Rolling Review – Children of the Whales (01)

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Episode Synopsis:

A floating island slowly drifts through the endless, shifting dunes of the sand sea. Nine in ten people here are born Marked; blessed with telekinetic abilities and cursed with short lives, typically living only into their 20s or 30s. On this island lives a young archivist named Chakuro, who records the stories of his home, affectionately dubbed the Mud Whale. Though Marked, his mastery of his powers leaves a lot to be desired. Still, his excellent memory and passion for writing make him a valuable member of the community.

One day, another drifting island appears in the distance, and Chakuro is sent with a scouting party to hunt for useful tools and materials. Separated from his companions, Chakuro comes across a strange, seemingly emotionless girl, who suddenly attempts to kill him before collapsing. The scouting party brings this strange girl back to the elders that rule Mud Whale, but a young criminal interrupts their inquiry and kidnaps both the girl and Chakuro. For the first time, Chakuro has the opportunity to see the world beyond the tiny island he’s called home for so long.

Review:

At first glance, Children of the Whales has a lot of elements that many other shows have covered in the past. Before the end of episode one, we’ve got a potentially post-apocalyptic setting, young people with vaguely-defined magic-like abilities, and an emotionless girl with a knack for violence. While these may seem overdone individually, this show weaves them together nicely and builds excellent context for what we see on screen. The first episode is a little heavy on exposition, but that’s not really a bad thing when you’re introducing a completely new world to the audience.

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The first thing you’ll probably notice about Children of the Whales is the artwork. The characters are painted in soft pastel colors with very thin lines, set against detailed and heavily-textured backgrounds. It’s not a combination I’ve seen much of in recent years, and it’s always nice to see a studio embracing a different visual style, especially when it’s as well-executed as it is here.

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I find the backgrounds to be particularly eye-catching – they’re reminiscent of the early work of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I think it’s the man-made earthwork and greenery that makes the connection, and it gives the environments a lived-in and welcoming feel, especially against the harsh backdrop of the unending desert the show takes place in.

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Setting the art aside, I greatly enjoyed how the first episode laid the foundations of its story and setting. Chakuro seems like a decent guy, and his love of history and recording the lives of his fellows makes his generous narration less stilted than it might feel otherwise. It gives us all the information we need without slowing down the story too much, and all but vanishes after the halfway point, leaving us to experience the world of the Mud Whale from his perspective. While we don’t have much to go on from the rest of the cast so far, everyone seems nicely characterized without relying too much on the cliched character archetypes we’ve come to expect from modern anime. Even Lykos, the emotionless girl Chakuro finds on the drifting island, seems to be something greater than just another dead-eyed non-character that the audience is supposed to somehow find endearing. The island’s elders talk about her as if she’s a symptom of something that has been affecting the world for a long time, making her condition part of a much larger mystery.

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Whatever plagues the world and leaves people like this is both intriguing and deeply concerning

I also appreciate that we get a taste of every major character’s motivations early on. Chakuro is driven by a desire for knowledge, which is great for allowing us as the audience to become immersed in an alien world. The criminal, Ouni, is driven by a desire to break away from the island that he sees as more of a prison than a haven, and it’s easy to see how someone would come to feel that way as they count down their limited years seeing nothing but the same bleak wasteland. Lykos is a cipher by necessity, but the elder’s reactions to her presence make it clear that we’ll learn more in time. Even though those elders know more than they’ve let on, their actions don’t seem malicious, and it’s nice to see people in a position of authority that are neither beneficent saints nor scheming authoritarians.

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While its characters may not jump out initially, Children of the Whales does offer a very interesting world from the outset. Citizens of the Mud Whale habitually try to keep their emotions in check, mainly to prevent themselves from being overcome by grief when 90% of their population dies well before reaching middle age. It also seems to be a way for the Marked to control their powers more efficiently, though this may just be my impression after seeing how the clumsy Chakuro was able to protect himself from Lykos. In any case, despite keeping a lid on their feelings, the characters are clearly passionate, and it serves as an intriguing cultural facet rather than an ironclad rule. There are plenty of other cool setting and environmental details to watch out for, though listing them here would take far too long.

