My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Reviews ~ Equestria Girls: Rollercoaster of Friendship

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Synopsis:

It’s Summer in the human world, and Applejack and Rarity are trying to get a job at the newly-opened Equestrialand theme park selling caramel apples so they can spend the summer hanging out with each other. Instead, however, Applejack doesn’t get hired for the job, and Rarity ends up getting hired by the director of public affairs, an infamous and self-absorbed online “Snapgab” personality named Vignette Valencia, for the job of lead costume designer for the park’s Light Parade. Applejack is disappointed that she misses the chance to spend the summer with Rarity but, as a costume designer job is important to her, she encourages her to take the job regardless. While Rarity hits it off with her new boss readily, she soon gets overwhelmed by the demand of the position and ends up inviting her friends over to the park on the day of the Light Parade with VIP passes to hopefully help mitigate the stress. However, on arrival, Applejack is clearly upset to see how close she and Vignette are already.

As Applejack makes no secret of her jealousy of Rarity’s relationship with Vignette, she, in turn, shows no interest in the girls until they mention they’re the Rainbooms, and on seeing their own feed on Snapgab she decides to have them highlight the Light Parade. As Rarity is too busy to spend any time with the girls, including Applejack, they break off and go around the park. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash both end up trying out the roller coasters, but Dash is the one who ends up getting weak in the knees while Fluttershy enjoys herself. Afterward, Valencia tags Fluttershy to speak with her privately, announcing that she wants to make the Rainbooms appeal to a larger demographic by having them all change their appearances and personalities for the performance. When Fluttershy shows her hesitation, however, Valencia unveils her cell phone, which the audience sees has been tainted by Equestrian magic, and takes a picture of Fluttershy with it; teleporting her into a seemingly white, empty void.

While Twilight Sparkle and Sunset Shimmer attempt to win at a rigged ring toss game, with predictable results, Applejack notices Fluttershy is missing and tries to ask Rarity about it, but gets angry when Rarity seems to be more concerned (and increasingly stressed) about the parade. Applejack snoops around the park and finally discovers Fluttershy was last seen with Vignette. After a mishap involving a fake “Deputy Fun Inspector” badge that Pinkie Pie gave her, Applejack accidentally gets access to the park security cameras and spots Valencia as she brings Rainbow Dash to one side with much the same proposal she gave to Fluttershy. On refusing, Rainbow Dash gets zapped into the same void, and Applejack, on seeing her vanish, realizes they’re in trouble.

Rarity almost reaches a breaking point as Vignette, getting increasingly demanding and changing her mind almost constantly about what she wants, commission the costumes to be redone with an hour before the parade. She also gets angrier when Applejack doesn’t show up for final fittings and sound check on time, but as soon as Applejack does arrive she immediately reveals what Vignette has done to Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash. She attempts to prove it by swiping Vignette’s phone and using it, but unfortunately Vignette overheard her accusations and swapped her phone for a normal one. Nevertheless, Applejack persists in her accusations, leading Rarity to lash back that she’s angry that she was hired and Applejack wasn’t, before Applejack lashes out that Vignette always panders to everyone and that Rarity’s “not special”. This makes her break down in tears and Applejack shamefully runs off. Twilight, Sunset, and Pinkie, however, realize that Applejack never makes things up and was telling the truth about Vignette, but she snapshots them as well as soon as they discover it. Rarity comes back out just as Vignette creates holographic versions of the girls to perform instead according to her idea, and she likewise exposes that she no longer cares about Rarity’s vision and wants to use her own for the parade instead. Rarity realizes Applejack was telling the truth about Vignette, right before she tries to take a picture of her as well.

However, Rarity is able to interrupt Vignette’s phone by blocking its effect with her gem shields, and she runs off to find Applejack while Vignette herself takes over for the parade. On meeting Applejack, Rarity surprises her by apologizing for letting Vignette’s flattery of her distract her from caring about her friends and the two reconcile. Soon after, they get a call from Twilight who has a plan for getting them out of “the phone”, only for Rarity and Applejack to discover that the girls were simply teleported into a random white room within the park itself. However, they soon realize Vignette is getting more corrupted and is now changing whatever she doesn’t like, and that if she does the same to the crowd at the parade thousands of people will be crammed into the room at one time and will be crushed. The girls manage to confront Vignette at the parade just as the crowd boos her horrible song, with Rarity declaring it’s ok to want to be more admired but not at the expense of the ones who care about you. She and the girls “pony-up” and Rarity destroys Vignette’s phone with a rainbow whip. In the aftermath, Vignette admits her vast online popularity has become a substitute for having real friends in her life, but both Rarity and Applejack offer to befriend her. And as the crowd loved the “lightshow” during the parade, the girls are able to perform a new song to cap off the night: “Side by Side”.

Review:

Is this secretly, or even accidentally, the most brilliant entry in the Equestria Girls franchise to date?

Following a series of mediocre specials, what little love the Equestria Girls franchise seemed to garner from “Rainbow Rocks” appeared to have cooled considerably until “Forgotten Friendship/Most Likely to Be Forgotten” aired. I, at least, was far more enthusiastic about the future of the franchise after that came out and was looking forward to the next special. Unfortunately, this was a step backward, almost feeling like a glorified Youtube short rather than something worth an hour-long special.

Part of the reason “Forgotten Friendship” succeeded where “Rollercoaster of Friendship” failed that I realize I didn’t pick up at the time was not simply the focus on Sunset Shimmer but the fact that, aside from the first movie, “Forgotten Friendship” attached itself back to the main series more than any other entry. We spent a good amount of time in good ol’ Equestria and got to expand on both the pony Twilight Sparkle as well as Princess Celestia. By comparison, “Rollercoaster of Friendship”, like most EQ entries, is grounded solidly in the real world where there is, quite literally, little magic to be found.

On the second viewing, I compliment this entry for taking a few more risks, but none of them really panned out (with one possible exception…). One was the series attempting to subvert expectations. The girls appear that they’re on the road to all being trapped again with a buildup to another magic demon to fight, only to turn out they were never trapped at all but stuck in an ordinary room with an unlocked door the whole time. The problem with this one is it didn’t end up being nearly as funny as they hoped. It didn’t help that the build up to it was almost part-and-parcel a repeat of “Mirror Magic”. (Fluttershy is even the first one captured again.) Rather than being an amusing turnabout, it came off as series laziness.

Another was trying to focus on one or two of the girls instead of the group as a whole…and by “as a whole” I mean Sunset, Sci-Twi, and “Etc.”. 😛 This one focuses specifically on Applejack and Rarity and their relationship. The problem is one of the other specials already focused on Rarity: “Dance Magic”. So rather than looking like it’s giving all the girls their chance to shine, it looks like she’s unbalanced in coverage compared to the others.

