality.

There Will Be Tears: Ef, A Tale Of Memories

Memories and dreams are fleeting things.

We must make our own destiny.

Today we have a series that ended up being the complete opposite of last week’s anime, The World God Only Knows. I’m not talking so much in terms of plot, but more about the overall feeling of the show. The World God Only Knows started out strong then faded off into a muddled mess. However, Ef: A Tale of Memories began confusingly (see my First Impressions post for details) and ended very powerfully, making me kind of love it.

Cheerful Chihiro. Who needs memories when you have fluffy duckies?

There are two main storylines happening at the same time, but all of the characters are connected to one another in some way. The first, and most central, concerns a boy named Renji who meets a girl with no memory named Chihiro. She’s not an amnesiac, but rather she has a condition in which her memories only remain with her for thirteen hours. When hour thirteen rolls by, she loses any short-term memories of the day before and reverts back to her twelve-year-old self on the day of her accident. The only way that she can retain anything is by both writing and reading a diary. Chihiro’s dream is to write a novel, but with her condition that’s all but impossible. However, Renji, a teen who’s a bit lost about which path to take in his own life, encourages Chihiro to pursue her passion and write her novel. As they work together, their bond grows, but in the back of each of their minds is Chihiro’s condition, making all of her memories fragile and precious.

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray your friend Kei gets mauled by a wild puma…” “What was that last part, Miyako?” “Hmmm? Oh, nothing, Hiro! Tee-hee!”

The second story involves a young shoujo manga artist named Hiro who struggles to deal with both school and being a successful artist. His childhood friend Kei (Chihiro’s sister) does her best to keep him in line at school while concealing her massive crush on him. Yet after Hiro helps a girl named Miyako when her purse gets stolen, the two of them hang out together more and more. This fuels Kei’s jealousy, and she tries everything in her power to keep them apart. However, Miyako won’t disappear so easily, and Hiro cares for both girls. Which girl, if either, will he choose? Will Hiro finally find a balance between school and work? What will happen to the rejected girl(s)? And how can Chihiro and Renji’s bond continue to grow if her memories are so easily wiped away? Will Chihiro finish her novel? Will Renji find his true path in life? So many questions to be answered!

Some of that interesting and unique artwork. Preeeeeeetty.

And this series does indeed address all of them in just twelve episodes. The stories are more about emotion than action, and that, coupled with a handful of brief nude scenes, makes this a series for more mature anime fans. At times it could be a bit melodramatic, but once you get into the heart of the show, you get caught up in the drama. The art was really interesting and beautiful. At the outset it kind of looks like a lot of other big-eyed anime shows, but the techniques with the various silhouettes and colours really made the artwork stand out. The opening and closing themes were both pretty and hopeful, and I really enjoyed the background music that sounded like 80s-style synthesizers (80s new wave is my bread and butter). Chihiro and Renji’s story sort of reminded me of a non-funny version of 50 First Dates at times, but that didn’t stop me from getting completely drawn in (despite Chihiro’s ridiculously soft voice).

We never find out who that mysterious nun-type gal is. Maybe in season two?

Speaking of voices, the English dub was excellent, calling on industry pros like Luci Christian and Greg Ayres. Only Clint Bickham as Renji didn’t seem to be a good fit, but that’s just my personal opinion. Hiro, Miyako, and Kei’s tale was just as involving as Chihiro and Renji’s, even though I thought that Miyako was bats**t crazy. While I didn’t feel particularly close to any one character, I really did enjoy watching their stories unfold, and thanks to the artistic flourishes such as overly long periods of silence and the aforementioned artwork, watching this series felt more like getting lost in a great painting rather than a good book. Since the anime is based on a series of adult visual novels, that kind of makes sense. There’s a second season entitled Ef: A Tale of Melodies that I will definitely be checking out next. As for the first season, Ef: A Tale of Memories is a very heartfelt anime, executed impeccably, that older fans should certainly not miss.

Rating: ★★★★✰ I knocked off half a star for the copious melodrama, but overall, this series impressed me greatly, and I look forward to adding it to my collection one day.

Gamer’s Paradise: The World God Only Knows

His skills are an online legend.

Now he has to face reality.