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No idea yet if the symbols and colors mean anything, but I hope to find out

Overall, the show seems to be as much about the world as it is about the characters, and I think that’s what put it high on my list for this season. I love some good world-building, and Children of the Whales is certainly delivering that. It combines well-trod elements competently to create a solid foundation for us to experience its plot, and so far, I’m more than intrigued enough to keep going. Topping that off, there’s nothing in it that annoys or frustrates me (so far), which is a rarity. I can generally look past minor annoyances like dumb character affectations or occasional fan-service, but not having to deal with them at all is a welcome departure.

Summary:

Children of the Whales opens with a rock-solid episode that provides a good jumping-off point for the rest of its story. The world is melancholic, but the characters within it are doing their best to live their lives in spite of a difficult situation. There are hints of many mysteries to be unraveled, and the potential for both high adventure and introspection as our cast braves the sand sea in search of places beyond their home. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where they end up.

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Rolling Review – Made In Abyss (10)

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EPISODE SYNOPSIS:

Our young adventurers descend into the fourth layer of the Abyss; the Goblet of Giants. This bizarre landscape hides natural wonders and lethal dangers, including a fierce predator that stalks Riko and Reg through misty pools. Though the children narrowly escape the beast, Riko is wounded and exposed to the creature’s poison. To make matters worse, the pair made their escape by ascending towards the upper levels, and Riko suffers nightmarish symptoms. Reg must now race to save his friend, even if it means causing her more pain in the process.

REVIEW:

I’m going to tell you folks something up front; this was one of the toughest episodes I’ve ever watched across many, many shows. If you thought that the secret of Riko’s birth and the brutality of Ozen were Made In Abyss taking off the kid gloves, you haven’t seen anything yet. Episode 10 was agony to watch, and obliterates any concept that our heroes are safe or prepared for their journey.

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Before that, however, the episode takes us into another spectacular environment with the Goblet of Giants. We’ve come to expect awesome background art from this show, and we have yet to be disappointed. The fourth layer is in many ways the most alien we’ve seen so far, with enormous plants and vines forming steaming pools high above an unseen surface. It feels right that the Abyss gets less and less familiar as we follow it further down and see places humans were never meant to reach.

One of the reasons for that is, of course, the wildlife. Riko and Reg eventually encounter a large, porcupine-like beast with fearsome poisoned spines and deadly intelligence. While the creatures in the upper levels were clearly dangerous, this one demonstrates a level of cunning and anticipation that makes it far more threatening.

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When Riko is struck by the monster’s spine, the episode takes a sharp turn into horror. Reg’s only way to save her is to escape upwards, subjecting Riko to the full curse of the fourth layer. For anyone who forgot what that means…

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It’s much harder to watch in action, believe me. We aren’t spared any detail of Riko’s suffering, and even the hope that the bleeding will purge the poison is proven false. Reg’s desperate efforts to save her are harrowing, and I can’t remember the last time my hand snapped involuntarily to my mouth in shock witnessing something like this. Juxtaposing the characters’ youth and cartoonish designs with the suffering on display makes it even harder to watch. Appropriately sickening sound work rounds out the experience.

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Reg’s reactions to Riko’s suffering are nearly as hard to watch

I often find displays of pain and suffering anime to be ineffective. Wounds and injuries in many shows tend to lack impact and fail to communicate how dangerous they are. This is not the case here. This is not mere shock value; this is the fulfillment of a terrible promise. Made In Abyss is driving home a point it’s been making since it started; this is not a place for anyone, let alone children, to be.