The third, and biggest, was the villain. One thing the series hadn’t touched on yet that was ripe territory for the EQ spinoff was the impact of social media: how it encourages people to become more superficial while at the same time addicting them to the praise and attention they get from grooming a fake personality and appearance. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to hit that hard with the villain. Vignette Valencia is tied with Juniper Montage as the worst villain of the franchise. Unlike Juniper, they tried to give something charismatic with Vignette; namely her ability to roll off complicated responses mixed with LOLspeak and never pausing for air. It was an interesting idea, but it fell flat. Even after watching the special twice I can barely comprehend what Vignette is saying. What more, she is, by far, the most shoehorned villain redemption yet. Throughout the entire special Vignette is continuously superficial and self-absorbed. Even when she hires Rarity she’s only interested in using her. She doesn’t so much get “corrupted” in this one as gets more used to her newfound power. While people complain about Juniper, she at least came off in “Movie Magic” as someone thoughtlessly selfish as opposed to outright selfish. Vignette comes off as just plain selfish and uncaring. And while the special does try to pass in a message at the end about how one can have thousands of followers and no real friends, which is the true black mark of social media, it’s almost an afterthought like a fortune cookie message rather than tied into the plot.

Instead, the plot plays out like a series of Youtube shorts, especially with the bits with Fluttershy/Rainbow Dash and Sunset Shimmer/Sci-Twi. A lot of the humor comes from Rarity stressing out over her new job and the drama comes from the relationship strain between her and Applejack. None of that has anything to do with social media. Now if the series ever tries to do a special that really does focus on social media, it’ll come off as rehashing from this.

This all made for a rather mediocre special to me, but there were two things that stood out. One was something that stood out to me personally. The other…was pretty much the reason this somewhat unremarkable special ended up generating tons of buzz.

As Silver Quill noted in his review of “Friendship Games”, as admired as Sunset Shimmer is the ongoing complaint is that she’s effectively a different character from her initial appearance. He argued that the one thing Sunset has in common both as a villain and as a protagonist is her need to prove herself to be “better” than any challenge that comes her way. And what I liked about this special is it rammed it home in her scene with Sci-Twi. Although she states right at the outset that the game is rigged, she still has to beat it. Why? Because she can’t let the game be “better” than her. She has to prove she’s superior to it. She says it directly in a cold voice: “I don’t like to lose.”

The other needs little introduction…

In the world of the Internet, the rule for shipping two people together is pretty much that they simply appear in the same scene together. This episode, however, made a much more plausible case than usual for “Rarijack”. While all of it is solidly in the realm of ambiguous, there are more than a few moments in this episode. First, there’s the fact the whole center of the episode is Applejack and Rarity wanting to work in the same place so they can hang out all summer. Nothing’s wrong with that or unusual among friends, but the fact that it apparently is so important that the two of them get to do it together as opposed to any of their other friends is unusual. Applejack’s constant reactions to Rarity and Vignette shows she’s clearly jealous. She could be jealous of their friendship, but at the bare minimum that would indicate that Applejack views Rarity as a friend with a special status above the rest of the Humane Seven. Then there’s the fact that Applejack and Rarity constantly hold hands and blush when they look at each other, especially in the ending song when the two seem to be singing to one another.

Considering the fact that similar gestures and looks have been used with Lyra and Bon Bon, who the fandom considered to be a homosexual couple and the show writers seemingly endorsed in later episodes, this has led to widespread speculation that Applejack and Rarity’s human forms are a homosexual couple as well.

For me personally, I don’t think there was anything “conclusive” in favor of that viewpoint. If you realize the whole setup for this plot is contingent on Applejack and Rarity being closer friends with each other than the rest of the girls, it doesn’t seem so much of a big deal. For those who think the episode was implying that Applejack and Rarity or a couple, my suggestion is to think about the plot from the standpoint of them not being a couple and then ask how you could have presented the same plot in such a way to ensure no ambiguity while still letting their relationship as friends come through. I don’t think you could have, so this is going to have to be another one of those deals where I think the audience is just reading too much into it…or, perhaps, subtle fanservice.

In conclusion…average. It seemed a bit worse than average when it first came out due to being overshadowed by “Forgotten Friendship”, but now I consider it solidly middle-ground. Takes some chances but doesn’t really push them enough to work.

Fun Facts:

Similar to “Forgotten Friendship”, this special was originally conceived as a five-part miniseries to be showed as part of the Equestria Girls Youtube series. The TV version appears to be identical to this one.

Apparently, Stinky Bottoms’ Discount Hat Emporium exists in both worlds. 😛

Equestria Land ironically seems to be a land based off of MLP:FIM as if it was an actual series in the human world. Surreal. O_o

Considering the fact the girls have dealt with actual Sirens, I’m surprised Rarity is so cool about fake ones being in the show. 😛

Microchips gets mentioned by name for the first time in a special, although his name was introduced in an earlier Youtube short.

MICROCHIPS: (Offering) “Caramel Apple?” APPLEJACK: “Uh…’Applejack’.” It took me a while to get that joke. That’s what you get for naming yourselves after common objects. 😛

Nice continuity joke. VALENCIA: “I need a stress salad!” (Later) FLUTTERSHY: “Do you mind if I eat this salad? I’m feeling stressed.” RAINBOW DASH: “You gonna eat that stress salad?”

Although they originally appeared in human form in one of the shorts for “Rainbow Rocks”, the humanized Flim-Flam brothers make their first special appearance in this episode.

After Rarity screams about needing a bigger pile of clothes to scream into, the shot fades out and fades in on one of the stuffed animals at Flim and Flam’s ring-toss game: a horse with the same coloration as Rarity. 😀

“…because she’s always blowing smoke up your chimney!” Earn that Y7 rating.

Pinkie Pie knew they were in a room the whole time but just went along with it. 😛

Rating:

2.5 Stars out of 5

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What if “Pitch Meeting” did “Violet Evergarden”?

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Ok, first and foremost, I do not hate this series. No, I found it to be just as intriguing and tear-jerking as everyone else, and I was rooting for the main protagonist as much as everyone else. Nevertheless, er…I did find some flaws. And it’s usually in my nature to try and find something funny in everything, but even more so in a serious drama like this one.

So, please take this only in good fun. 😛

Similar to what I did for the Fairy Dance arc of “Sword Art Online”, this is a parody of Screen Junkies’ “Pitch Meeting” series; taking a look at what it would be like if they did this series. If you haven’t seen “Pitch Meeting” yet, check it out on YouTube. It’s quite funny and enjoyable. And you’ll get the style and humor of some of these jokes better if you watch a few installments of that first anyway. 😀

Without further ado…

*SPOILER ALERT!*


 

[Scene opens on the outside of an Kyoto Animation meeting room, then cuts to a beaming anime executive.]

EXECUTIVE: So I hear you got an idea for a new anime or me.

[Cut to an equally beaming screenwriter]

SCREENWRITER: Yes sir, I do! It’s called “Violet Evergarden”.

EXECUTIVE: Oh, so is it a cute little kids’ story about a little nature girl running around in wildflowers and meadows full of happiness and cheer?

SCREENWRITER: (Blinking in a bit of confusion) No…no, it’s about absolutely none of those things.