Initially I was quite taken with today’s anime selection, as evidenced by my glowing First Impressions post. And I still enjoyed it several episodes in. However, now that I’ve reached the end of The World God Only Knows, I’m not quite sure how I feel about it.

Keima's worldview consists of whatever is on the screen in front of him. Elsie isn't a gamer, so she just doesn't understand.

The premise: antisocial gamer geek Keima Katsuragi is an unbeatable “god” when it comes to dating sim games. Because of this, he’s tapped by dark forces (re: forced) to help a cute demon named Elsie collect loose souls which have escaped from hell. They hide in the hearts of girls, for some strange reason, so Keima has to put aside his disgust with reality and use all of his dating sim tricks of the trade in order to woo the girls who are the unknowing hosts. Once their hearts fill with love for Keima, there’s no more room to hide, and when the loose souls escape Elsie is there to capture them in a giant glass jar. Keima hates real life and pretty much anything other than his games, so watching him try to utilize his gaming skills in real life situations is the basis for much of the show’s humor.

Keima's harem covers all the bases: a nadeshiko, a tsundere, a meganekko (without glasses), a yandere, and a sporty girl.

I really enjoyed this series at the beginning. I loved the character of Keima and identified with him instantly, being something of an antisocial gamer-type myself (though I hold nowhere near the level of disgust with reality that Keima does [except for when I’m having a super horrible day]). I thought that Elsie was cute, though nothing special when it comes to daffy sidekicks. Most of all I really liked the premise and was eager to watch it all unfold. But then somewhere along the way things fell a bit flat. There are four girls that Keima must pursue in season one. The first story arc was hilarious, and quite quickly resolved. The second took a bit longer but remained funny throughout. There were a couple of filler episodes, and one involving Keima trying to beat a bugged dating sim made me tear up with laughter. Then came the third girl’s story, which was mostly enjoyable but seemed to drag on just a bit too long. Finally, the fourth girl’s arc emerged, and I hated everything about it. I hated the character of the girl because she was boring and almost painful to watch; I hated the setting, which was repetitive and repressive, and I hated the total lack of anything funny. It was a longer arc, which made it worse, and I found myself getting depressed just by watching it. Whereas earlier in the season this show was always the first one I’d watch after downloading all of my Anime On Demand shows every week, by the end it became the last. I had high hopes that the final episode would make up for lost laughter, but it did nothing to redeem itself.

In godlike mode Keima is nearly invincible. In his own mind, that is.

The series seemed to try to become too serious, which in turn made the show depressing because the girl who the final story arc revolved around was herself depressing. Keima was also kind of joyless by the end, in my opinion, and that only left Elsie as a character to cling to, but she was never that exciting and could hardly be considered a reason to watch all on her own. The art was solidly good anime art, but nothing extraordinary or new. The music was just okay, though I did always enjoy the opening theme as well as the song that crops up in the final two episodes. Basically, the whole series was a bit of a letdown. It seemed too rambling and scattered, and it didn’t remain funny enough to abandon its storyline as much as it did. There’s a second season, and I would certainly check it out if given the chance in order to see if it can pick the series back up and make it shine like it once did. I still believe that the premise is great, and there’s a lot of comedy fruit just ripe for the picking to be found there. But a complete season should be able to stand on its own two feet, especially a first season, and The World God Only Knows fumbles disappointingly short of my initial expectations.

Rating: ★★★ Glad I watched it, and I might be tempted to add this series to my collection if the second season can make me laugh like the first half of season one did.

Kdrama Fights Back: City Hunter

A twisted fate leads one man to fight crime,

but the truth will change his world.

Well, it took me a little while, but I finally finished watching the Kdrama version of City Hunter this week. (Truth be told, two months is nothing compared to the endless weeks it takes me to complete an On Demand anime series, but I digress.) It was quality viewing throughout, but I didn’t become super addicted until halfway through.

Crappy faux dads don't use bottles to raise stolen babies, they use guns.