SUMMARY:

With this gut-punch of an episode, I have no idea what’s in store for our characters. Riko is inches from death and Reg is frantically attempting to save her. The introduction of a character that’s been hinted at up until now seems to have saved our heroes, but there is no way of knowing where there journey will take them from here.

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If there is one issue I have with episode 10, it’s that there’s an awful lot of exposition about the predator that wounds Riko. By now, we’re used to her spouting off info about the places and creatures of the depths, so it’s not out of character for her or the show. I feel, however, that the episode may have been even more impactful if more of it had occurred without speaking. In spite of that small disagreement on storytelling, the episode is gripping, suspenseful and punishing to watch, and I’m terrified and excited to see what happens next.


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Rolling Review – Made In Abyss (06)

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Episode Synopsis:

Riko and Reg have reached the Seeker Camp; a haven for cave raiders nestled at the bottom of the Abyss’s second layer. Here they meet Ozen, a White Whistle and former companion of Riko’s mother, as well as her apprentice, Marulk. Ozen allows them to stay the night, but it appears that not everything is well in the isolated refuge. In the morning, their host offers to explain the situation, but also delivers grim tidings of Lyza’s fate.

Review:

After the sobering jaunt through the Forest of Temptation, episode 6 gives Riko and Reg some time to get their bearings and enjoy the relative safety of the Seeker Camp. The structure looks like something straight out of a classic JRPG, built into a massive upside-down tree and sporting an enormous telescope with which to observe the approaches from the rest of the Abyss. Though more claustrophobic than the vistas we’ve been treated to so far, it’s still another beautiful environment in a show that’s already sported a lot of them.

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Most of these locales wouldn’t look out of place in good old FFIX

Unfortunately for our young adventurers, the warden of the camp is much less inviting. Ozen the Immovable is as impressive as she is unsettling. Her character design is fantastically striking, and the show goes to great lengths to make it clear just how strong she is without contriving reasons for her to show it off.

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Nice people don’t get narration like that… just sayin’

If Ozen is impressed that Riko and Reg have made it so far into the Abyss, she hides it well. Her open contempt for these children is strong, but considering that she went just as deep as Lyza, she’s not speaking from a position of arrogance, but one of hard-earned experience. She and Lyza were the ones who carried the infant Riko out of the Abyss all those years ago, and Ozen makes it clear that she thought more than once about abandoning the child. However, there’s a certain way in which she talks about Lyza that shows how much she cared for her, which hints at a much more nuanced character that I hope we continue to learn more about.

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There’s also more going on with Marulk, but I think you should learn about that for yourselves

In the camp, we also get to spend time learning more about the details of cave raiding with Ozen’s apprentice, Marulk. Though she’s only about Riko’s age, she too made it far into the Abyss, and apparently impressed Ozen enough for her to take the girl in (another hint that Ozen may have hidden layers we haven’t seen yet). Through Marulk, we hear more about some of the mysterious relics found in the middle layers, and the role the Seeker Camp plays in exploration and salvaging. It’s more solid worldbuilding through the eyes of children, which is something the show continues to do very well.

Of course, the other thing Made In Abyss does well is feed a sense of subtle yet ever-present dread by reminding us that the Abyss is as terrifying as it is magnificent. When Riko wakes up in the middle of the night, she encounters a nightmarish creature that looks like a rack of ribs grew terrible arms. Though hardly the goriest thing I’ve seen in anime, I found it deeply unsettling. I’m sure that’s partly because it reminded me of the moment Dark Souls made it absolutely clear that it was not messing around.

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After Riko’s late-night scare, Ozen offers to explain what she’s just seen. The implication is that Riko will finally be confronted by some of the true horrors of the Abyss and consider turning back. I’m a little dubious as to how that’s going to play out, since she’s already stumbled upon people being devoured and their voices turned into lures for fresh victims (crap on toast, Made In Abyss, that was gruesome), without showing much terror. Still, Ozen also tells Riko more about how she recovered her mother’s whistle, which may put her quest into question in a more personal way.