EXECUTIVE: Sorry, I just thought with a name like “Violet Evergarden” it would have something to do with flowers. What’s it actually about?

SCREENWRITER: It’s about a cold, emotionless girl who has no feelings or empathy who gets a job writing emotional and cathartic letters for people.

EXECUTIVE: Ha-ha! That sounds hilarious! I can just see all of the hi-jinks and shenanigans it will cause already! It’ll be a great comedy!

SCREENWRITER: Actually, it’s a heart-rendering drama.

EXECUTIVE: (Confused) Really?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, it’s pretty much the opposite of funny from start to finish.

EXECUTIVE: You have a setup that’s someone who would be probably the worst person ever at a certain job doing that certain job and it’s being played completely straight?

SCREENWRITER: Pretty much.

EXECUTIVE: Hmm. Tell me more. Like what’s the setting?

SCREENWRITER: Well, it’s kind of an alternate universe set in the Eighteen-Nineteen-Ten-Twenty-Forty-Sixties.

EXECUTIVE: Excuse me?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, you see…it’s set kind of in the post World War I era. Very European inspired, lots of primitive technology still being used with little to no electricity, lots of deaths and disease in the aftermath of a great war… But they don’t have things like machine guns or tanks to use in warfare and people still write letters even in emergency situations instead of using telegrams, so it’s more like the 1800s. On top of that we have lots of young women dressing in styles that would be obscene by 1910s standards so we’re kind of in the future.

EXECUTIVE: Oh! So what’s happening in the Eighteen-Nineteen-Ten-Twenty-Forty-Sixties?

SCREENWRITER: Well, there’s this young major on one side of the war who has an older brother who’s a higher rank, and he decides to surprise him one day with a present.

EXECUTIVE: That’s nice of him. What is it? A watch? A picture of the two of them?

SCREENWRITER: It’s a Combat Doll.

EXECUTIVE: Oh, is the major a little kid that he like dolls?

SCREENWRITER: No, you see it’s someone his older brother picked up during a military operation from Child-Soldier-Topia or whatever country they were fighting and she’s a child who has no emotions, no memories, no attachments, no ability to care for herself or integrate in human society, and can’t read, write, or speak.

EXECUTIVE: Ah. So she’s basically a feral child?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, except for one difference. She kills people extremely well.

EXECUTIVE: Oh really?

SCREENWRITER: Oh yeah, she’s really good at it. She kills people with her bare hands. She can practically put her fist through full grown hardened adult soldiers.

EXECUTIVE: Wow. So I guess she’s in her late teens if she can do that.

SCREENWRITER: No, she’s eleven at the start of the series.

EXECUTIVE: (Pauses) So, she hit her growth spurt early then…?

SCREENWRITER: No, she’s the exact size and frailty of a normal eleven year old.

EXECUTIVE: Yet she’s able to kill adult soldiers with her bare hands.

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, that’s pretty much the only thing she’s good at. You just kind of point her at whoever you want to die and without even changing her expression she goes right up to them and breaks their necks with these advanced hand-to-hand moves, disarms them of their own bayonet or rifle, then shoots them at point blank range or stabs them repeatedly in the chest…

EXECUTIVE: Wait a second, I thought you said she has no attachments to anyone and can’t speak. How does she know how to do so many things that obviously would have had to have been taught to her and she would have had to practice before she could pull them off?

SCREENWRITER: (Shrugs) She’s a Combat Doll, though.

EXECUTIVE: What does that mean?

SCREENWRITER: It means…um…she can do all that stuff.

EXECUTIVE: Ok then!

SCREENWRITER: Anyway, everyone in the world besides the major apparently is cool with child soldiers and wants the major to use her as his personal attack animal, but the major feels sorry for her and wants to treat her like a person so that she’ll eventually be able to be a normal girl.

EXECUTIVE: Oh, that’s nice of him. So does he find a nice quiet place in the country or a good family to take her in until the war’s over?

SCREENWRITER: No, he takes her with him to the front line and uses her as his personal attack animal.

EXECUTIVE: That’s pretty much the exact opposite of what he supposedly wanted to do and what everyone else wanted him to do in the first place.

SCREENWRITER: Well, there is this one point when he tries to tell his CO that he can’t take her to the front lines, and his CO is all like: “Hey you little punk, you’re out of line! You will take a child soldier to the front lines and use her or I’ll have you thrown in prison!”

EXECUTIVE: His army is actually forcing him to take a child with him into combat.

SCREENWRITER: Actually, they force him to take a child with him into combat without even giving her a helmet or a uniform that fits.

EXECUTIVE: Oh, so the major is working for the bad guys, then?

SCREENWRITER: No, his army is the good guys, actually.

EXECUTIVE: Oh really? Well, at least the major just has her doing work like KP duty or scouting areas or cleaning up the tents, right?

SCREENWRITER: No, he intentionally takes her into every battle and always sends her out first to kill the enemy ahead of his men because she’s so good at it.

EXECUTIVE: (Losing his smile) Really?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, he tells her to stay behind the first time but when she runs out anyway he just kind of shrugs and says: “Eh, whatever, I guess I will use her.”

EXECUTIVE: The major doesn’t really sound like he wants her to be anything but a tool.

SCREENWRITER: Oh no, I got that covered.

EXECUTIVE: Oh yeah?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, you see, if anyone else was using her as a weapon they wouldn’t care. The major uses her as a weapon and he feels bad about it.

EXECUTIVE: So ultimately the audience is supposed to sympathize with the major because he feels bad about using her as a weapon, although obviously not bad enough to not continuously do it from now on?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah-yeah-yeah!

EXECUTIVE: And somehow this eleven year old girl can charge out of a trench and kill an entire battalion by herself continuously?

SCREENWRITER: Don’t forget, I didn’t invent machine guns.

EXECUTIVE: Oh yeah, that’s right! That was clever.

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, because machine guns kind of turn you into hamburger no matter how good you are at hand-to-hand combat as soon as you leave the trenches.

EXECUTIVE: So wouldn’t, like, a hundred of these Battle Dolls be enough to win the war in a month?

SCREENWRITER: Probably.

EXECUTIVE: So why didn’t the other side win? Because there’s obviously more than just her if the other side knew what she was by reputation.

SCREENWRITER: (Thinks for a moment) Oh yeah! They would, wouldn’t they?

EXECUTIVE: Uh-huh.

SCREENWRITER: Whoops.

EXECUTIVE: Whoopsie.

SCREENWRITER: Well, I’m kind of hoping no one thinks too hard about the backstory or else the premise kind of falls apart.

EXECUTIVE: Think that’ll work?

SCREENWRITER: It does with most anime.

EXECUTIVE: Awesome. So what happens to the major and his G.I. Jane doll?

SCREENWRITER: Well, he eventually names her Violet, and in their last operation, the major gets hit and she gets both of her arms blown off, and right before where they’re hiding out gets bombed the major tells her that he wants her to live and says: “I love you”.

EXECUTIVE: As in, “I love you as a daughter” or “I love you love you”?