The initial episode, which I wrote about in great detail in my First Impressions post, is the most important when it comes to plot, but I’ll summarize it again briefly. In 1983 twenty-one South Korean soldiers were sent on a secret mission to kill officials in North Korea as a revenge tactic after a bombing. However, during the mission the five men who organized the whole thing realized that what they did would ignite a political landmine, so they sent in a sniper to kill all of the soldiers as they were returning to the submarine that was supposed to take them home. Only one soldier survived, Lee Jin-pyo, and he had the brilliant idea to steal his now-dead best friend’s infant son and raise him on a drug compound in Thailand. The boy, Yoon-sung, learns how to fight and wield a gun, but it isn’t until his faux father gets injured that he finds out the reason for his unconventional upbringing. Jin-pyo explains that Yoon-sung’s real father was killed just after he was born, and now it is up to the boy to exact vengeance on the five men who sent those twenty-one soldiers to die.

Kim Young-joo tries to think of ways to win against Yoon-sung in the upcoming Blue House wet t-shirt contest.

Yoon-sung takes this news surprisingly well, and after spending a few years in the US earning a fancy MIT degree, he returns to Korea for the first time since he was a baby in order to take a job on the Blue House’s IT team. (The Blue House is the Korean version of the American White House.) From there he sets out to bring the five corrupt politicians to justice by exposing their lies to the public and delivering them to a young prosecutor named Kim Young-joo. The trouble starts when his blood-thirsty fake dad shows up in Korea as well. Jin-pyo doesn’t just want the five in jail and politically ruined, he wants them dead, but Yoon-sung doesn’t want to create anymore orphans. Throughout the rest of the series the two men come into conflict as they work to bring justice to the fallen soldiers using different methods, but it’s Yoon-sung’s Batman-like approach to bringing the truth to light that earns him the moniker of “City Hunter.” Kim Young-joo provides plenty of trouble of his own in his fervent quest to discover the real identity of the City Hunter. Then there’s Yoon-sung’s mother, Lee Kyung-hee, who has never given up hope of seeing her son again. However, Yoon-sung was told that he was abandoned by her as an infant, so even when he finds her his anger prevents him from revealing who he really is. And last but not least is Kim Nana, the Blue House guard who keeps having run-ins first with Yoon-sung, then the City Hunter. She has a full backstory filled with drama all her own, and when she and Yoon-sung meet sparks fly. But the City Hunter can’t fall in love, because love is a liability when you’re in the business of bringing justice to the world…

Surprise, there's romance hidden inside this action drama, too!

Whoo, boy, where to begin on this one? I must say, City Hunter really puts the drama in Kdrama. There are a billion twists and turns in this series, enough to make an American soap opera blush with envy. Just when you think you have one part figured out, three new riddles spring forth. Some of the answers I guessed in advance, and some completely took me by surprise. Overall, though, it was very enjoyable to watch this tale unfold. I must admit that it took me several episodes to really get into it. Up until now all of my Kdramas have been romantic comedies, which are easier for me to become immersed in than stories filled with fight scenes and warfare. (What can I say, I’m a lover and a dreamer, not a fighter.) Even with the über delicious Lee Min Ho at the helm I still wasn’t dying to watch an episode marathon until halfway through. By that point we have established likable characters and I was invested enough to crave knowing what comes next. The cliffhanger endings only helped fuel the fire. The end of the series wasn’t as tidy as previous series such as Boys Over Flowers and Lie To Me, but it answered the main questions, which is good enough. I would have liked a few more details about what happens after the finale, but considering how many storylines they had to tie up, it worked out pretty well.

The modern-day crime fighter: much more unobtrusive, though just as stylish as a Batsuit.

The acting in City Hunter is top-notch. I expect nothing less from Lee Min Ho, but I was happy to see that his excellent supporting cast kept pace with him every step of the way. The music was really good: the opening title song is badass and bombastic, the love theme is sweet without getting too saccharine, and the score is dramatic and fitting. Not to mention there’s a good smattering of fun and bouncy K-pop for the fans. Many songs were used over and over again throughout the series, as I’ve noticed is the norm in Kdramas, but this soundtrack had a large quantity of songs to draw on, which meant that I wasn’t sick of hearing them by episode twenty. The action scenes were very cool and choreographed well, the dramatic scenes became less cheesy the more involved you become with the characters, and there’s also plenty of funny parts as well as romance to keep this series well-rounded. I rooted for all of the “good” characters, despised all of the “bad” characters, and generally enjoyed getting lost in this winding and intricate drama. I read a bit about the manga that this series was based on, and I’m glad that the Kdrama version deviates from the source material. I’m completely bored with leading male characters who are misogynistic playboys, but I can definitely get behind a lead character who only pretends to be a playboy in order to keep his identity a secret. (Hence another reason why I’ve always been a Batman kind of girl.) The scenery of Seoul is stunning and definitely fuels my fire to visit Korea for myself. I would certainly recommend City Hunter to anyone new to Kdrama, or even long-time fans of the genre. With such a great cast and engaging story, there really is something for everyone here.