Summary:

The show continues to be rock-solid in terms of story, world- and character-building, and presentation. We get to interact with some new and compelling characters who I’m definitely interested in learning more about. Frankly, the only complaint I have is that while Ozen’s appearance, dialogue and movements all play into making her seem aloof and dangerous, her voice actress leans a little too hard on the creepy voice. When every line sounds like it’s being delivered by someone trying to spook you at a haunted house, it loses some of the impact when she says something that’s supposed to be truly concerning.

Still, that’s a minor complaint at worst, and I’m nervously excited to follow Riko and Reg as they learn more of Lyza’s fate and the nature of the Abyss itself.


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Rolling Review – Made in Abyss (02)

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Episode Synopsis:

Riko and her friends manage to get Reg accepted into their orphanage, and for a time, life continues as normal. After three months, a cave-diving expedition returns to Orth with much fanfare, bearing a white whistle; the mark of the bravest and most accomplished adventurers. The whistle belonged to Riko’s mother, Lyza, and its sudden return causes mixed feelings in the young girl. It also appears that the whistle was not the only thing Lyza brought back from the Abyss…

Review:

To shamelessly piggyback off of Brendan; boy howdy, folks! Made in Abyss is flat-out, full-stop gorgeous. Its visual design is immaculate, and its worldbuilding is phenomenal so far. This episode is largely dedicated to stepping back from adventuring and letting the audience take in the everyday life of Riko, Reg and their friends in Orth, as well as explaining many of the concepts that were introduced in episode 1. It’s heavily loaded with exposition, but it’s all handled so well that I don’t mind the show being front-loaded like this.

Part of what helps is that the majority of the cast are children, so we learn much of how the Abyss works from their perspective. Whether it’s the adorable pictures detailing the increasingly worrisome effects of the Abyss…

Or a children’s pantomime about the ranks of cave-divers…

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We learn essentially everything we need to know about how Orth’s adventuring hierarchy works and why the Abyss is so tantalizing and dangerous. The city treats it not as a terrifying chasm of death (though they certainly don’t ignore its dangers), but as a place of opportunity. Those who plumb its depths are lionized – the return of Lyza’s whistle is a cause for celebration, rather than mourning.

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This brings out a lot of uncertainty in Riko, who has long idolized her mother, but never knew her. Leader’s (real name still unknown) description of her is both admiring and admonishing, painting the picture of a fascinating person. It’s nice to see a deceased family member described with depth and complexity, rather than just a trigger to move the plot forward.

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That’s not to say Lyza doesn’t accomplish that as well in absentia. Her findings look like they’re going to be driving much of the story in the near future, so I appreciate that the show took the time to get us settled in before tossing us in the deep end. Heck, a full three months passed since Reg was admitted to the orphanage, so it’s clear that Made in Abyss is willing to keep things paced out. It makes the world feel more believable without depriving us of its delicious story-meats.

If there is one thing that bugs me a little about the show, it’s some of the humor derived from examining Reg. We’ve already established that Riko’s tests on his body were pretty extreme, but from what she says in the first part of this episode, they also got… invasive. You can probably chalk it up to compulsive childish curiosity and cultural distance, but it made me a bit uncomfortable. So far, however, it’s nothing that’s going to drag down an otherwise brilliant show.

Summary:

There is so much more I’d love to say about this show, but I feel it really needs to speak for itself. It’s a visual delight to watch, its characters are fun, clever and engaging, and its world continues to fascinate me. It captures the feel of an old-school adventure RPG without blatantly copying the terminology like many game-inspired anime seem to these days, and that’s something I’m quickly growing fond of. I’m beyond excited to see where Made In Abyss takes us next as we dive deeper into its mysteries.