SCREENWRITER: I’m going to kind of leave that up in the air.

EXECUTIVE: Isn’t she eleven?

SCREENWRITER: Oh, she’s fourteen by now.

EXECUTIVE: But he met her when she was eleven.

SCREENWRITER: Oh, don’t worry about that. One of the episodes is going to do this whole thing that shows in this society it’s perfectly acceptable for men in their early twenties to start getting engaged to ten-year-old girls.

EXECUTIVE: So something is ethical in your mind so long as society accepts it?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah-yeah-yeah!

EXECUTIVE: Well, I’m suddenly very glad we don’t live in Nazi Germany.

SCREENWRITER: Anyway, she gets recovered and sent to a military hospital where she gets a pair of magic arms because apparently those are a thing in this world.

EXECUTIVE: ‘Magic arms’?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, she gets a couple of prosthetic arms to replace her real arms, but the thing is since she lost her arms above the elbow and all the muscles that move your fingers are in your forearm she shouldn’t be able to move her hands at all. However, she’s able to do that just fine which is something we can’t even do with prosthetic arms today so…yeah, they’re magic. Once she recovers, she gets taken in by one of the major’s buddies who used to be a lt. colonel but now is starting his own business, because he’s the only other guy in the military that saw Violet as a person.

EXECUTIVE: Oh, because he saw her in a fragile and emotional state at some point?

SCREENWRITER: No, he’d only seen her twice. Once when she was crouched with a soulless look on her face after tearing up a bunch of soldiers in training, and the second time she tried to instinctively kill him and the major had to tell her more than once to stand down.

EXECUTIVE: Oh. But she’s fine now?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, getting her arms blown off was kind of like taking a xanax. Anyway, he ends up taking her to work for him at the company he started to try and make a new life for herself.

EXECUTIVE: Well that’s nice of him. What kind of company does he run?

SCREENWRITER: A private postal service that’s run almost entirely by attractive, alluring young girls, with a special service where if you can’t write a good letter they’ll assign someone who’s hot to come and write a really nice one for you. They even have their own alluring outfits they call their “uniforms” to wear while they do it.

EXECUTIVE: Wow, so this guy is a total perverted creep then?

SCREENWRITER: No, he’s kind-hearted and empathetic for wanting to help Violet.

EXECUTIVE: By exploiting the fact she’s an attractive young lady to sell his business?

SCREENWRITER: Well, he does start her off in the mail room but she ends up wanting to write letters instead. So he decides to work with it and her emotionless state by dressing her up as a giant doll for clients. And the clients really love it, including the ladies.

EXECUTIVE: That’s morbid and very creepy if you stop to think about it too long.

SCREENWRITER: Anyway, so although this is basically a specialized typist, the job position is called “Auto Memory Doll”.

EXECUTIVE: Ok.

SCREENWRITER: And, like I said, she dresses like a doll going to work.

EXECUTIVE: Ok, I got that the first time.

SCREENWRITER: And everywhere she goes, people point out she looks like a doll.

EXECUTIVE: Yeah, I would think they would.

SCREENWRITER: And she has artificial hands like she’s a clockwork doll.

EXECUTIVE: I think I get the idea.

SCREENWRITER: And at one point there’s this girl with a doll that treats her like she’s a giant doll.

EXECUTIVE: Please stop saying the word “doll”.

SCREENWRITER: And she used to be a Combat Doll…

EXECUTIVE: Ok, stop now.

SCREENWRITER: (Snapping out of his train of thought) Hmm? Oh, I’m sorry. It’s just that I wanted to use ‘doll’ as symbolism for Violet because she looks pretty and petite but feels nothing and other people confine their problems in her.

EXECUTIVE: Well, I’m no writer, but I’m pretty sure there’s a difference between subtle symbolism and slapping the audience over the head with the word ‘doll’ several times an episode.

SCREENWRITER: Well, it’s my first time so bear with me.

EXECUTIVE: (Grinning) Oh, alright, you little miscreant. But I’m guessing its going to be hard for someone who has no empathy or emotions whatsoever to become good at this job.

SCREENWRITER: Actually, super-easy. Barely an inconvenience.

EXECUTIVE: Oh really?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, she’s just going to end up being extremely lucky and getting all the “easy” clients. Like the very first letter she writes, the person she’s writing it for says she just wants to tell her veteran brother thank you and she’s happy he’s alive, so Violet writes a letter that says: “Dear client’s brother, thank you and I’m happy you’re alive. Signed client.” and everyone treats it as if she’s suddenly a professional. Then she gets hired to write love letters from a princess to a prince of another country as part of their royal courtship, and she basically just tells them to write the letters themselves instead. So they end up doing the job themselves yet she takes the credit and becomes internationally famous.

EXECUTIVE: Wow, that is lucky. So what happens after that?

SCREENWRITER: Well, eventually she does start feeling for her clients, especially the ones who have lost loved ones, and then she starts hating herself because she remembers she used to kill people. On top of all that, she learns the major is dead too, so she sinks into depression and actually tries to kill herself.

EXECUTIVE: Pretty intense. Depressed about the major being gone or depressed about the fact she used to be a killbot?

SCREENWRITER: Eh, she kind of drifts between the two even though they’re somewhat unrelated. But eventually she also realizes that the letters she’s been writing have been helping people too, so in this big emotional scene she goes to the lt. colonel and upfront asks him if she deserves to live.

EXECUTIVE: And he gives her a big hug and assures her that she does?

SCREENWRITER: No, he tells her she’ll live with blood on her conscience forever and the guilt will never go away.

EXECUTIVE: Wow, that’s rather harsh.

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, but it somehow makes her feel better anyway.

EXECUTIVE: Well, ok then. That sounds like a pretty good series. Nice note to end on; her accepting herself and finding a new life and purpose that helps people.

SCREENWRITER: Actually, I only found nine episodes worth of material at that point, so after that I decided to stab the audience in the heart with rusted knives.

EXECUTIVE: What?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, the next couple episodes are just stories where she learns about how tragic it is to lose what little time you have with loved ones and how soul-crushing and painful loss can be, and I’m basically just going to torture the audience by forcing them to sit through extremely tragic and sad things.

EXECUTIVE: Whoa. You’re kind of an emotional sadist, aren’t you?

SCREENWRITER: (Shrugging) Eh, a little. But at the end of this, Violet learns the value of life and how tragic a thing death can be, and causes both her and the audience to feel a lot more empathy for people in all walks of life no matter their situation and background, because all life is precious.

EXECUTIVE: Well that’s a very good message, and something worthwhile to learn from tragedy.

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, so anyway for the last two episodes there’s going to be a bunch of one-dimensional villains the world would be better off without.

EXECUTIVE: Excuse me?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, for the final story arc, Violet gets involved in this situation where the major’s brother is trying to protect a peace envoy from a bunch of insurgents from one side of the war who are trying to sabotage the peace process and restart the war. There’s this one bit where one of them talks about how they all felt betrayed by their own country when the war ended, but mostly they’re just cruel, heartless, sadistic jerks who no one would miss if they were all killed.