Rating: ★★★★✰ It took a few episodes to get into it, but once you’re in, you’re completely hooked.

First Impressions: A Channel

Teen feels left out, has to make new friends.

I think I’m too old for this stuff.

Between impulse purchases and Anime Network On Demand my backlog of anime series to finish is rather high, and my Netflix queue is positively bursting. On top of that I suddenly have access to a Roku player, so I now have a whole new juicy queue of shows to watch on Crunchyroll. Hence I decided that I wasn’t going to watch any more random anime for a while, at least until I’ve whittled down what I already have. But then I saw the first episode of A Channel On Demand, and the description was about a high school girl trying to figure stuff out, and since I’m a sucker for shoujo I decided to give this random find a whirl.

I have a massive headache. Maybe I should use this box cutter to open up my skull and massage my brain! Great idea, right?

Tooru just got accepted to high school, but she’s in the class one year below her best friend, Run. When Tooru tries to hang out with Run she can’t seem to shake Run’s other two friends from the same class, Yuko and Nagisa. Run is kind of a daffy airhead and doesn’t noticed that Tooru is feeling left out of their conversations or that she’s jealous of her two new friends. However, by the end of the episode, thanks to Run’s reassurances that their friendship will always remain, Tooru finally accepts her best friend’s new friends and they all hang out as one group.

Yeah, taking a metal bat to school to fend off your best friend's suitors is totally normal behavior. Riiiiiight...

God, I got bored just writing that synopsis. Oh A Channel, how do I dislike thee, let me count the ways? As soon as it began I thought, “I’m not going to like this show because I hate this artwork. I can’t stand watching these cute cherub faces for twenty more minutes.” But then my Libran side took over and scolded my art aesthetic side to be more open-minded. Maybe the story would rock, give it a chance! But the story did not rock. It was oh so dreadfully boring. I really am constantly amazed at some of these slice of life anime series that have nothing special going for them. Hey, we’re friends, but one of us feels left out, but now we’re all friends together, yay! I suppose if the world of teenage girls was something you hadn’t experienced, then watching such a show might have some appeal, like if you’re a super young preteen getting ready to enter high school or someone who never went to high school at all. However, since I experienced the highs and lows of female high school friendships firsthand, there was nothing in this episode that appealed to me in the slightest. When my own life is more interesting than an anime, I know that I can’t watch any more.

Okay, so this is about a girl learning to deal with her best friend coming out, that's coo- oh. Nope, it's just some lame comedic fan service. Bummer.

I hated all the characters and couldn’t care less what happened to them. Run was an idiot who could barely stand up straight without falling over, Yuko and Nagisa were stock side characters, and Tooru was psychotic in the most uninteresting way possible. Once again we find an anime series that has a creepily obsessive female friendship which seems to be the stuff of high comedy in anime but is fodder for horror movies here in the States. When Tooru entered Run’s room and thought that Yuko was kissing Run there was a glimmer of something interesting, but that quickly faded when it became clear that this ploy was merely fodder used to fuel Tooru’s jealousy and give her cause to punch Yuko in the boobs every time they met, because hey, that sure never got old. The opening and closing theme songs were tolerably cute, but that’s all the positive feedback I can provide for this series (which is technically categorized as seinen, wth?!?). I’m not sad in the slightest to say adieu to A Channel and move on to any one of the thousands of other anime series out there with more potential than this one.

Bishōnen In Space: Tytania

One clan thinks they own the universe.

One rebel is proving them wrong.

At long last, Tytania, the epically epic space opera anime that I’ve been watching for several months, came to a close. I’ve been watching it for so long that I’m just not sure what to think without my weekly dose of intergalactic drama. There are lots of little details scattered throughout this expansive galaxy of political intrigue and space battles, but the main story can be reduced down to a basic good(ish) versus evil(ish) struggle for power.