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Rolling Review – Little Witch Academia (24)

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Episode Synopsis:

Despite her weakened magic, Chariot confronts Croix in the hope of stopping her plan to forcibly reach the Grand Triskelion. However, Croix’s manipulation of Luna Nova’s magic goes far deeper than anyone else suspects, and she heads to Arcturus Forest atop her magi-tech siege engine to break the seal of The Nine Olde Witches and restore the world of magic on her terms. The disruption of magic also dumps Akko and co. into the forest, where they see that Croix’s plan has not gone as intended. Will Akko succeed where her idol and mentor failed, and reinvigorate magic throughout the land?

Review:

Episode 24 is a solid penultimate episode, but one that leaves me a little perplexed. It’s got bursts of high-octane Trigger action, some emotional moments between great characters, and a heartwarming ending that then seems to punt the conclusion into episode 25. It feels like the writers are having a tough time sticking the landing on the finale, but they’re still making a good show of it nonetheless.

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Things kick into high gear almost immediately as a partly de-powered Chariot faces off against Croix and her techno-magic. Even after the intervention of some of the faculty, Croix is several steps ahead, having long ago put Luna Nova’s magical energies under her control.

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Yeah, I’ve been planning this for maybe… 13 episodes now, so bite me

With the literal push of a button, she’s able to take out the last few people standing in her way before her titanic obsidian golem/magic rod takes to the skies and plows ominously towards Arcturus Forest. It’s a hell of a scene, on par with any of the action set pieces we’ve seen so far, and accompanied by some classy foreboding organ music (something that always earns at least a golf clap from me).

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Man, the villains always get the coolest scenes

Once Croix reaches the seal, she subdues Chariot and has her robot laser straight through the ward. Her long-running scheme works perfectly, until she sees that the Grand Triskelion is not the world-changing magic she believed, but a mere parlor trick by magic standards. Her rage and frustration at this discovery is wonderfully realized, and it’s hard not to sympathize with her. After all, though her methods are obviously immoral, her goal is ostensibly noble; to prevent magic from vanishing from the world and restoring it to a place of wonder and respect. The problem is that her quest is tainted by her own bitterness and inability to see the simple joys that make the art worthwhile.

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This oversight bites Croix in the backside almost immediately, as her robotic seal-breaker goes into overdrive. The anger Croix spread has become too strong, and her machine is now beyond her control. Not the most subtle moral lesson, perhaps, but a worthwhile one. It’s only the actions of Chariot and Akko (whose party arrives in the nick of time after Croix’s magical chicanery dumped them into the forest on their way home) that stop the device.

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Okay, sometimes there heroes get cool ones, too

Akko has a lovely little reunion with Chariot, acknowledging her as both her inspiration and the person who guided her, and vows to continue her hard work at becoming a magnificent witch. This idealistic energy unlocks the Shiny Rod’s full potential and reveals the final Word, restoring life and color to the bleak forest. In any other show, I’d be gagging a little at the feel-goodiness of it all, but LWA has played it so straight that I still found myself invested.

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And then things go a little bananas. With less than a minute to go, Croix’s magical app starts blaring alerts as a black magi-tech rocket is seen blasting into the stratosphere.

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Wait…  a WHAT?!

What the HELL, show?! I thought your ending felt a little truncated and you were probably going to use the last episode for denouement and lighthearted shenanigans after two pretty heavy ones. Instead, it looks like you’re pulling out some sort of final boss that had absolutely no lead-in or explanation? Was this Croix’s backup plan in case her robot failed? A magical ICBM?!

Summary:

I really don’t know how to feel about this episode after that last bit. The rest of it was quite good, even if the final moments felt a bit rushed and the B story with Andrew and his father trying to deal with the riots in the country beyond Luna Nova didn’t amount to much. All of the elements for a great ending were (and are) still there, but I fear that the writers may not have felt it was enough. LWA has been a pretty spectacular ride so far, and I’d hate to see it tarnished by a final episode that feels pulled out of someone’s butt. You haven’t steered me wrong yet, Trigger, don’t you start now!


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