EXECUTIVE: You don’t think that kind of goes against the entire point of the entire series?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, well there’s only so many ways I know how to write an episode that’s basically: “Violet goes to write a letter for someone whose family member died.”

EXECUTIVE: Fair enough. So what happens?

SCREENWRITER: She gets on board a train with them and needs to stop them before they get to a bridge that’s about to explode, but because she’s a pacifist now she’s determined to stop them all with nonlethal methods. At one point, she even lets herself get slashed by a few of their bayonets because she’s trying to grab one she knocked out to keep him from sliding off the top of a moving train.

EXECUTIVE: That’s impressive. Sticking to your ideals and the value of other people’s lives so much that you’re willing to do so at the risk of your own life.

SCREENWRITER: Anyway, because she won’t kill them they beat the crap out of her and nearly kill her, but then the major’s brother shows up and shoots them all.

EXECUTIVE: Oh. So…the message is really it’s fine to be a pacifist so long as someone else is nearby to kill people for you?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, pretty much. So they stop the train, Violet rips off her arms getting rid of one of the bombs, and a coworker of hers manages to get rid of the other one.

EXECUTIVE: Well, if she had to ruin metal arms in order to get rid of her bomb, this coworker must be freakishly strong to do it with flesh and bone.

SCREENWRITER: Nah, he wears these knee high boots with high heels and he kicks it off using it as a prong.

EXECUTIVE: Wait, what? Did you just say ‘he’ wears boots with high heels?

SCREENWRITER: Yup.

EXECUTIVE: Why does he wear boots with high heels?

SCREENWRITER: For literally no other reason in the entire series except to kick off that bomb at the end.

EXECUTIVE: Really?

SCREENWRITER: Yeah, some people say Chekhov’s Gun; I say Postal Employee’s Heels.

EXECUTIVE: No one in this society is at all thrown off by the fact he does this?

SCREENWRITER: Nah, because even though everyone else in the entire world dresses according to the period, everyone who works for the lt. colonel’s postal company pretty much gets to dictate their own rules on what’s fashion.

EXECUTIVE: Well, awesome then. Kinky boots are tight.

SCREENWRITER: …What?

EXECUTIVE: Nothing.

SCREENWRITER: Well, what do you think?

EXECUTIVE: Sounds like a pretty solid, emotional, heartbreaking, bittersweet story so long as you don’t think about the fact it’s about an underage girl being manipulated by older men, even to the point of dressing her in a fetish role. I’m not sure how many folks will go for it though as it’s not what you expect from most anime.

SCREENWRITER: Fair enough.

EXECUTIVE: So why don’t we try marketing it as a Netflix Original Series? I think it should get a good amount of buzz for thirteen episodes. Probably no more than that.

SCREENWRITER: What do you mean?

EXECUTIVE: Well, the story’s pretty much over at the end of thirteen episodes. There’s really nowhere else for the protagonist to go, so that seems like a good note to close out on. I mean, this show is going to have to end up being very surprisingly and unexpectedly popular before we can try and cheat more plot out of it.

SCREENWRITER: Gotcha.


 

“VIOLET EVERGARDEN” TO GET SECOND SEASON AND A FEATURE FILM

Personification of Ideals: How Anime/Manga Storytelling Tends to Shoot Itself in the Foot

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As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, the past few years was largely a “falling out” with me and anime. I wasn’t into the latest and greatest series and I was slow to keep up relative to others. The biggest change, however, was that during that time I shifted toward the proverbial new kids on the block following the onset of 2010: the new American cartoon.

Times have changed in the world of Western Animation. Most of the folks who are currently in the industry right now are nostalgic for the old 80s cartoons but also have a lot more exposure to animation that was geared toward both children as well as adults, most of which is Japanese Anime. After years of exposure and some incremental steps toward the new standard in the 1990s, the name of the game today seems to be that American animation is just as often orientated toward adults as well as children. Not just in the adult-only explicit programming such as “Family Guy” and “Rick and Morty”, but “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”, “Adventure Time”, “Gravity Falls”, “Star vs. the Forces of Evil”, “Steven Universe”, “Regular Show”, the two “Avatar” series, and others.

As more and more of those programs became relevant, I ended up paying more attention to those for several years before I tried to shift back to anime/manga. I’m now up on several of the trending anime/mangas in recent history as well as familiar with several of these newer Western Animations. Yet now that I am in a position to evaluate both together, I found an interesting trend happening: I’m actually shifting more toward my “home soil”, or the American animation, and away from the Japanese anime. Revisiting the best that anime has to offer has, in turn, only made me appreciate the modern cartoon more.

I asked myself why that was the case. While modern American animation does take adults into account it often is still designed with children as the primary audience. Often it’s far sillier and more comedic than its anime counterparts. Action is at a minimum while more mundane activities occur on a routine basis in most. When I was younger, most of the appeal of anime was using animation to deal with more mature and adult themes and to express them artistically, but also due to the action and adventure elements that were censored or omitted far too often in American media. Often this led to more exciting and tension-raising plotlines. So why would I appreciate the still-often-sanitized storytelling to that of anime, especially since it does have the advantage of not being so filtered and often more thrilling than its American counterpart?

After considering this for a while, it finally hit me. Whether it be an aspect of the culture in Japan or simply a trend that animators and manga writers have subconsciously adopted (I opt for the latter, honestly), there is one almost universal weakness that anime/manga is victim to in its presentation and storytelling that American cartoons have thus far managed to avoid, with the result of being able to make proportionally more endearing and intriguing stories with much higher levels of filtering and youth-orientated content: personification of ideals.

What do I mean by “personification of ideals”?

Characters in anime/manga are very rarely just “characters”. Almost invariably, they fully commit themselves to an ideal. Almost always it’s an ideal that they themselves have espoused or even founded, though not always. They’re fiercely devoted to it and defend it vigorously, often espousing it through their actions or (far more often) in the form of long, important-sounding speeches to their opponents…who themselves are also committed to ideals and have long, important-sounding speeches of their own. However, whether they came up with the ideal themselves or its shared, the character is always the sole “true proponent” of that idea in their respective medium, and, as a result, they stand out from the rest of the cast and even the world as they’re the only one who pushes that ideal–often making it an essential part of their character and role in the story as a result as they are a unique individual in that regard. When that happens, the character no longer simply follows an ideal or pursues an ideal, but embodies it and becomes a representation of that ideal.

Anime/manga does this everywhere. You can see it most often in any anime/manga that is rife with “The Reason You Suck” speech tropes. Every main protagonist does it; every main antagonist does it. It’s a staple of the genre. And because of that, most storylines in anime/manga are never completely character-driven. They end up being ideal-driven in one capacity or another because that’s what motivates and constitutes the personality of most of the characters.

And, more often than not, it demeans and reduces a good story.