No one even has the courage to tell the clan lord of Tytania that those pants give him saddlebag thighs.

As I mentioned in greater detail in my First Impressions post about this series, Tytania is the all-powerful ruling clan of the universe. They know it, and everyone else knows it, too. Some of them try to rule fairly, while a few others believe that maintaining power is at all costs is more important. It’s not so much that Tytania is well-loved, but it’s more like people are afraid to mess with them, so most of the galaxy just deals with it as best as they can. Enter one Fan Hyulick, a young cocky solider who gets a promotion to Admiral of Euria strictly for the purpose of losing a big battle against Tytania. The problem is that no one told Fan that he was supposed to lose, and so he wins using an out-of-the-box strategy. This pretty much blows everyone’s socks off.

Fan Hyulick partying. Or possibly a Hardee's commercial.

Tytania wants their hands on this guy pretty badly, and since Fan gets kicked off of Euria for winning that battle, it should be easy to capture him. However, an anti-Tytania faction finds him first and keeps him safely hidden away. When they get compromised, Fan gets handed off to the pirate ship The Honest Old Man where he makes his home for the rest of the series. Tytania keeps having close run-ins with Fan, and even though they discuss inviting him to join Tytania at first, the longer that they can’t find him, the more his legend grows, and the more dangerous of a figure he becomes. Despite the fact that Fan is very easygoing and jovial in person, he has become a hero to the anti-Tytania factions around the galaxy, and that gives the rebels more courage to fight back. You can see how Tytania wouldn’t be pleased with this. The rest of the series is basically a game of cat and mouse between Tytania and Fan Hyulick, with lots of political intrigue going on within the walls of Tytania itself.

Cute but useless, that's meeeee!

There are several pros and cons that I found in this anime. Getting the negative out of the way first, this series is basically a sausage fest. There are only a couple of female characters of note, one being a loli princess (Lydia) who is supposed to play some big role in the future of Tytania. Don’t get your hopes up, though, because you never find out what that is. She just runs around the garden in puffy shorts and thigh-highs and says innocently deep things about the events happening. Basically, she was annoying. Kind of cute at times, but mostly annoying. Another minus would be the episodes in which little to nothing happens, drawing out storylines and battles which definitely did not need to be so drawn out. The three episodes before the finale were especially guilty of this, because only one thing of note would happen in twenty-six minutes of animation. This was a shame, because when it was good, it was brilliant, but when it was boring, well, it was boring. On top of that, I noticed that a lot of the story arcs were becoming the same thing in the second half of the series: Fan gets caught by someone then almost captured by Zarlish, the battle-hungry duke of Tytania, then he gets away. Again and again and again this same scenario played out. It seemed rather unimaginative, given that there is an entire universe of planets and characters to play with here.

Miranda, slingin' back a few beers before battle.

Having said all of that, there was a lot of good stuff in this series, too. The first half was quite engaging, more so than the second half, which was kind of new since most of the anime series I’ve seen start off weak and grow stronger. It’s the Kobato effect: the first half is filler, while the second half is actual plot. But this time, even though the formula was the same, I actually enjoyed the filler episodes more than the repetitive stretched-out plot of the second half, especially the political battles happening within the walls of Tytania. I liked the detailed animation, and the end theme song, “Lost In Space,” by Psychic Lover, is killer. Some of the characters were clichéd, but I still enjoyed watching them. Fan is like a more easygoing Han Solo, which is great. It’s like Star Wars without that pansy Luke getting in the way. (I tease, of course. And to be fair, I’m more of a Trekkie anyway.) Though the XX chromosome set was few and far between, I really loved Miranda, the commander of The Honest Old Man. She began the series as bold and outspoken, then showed more layers as the series progressed. And she wasn’t the typical waif-like anime girl, either. Miranda was built like a brick house and knew how to kick ass!

Rebel, rebel, you tore your dress. Rebel, rebel, your face is a mess.