That’s not to say that a character embodying an ideal itself is a bad thing. Superheroes have done it for decades. Think of Batman. His ideal is that he ultimately believes in the justice system no matter how corrupt it becomes and that is why he never takes on the role of judge, jury, and executioner. And he can’t, no matter how vicious his villains get or how much they do. If he kills his enemies, it will no longer be about justice. It will be about revenge for what happened to his parents. It will be about his own satisfaction and pleasure. And once he does that, he’ll become the same as the Rogue’s Gallery. In that case, the ideal is key to not only the story but the character himself. And that’s also not to say all anime/manga follows this trend. There are animes/mangas that are far more character-driven, although most of them usually incorporate ideals into the mix as well.

But, as a general rule, it’s a trait of most anime/manga in one capacity or another. And by doing so, and doing so with all of the main characters in a storyline, it introduces a host of problems that end up oversimplifying the plot.

1. It turns the abstract untouchable into the physically breakable.

An ideal is a concept, a guiding principle, and something to measure yourself and your actions against at the end of the day. It’s a burden the character puts on their own conscience to let them know whether or not they did the right thing. By personifying ideals into characters, however, an ideal takes on a whole new paradigm of significance.

The conflict is no longer whether or not one’s ideal can be upheld in their course of action but rather that their course of action itself and, indeed more often, the character itself surviving or dying is the greatest part of the idealistic conflict. Suddenly, if the character loses, no matter what action they are taking or against what opponent, it is a defeat of the ideal as a whole. If they succeed, it is a victory of the ideal as a whole.

This is emphasized not only subconsciously but often explicitly in anime/manga. The reason behind all of those constant speeches to one another is often for the villain to point out how the hero is worthless because they are a representation of their ideals, while the counter argument by the hero is to validate their own existence by championing their ideals. It’s a recurring theme in anime/manga for a villain to actually go beyond personal threats and say they are going to explicitly “crush your dreams” or “break your ideals into dust” to their opponents before a life or death battle.

Think about that for a moment and how much sense, or lack thereof, it makes. Can you imagine Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” yelling at John McClaine over the radio that he’s going to destroy his ideas of law and justice before he kills him? Or Ethan Hunt making a speech about honesty and integrity to a treasonous spy in a “Mission: Impossible” movie before he blows them up? But moving on…

The biggest problem with this is that it trivializes the ideal. Now that the ideal is personified into a person, any old action can be considered a victory for an ideal even if it truly proves nothing.

Think of “One Piece”. While that anime/manga is more character-driven than many, it nevertheless maintains an ideal in its lead character. Luffy is frequently personified as the ideal of the “pirate spirit”, which is freedom for all to pursue what makes them happy, while the forces of the Navy and even rival pirates represent either oppression and subjugation or freedom at the expense of others. Many individuals the Straw Hats encounter throughout the series are inspired by Luffy’s ideal and decide to embody it too. But what invariably always happens? Those same people get crushed and smacked down by their oppressors with ease. It’s not until Luffy and the Straw Hats, who are also incredibly powerful and more powerful than the oppressors, step in that the day is won.

Does that really mean that the ideal of “freedom for all” won the day? The anime/manga tells the story as if it is, but really it was only a case of “the strongest guy happened to follow a nice ideal”. Does is necessarily follow that just because Luffy embodies an ideal that all of his victories and successes are due to that? Or are there more complex factors at work?

The other half of this is that it biases all resolutions to be made via action (fighting, war, battle, etc.). Because the characters personify ideals, the only way to prove or disprove the ideal is to defeat the character. That introduces two different problems. One, does this really appeal to a situation in which the ideal is not suited toward combat? Say I believe health care should be a universal right of all. Is the only way for me to prove that to physically beat up everyone who thinks it should be a private matter? Two, it repeats the same problem as above: it proves nothing. If you beat the tar out of me, does that conclude health care should not be a universal right of all?

2. It negates the human race as a whole.

There is no practice I have found more dangerous and that makes people turn cold, callous, and egocentric faster than reducing a large group of people into a single easily-identifiable and quantifiable block or entity. That, unfortunately, is exactly what happens when characters are turned into ideals. When a character becomes an ideal, logically they end up having a world view and embodying it. A fundamental part of that world view is how they view humanity as a whole. And there is nothing more pretentious or cliche in fiction than trying to reduce the complexity of humanity into something that can be accepted or dismissed with one philosophy.

It’s gone on for years but, in most cases, it’s a hallmark of an oversimplistic story. The big reason most eco-parables get slammed is because they’re over-sized Saturday Morning cartoons, characterizing the world of nature as being perfect, pristine, and magical while characterizing humans as ugly, lazy, stupid, and selfish to the point where they’re a caricature. A lot of fantasy and sci-fi movies have the concept of an “evil empire”; a large authoritarian government that’s just full of “bad people” who do nothing but oppress and wage war for the sake of their own benefit at the expense of others OR, in some cases, simply because they like conquest or being mean. In real life, abuse/care for the environment is a very complex issue that’s rarely cut and dry, but the bottom line is people usually don’t go around ruining the environment because they think it’s fun to cut down trees but because they’re stuck in that current way of life. Likewise, wars and conflicts aren’t usually just because one group of people in power decided they didn’t like people and they’d be evil but have a wide variety of social, economic, political, and regional factors.

But when characters are ideals personified, and have their own world view, they oversimplify things too much. Villains can all be summed up as having one opinion: “the human race requires judgment”. Almost always they’ve decided that mankind as a whole is weak or stupid or selfish or evil and that they have a Final Solution to either conquer them or save the world by changing them fundamentally. Yet the heroes are usually no better; simply having a different philosophy about humanity as a whole such as all humans should live free or be kind to everyone.

The irony is that both situations have the same viewpoint of humanity, as does anime/manga in general. Mankind is ultimately either sheep to slaughter or to guard from wolves, but they are sheep. Now this isn’t a problem just confined to anime/manga. Obviously, whenever you have characters fighting a major conflict one-on-one in which their success or failure determines the fate of large numbers of others, that effect takes place.  But when you make it an ideal personified, it bleeds over into every interaction that the characters have. Every talk, chat, or brief aside they have with someone who is not a central character ends up being colored by that viewpoint. And since both viewpoints of hero and villain have to be identified, the audience is rapidly pushed to think of all of mankind as sinners or saints, or simply objects to be used.

A good example is in superhero series like “My Hero Academia” and “One Punch Man”. In both of those series, the mere existence of superheroes and supervillains is such a dominant issue in society that all other aspects of society, such as distribution of wealth, social equality (at least, social equality not based on super powers), freedoms of expression and thought, resource disputes, etc. are now secondary to the existence of super-powered individuals. They have to be, because each of the heroes and villains represents an ideal and they’re the main characters. So what does that reduce the role of humanity down to? A flock of sheep. The villains want to fleece them; the heroes want to protect them. They act as a unified mass that makes general responses to superheroes, but that’s all. Where is the diversity? Where is the conflict? Do some nations have more lax views on supers to encourage them to move there? Do supers have a role in the military with one nation pitting their best against another? Is one considered a hero in one country and a monster in all others? Do any supers believe in non-violence, only using their power to prevent natural disasters? Do some governments want them registered and others do not? Do supers ever intervene in ethnic conflicts? How would they without exacerbating the situation by taking a side? Do locals in one area versus another harbor a grudge against a past hero for collateral damage? Have they encouraged any bad blood within certain groups due to past profiling?

The worst part of this is when villains and their thoughts are emphasized, all of the times people act in accordance with their ideas are highlighted. As a result, humanity does appear to embody the negative characteristics they espouse. That encourages the audience to actually share that viewpoint, or, at minimum, start thinking of people in terms of them as a whole in the negative sense rather than the positive one. Humans in “Dragonball” never do anything but get killed and wished back. Humans in “One Piece” never do anything except get manipulated by the powers that be. Humans in “Magi” are just there to be recruited by whatever cause. Humans in “Attack on Titan” are panicky, impulsive, and ruled by fear (although that one is actually trying to make a point with that). How would an avid reader of manga/anime eventually grow to see mankind with this kind of constant limited viewpoints?

3. Characters misapply the role of ideals.

As I said at the beginning, an ideal is something that should have the primary usage of guiding a character to making certain decisions. It should serve to challenge them and provide a point of conflict from an internal perspective rather than be something to fight over like a trophy in a tournament. An ideal is not some banner you attach to yourself before going out into battle; it’s something that should tell you whether or not the battle is worth fighting at all.

Characters in anime/manga use ideals as an excuse to espouse pretentious philosophy that often comes from a narrow or even unrealistic world view, and they pontificate on it so much that some of the most ridiculous things ever eventually become plausible. To this day I still remember a character in one of the Gundam series, in what was supposed to be his biggest moment, yelling: “I still have to prove I’m weaker than you!” What does that even mean? Yet that’s what happens when you devote so much time to personifying characters as ideals and then making physical battles more like philosophical debates. (As a general rule, anime/manga talks so much that eventually it can make anything sound profound.)

For an ideal to truly be an ideal and work well, it should do one of two things: (1) represent a goal that the character is shooting for or (2) be something that challenges the character to live up to it. And in both cases, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the character can (or even should) live up to that ideal. That’s where the role of growth and change comes in (which we’ll get too later). If the character does decide to live up to it, it can’t always be something that comes easy. Most characters in anime/manga that embody an ideal simply wear it as a name tag. In most of their conflicts, their ideal isn’t directly called into question; it’s simply there to make them look more on the side of moral good or moral evil, which is a tragic waste.

Let’s do a comparison. While it trips up on it numerous times, “Fate/Zero” is nevertheless one of the few animes that is (in part) genuinely character-driven and handles the role of an ideal as a guiding principle fairly well. In that anime, Rider lives by the ideal to always shoot for the impossible. To never give up and to always press forward without hesitating, no matter the obstacle. That’s why he has the title of King of Conquerors. Eventually, he’s faced with a foe that he knows he has no chance of defeating. With a single gesture, he destroys all of the hundreds of thousands of legions he commands in his whole army, and he knows there’s absolutely no way to win. He had dreams of possibly coming back to life again and once more trying to conquer the world, but now he realizes if he keeps going all of that will be ruined and all he will gain is his own death. In the end, he decides to charge his opponent anyway, because he wanted to live up to his ideal to the end and demonstrate it for his young master: to always face the impossible head on with the mindset of victory. In the end, he does indeed die, but there’s still the sense that achieved victory because he never abandoned his ideal even when it would destroy him, and, in the end, he inspired his young master and allowed his ideals to live on in him.

Now consider “Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works”, which is far more typical. At one point, Shirou, who believes in constant self-sacrifice with the goal of saving everyone, gets into a battle with Archer, who is the physical representation of all of his own ideals eventually ending up in failure and wants to kill him so that this failure will never manifest. For two whole episodes this is rammed in through constant dialogue and battling to the death, that nothing Shirou does will ever matter and that far from saving everyone he’ll end up saving no one. Finally, after two episodes of this, Shirou manages to win…and that’s it. What did that prove? Was it a triumph of Shirou’s ideals? Not really. It’s true that Shirou keeps getting up because he refuses to abandon his ideals, but that’s not really embodying them, and considering the fact Archer was going to kill him either way he’d have to keep getting up to survive at all. At no point does it ever become clear Shirou made “the right choice”, either in the grand scheme of things or even for his own beliefs. His ideals themselves weren’t what triumphed so much as him, but, as mentioned above, that’s considered a “win” for ideals simply because he personifies them even if it proved nothing. The end result is a pretentious waste of two episodes.

4. Character homogeneity pervades everything.

It’s been widely said that anime/manga is far too reliant on tropes. Every series is going to have a tsundere. Every series is going to have a kuudere. Every series is going to have a wimpy little pervert. Every series is going to have a cute-but-psycho character. In short, tropes abound. And they do have their purpose. The primary reason for relying on a trope is that it allows you to quickly establish a character without the need for the ever-dreaded exposition. Yet when characters represent ideals, it takes a whole new dimension.

The “Goku-Like” anime protagonist is everywhere now in one form or another. Anime heroes often have one or more of the following traits: quirky, somewhat dim-witted yet clever in their skill set, fun-loving, big appetites, child-like among their peers yet fiery, fierce, and determined to their foes. All things that personify someone who stands outside of the norm and, therefore, possesses a unique outlook/ideal. Likewise, if you have a cool or confident character, they possess a world view that embraces power and authority. If you have someone who’s wild to a manic degree, they believe in selfishness and chaos. Smug and arrogant characters invariably believe a group of elite should rule over the masses.

To reiterate, all of these characters have a “world view”. Each one of them at some point, whether as part of their daily lives or in a time of crisis, will believe that there is a way “the world ought to be” and live according to that. Yet when you personify that same ideal, you remove all character complexity. You go from being a character to a pure trope. You enforce an almost Objectivist standard on your characters, in which A is always A.

Consider an American cartoon that is far more about character: “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”. The main six characters of the show all embody a different virtue (loyalty, kindness, generosity, laughter, honesty, and friendship), and they embody it so well that they are considered to be the physical manifestations/incarnations of those virtues. And yet, none of them always live up to that ideal perfectly. They often slip up against their own virtue when it gets painful or difficult to embody it. Furthermore, their “virtues” often have a negative side to them as well. Case in point, Applejack embodies honesty, which means she’s always truthful and dependable. It also means she’s often tactless, mean, rude, pushy, and aggressive. Fluttershy embodies kindness, which means she’s always gentle and compassionate to everyone. It also means she lets herself be treated as a doormat and doesn’t exercise tough love at the right times; helping individuals do things that they need to do themselves to gain maturity.  They all have moments where they’re the best individual in the series, and they all have moments where they’re the worst individual in the series.