This anime introduced many more questions than it could answer, which is understandable because the manga is still ongoing and, well, it is anime. As far as anime endings go, this one is more frustrating than some other series that provide definitive answers to their stories such as Angel Beats or Black Butler. Yet it’s not anywhere near as frustrating as those series that don’t answer major plot points at all such as Guin Saga or Black Blood Brothers. Basically, if you like space operas, you’ll probably like this, unless you think it’s an aristocratic ripoff of Star Wars. (But then, what space opera isn’t compared to Star Wars? George Lucas really branded that genre.) Personally, I enjoyed the political intrigue, the non-cutesy detailed artwork, and I really liked the ragtag group of rebels as well as several members of Tytania. Not knowing exactly whose side I’m on is what makes me enjoy an anime even more, and Tytania had all that and more.

Rating: ★★★✰ I could see owning this one day, but the rewatch value is still questionable.

Fried My Little Brains: Mardock Scramble, The First Compression

Even after death she looks for a purpose.

When in doubt, seek vengeance.

I feel like I keep hearing about Mardock Scramble, and I was intrigued enough by the preview to jump on the chance to watch it when it came around On Demand. Now…well, I’ve seen it.

Not even a magical mouse named Ufcock can make Balot smile.

Here’s the gist: Balot is a fifteen year-old prostitute who gets murdered by maniacal Shell, the man who springs her out of jail. Actually, he attempts to murder her in a fire, but a quirky guy named Dr. Easter manages to snag her body and revive her as a cyborg using a program known as the Mardock Scramble. Balot tries to learn about her new body and come to terms with her life via the help of Ufcock, a weapon who usually takes the form of a golden mouse. Dr. Easter wants Balot to testify against Shell, who is a notorious gambler and heinous criminal. Because of this Shell sends his henchmen to get rid of her. Will Balot master her new powers well enough to stay alive?

Finally she gets a gun! She might not have pants, but dammit, she has a gun.

Honestly, I don’t even know the answer to that. The movie ends very, and I mean very, abruptly. Since I didn’t realize that it was a trilogy at the time, I was quite taken aback. I’ve come to expect less than tidy endings from anime, but this was just ridiculous. However, it seems that the next two movies will pick up where this one left off. As for part one, I have to say that I’m quite torn as to what I think about it. This is one of those rare anime offerings that is clearly of the highest quality production-wise, and yet, I never want to watch it again. I consider myself pretty open-minded when it comes to violence and sex in film (some of my favourites have both) but this one was over the top for me. There was just so much horribly sad and disturbing sex/borderline rape. I thought that maybe the first part would be the worst, but then there was more in the middle, so finally when it came to the gang of criminals obsessed with body parts (most notably a fellow who liked to surgically add women’s privates onto his hand) I was past being affected. I understood from the previews alone that this would be a very disturbing tale, but I have to wonder if it was necessary to have all that was shown. And trust me, it was a lot. Then again, I did watch the director’s cut, so maybe that accounts for the excess of sex and violence. Though I imagine that the original cut of the film is still incredibly dark (and not in a good way).

Let's see that cute little mouse again! Gosh, he's adorable! Almost adorable enough to blot out the horrific violence in the rest of the film. Almost.

There were some aspects that did impress me, such as the astounding artwork, which was really top-notch. I liked some of the sci-fi details, such as being able to take memories out of a person’s head and save them onto a computer disc. And Ufcock was awesome, definitely my favourite character. Other than that, there wasn’t a lot for me here. The music was fine but unmemorable. The characters were pretty much all stereotypical: bad guys who are super evil just because, a kooky doctor who likes to experiment, self-righteous lawmakers, etc. Maybe they become more defined in further films. Most of the backstory was spent on Balot, who was an okay protagonist. I did feel sympathy for her, but little else, seeing as how most of her screen time involves her getting f**ked over, literally. I can see how her vengeance will be very satisfying, especially considering how crappy her life had been, but they barely scratched the surface of her mastering her power and becoming a true badass by the time the credits rolled. Overall, I found the whole thing to be very unsatisfying. Mardock Scramble: The First Compression seemed to be an endless parade of graphic images with an interesting story to thread them together, but personally, I’m not sure that the story was intriguing enough to put up with all of the details exploited on the screen. I might attempt to watch the other two films in the trilogy, or I might just google the story to see how it all ends and be done with it.

Rating: ★★✰ The animation quality is outstanding, and if you love sci-fi anime, this would probably be worth your time. For me, it wasn’t.

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