None of those individual moments dictate all of who they are. Whether they acted good or bad, in all of those moments they were their characters. Some of the things they’ve done are things they wish they hadn’t done and others aren’t, but ultimately the Applejack who lives up to her commitments and the Applejack who thoughtlessly offends all the contestant in a contest she judges are one and the same. The Fluttershy who is so kind-hearted she manages to charm a spirit of disharmony and the Fluttershy who verbally abused her own friends in an attempt to stop “being a dormat” are one and the same. The same can be said for all the others because, just like real people, they have moments where they’re strong and moments where they’re weak; moments where they did the right thing no matter how hard it was and moments where they took the dark path when they knew full well what the light one was.

When a character is an ideal with a world view, they aren’t allowed that. They can only ever be their trope. They may have an episode or two where they get shaken up emotionally but, in the end, they are who they are. Whether he’s enjoying time with his family and friends or they lie dead before him, Goku is always Goku. Whether he’s enjoying life on the high seas or lying beaten and dying from poison, Luffy is always Luffy. Whether he’s an innocent boy wandering the world or a powerful Magi trying to warn mankind, Aladdin is always Aladdin. And all of this is because they embody an ideal. Even if they’re good, noble, and righteous, they’re ultimately one-dimensional. Static. Base.

5. It stagnates the characters.

That brings us into the final, and most detrimental, implication of having characters as ideals: by definition, characters can no longer grow.

This aspect is ultimately what makes American cartoons superior to many Japanese anime counterparts. When a story is character-driven rather than ideal-driven, characters can grow. They’re challenged. They’re forced out of their comfort zone. They’re pressured to change at times and other times drive themselves to change. They mature. They become better (or, sometimes, worse) people for the experience. This is something everyone does in their lives. None of us are who we were as children, after all, and that’s why we connect with these individuals so much more easily. People choose good and choose bad, choose right and choose wrong, and all for a multitude of reasons or emotions at the time. That’s what makes people complex and so intriguing. Making characters out of ideals ruins all that.

How most Japanese anime equates growth as a result of character is only a pale facsimile of this. Characters have their ideals challenged, yes, but because the characters themselves are ideals it’s a challenge more to who the character is. As a result, the challenge is not something designed to drive the character to change or force them into a new situation in which to apply their ideal as it is simply a test of will power: how strongly they believe in their ideal and how far they’re willing to go with it. What is seen as character growth or development is often merely learning new techniques and skills or finding a new way to apply their ideal.

Consider “My Hero Academia”. Look at Izuku Midoriya. He’s been though all sorts of challenges throughout the series so far and all sorts of things that have pushed him beyond his previous limits. There’s no doubt he’s far stronger and more competent that he was when the story started. However, has Midoriya really changed at all? The answer is no. He started off the story idealistically believing in justice and heroism, and for everything he’s been through he still believes in justice and heroism. No matter what situation he ends up in or what new conflict, or how much his opponents go against him, he’s still mostly the same wide-eyed kid from the first manga. He’s gained more power and a better grip on his abilities, and perhaps a bit more self-confidence in his natural talents, but that’s it. If something has challenged his view, his response has been to commit himself even more to it.

By comparison, consider “Steven Universe”. Look at the character of Steven. A lot of people don’t like how he was in the first 26 or so episodes because he was, largely, a nonsensical child who lacked responsibility, seriousness, or maturity. However, there were some important aspects to his character. He inherently believed in the goodness of the people he met, he saw the Crystal Gems as true heroes to be idolized, and he saw his mother, Rose Quartz, as the ultimate ideal to aspire to–perfect in every way and loved and admired by all as great hero. Yet as the series progressed, that view was challenged. Characters he once thought of as being great were exposed as having done things that were genuinely selfish, thoughtless, and even cruel. The characters that he once saw as the heroes who had all the answers turned out to be very “mortal” individuals struggling through their own problems and, at times, were stricken helpless by their own feelings and personal problems. He slowly began to realize that not everyone is “good” and that everyone is capable of doing things that are genuinely spiteful and hurtful, and that the image that people had of his mother was largely just that: an image, not anything that reflected reality. Bit by bit, the good values he had were proven to be fake or based on illusions as he saw the way the world really is.

However, as a result of these challenges to his viewpoints and values, Steven learned how to embrace responsibility and maturity, growing more genuinely empathetic and independent, and he managed to do so without compromising who he is. Although he no longer holds this as a total absolute, Steven not only clung to his ideal that people are basically good and you can bring out the best in them rather than responding to their worst, but he expanded this view outside of his sphere of influence and stuck with it even when it challenged him. He doesn’t just see other people as heroes; he tries to get them to see themselves as heroes. While he feels at times betrayed and abandoned by his mother, forced to suffer for her mistakes, he realizes that what she represented to everyone is something that’s worth fighting for, and as a result he is slowly embracing that role and personifying in reality who everyone always thought Rose Quartz was. At this point in the series, Steven has gone from being a playful child to a fine young man, but while he abandoned much of his childishness he stayed true to the core of what his beliefs were and adopted them as a mature lifestyle.

Going back to characters-as-ideal, even worse, as I said at the start, is that not only do characters as ideals get discouraged from growing; they can’t grow. Because the character represents an ideal, the only way to get them to grow is to, in essence, change or amend the ideal. By doing so, the original ideal is invalidated. The hero loses their reason for being and, therefore, discounts the main idea of the entire series. If the hero represents an ideal, that ideal has to remain intact through the entire story or it loses its theme.

The supreme irony? In this case, villains are allowed to change because their own “faulty” ideals can be defeated and, therefore, changed. It’s small wonder, therefore, that villains are the ones in anime/manga who seem to grow and are the more appealing characters. Consider the “Dragonball” series. At this point, many members of the fandom consider Vegeta to be a better character than its protagonist Goku. Why? Vegeta’s transition from villain to hero came with a change in the ideal he represented. Initially he represented a warrior’s pride but also its ego and elitism, a selfish desire to be the best at the expense of all others. As he came to embrace the idea of family and appreciated fighting for the sake of bettering oneself, however, he gradually became a better character and grew as a result. He’s learned the value of friendship, that there is a time and place for humility, and that some things are more important than his own pride. By comparison, Goku is Goku. To him, there is nothing but the challenge of beating who he was yesterday, and his only reason for existence is to find people stronger than him to challenge him. And as the years have gone by, this constant, never-changing trait has become more of his character and gradually begun to make him more of an Anti-Hero.

In conclusion, again I would like to maintain that not all anime/manga does this. There are a number that focus on the individual roles of characters and their relationships, and that make those the key parts of a story. And there’s some that actually balk at the trend. I mentioned earlier about “Attack on Titan”, but that’s one that actually goes against it. Everyone in that story is constantly governed by ideals and world views, but note that it’s when characters make what the story terms a “selfish” decision that’s based off of their character and not an ideal that things actually change for the better. But the preponderance and tendency to always make characters represent an ideal is one of the major deficiencies of anime/manga storytelling as a whole. It weakens both them as a character as well as their environment and the plotline itself. And it’s for this reason that even the far more childish and juvenile plotlines of American animation tend to have more compelling and intriguing stories. For American cartoons, I can get excited for an upcoming episode with a new plot that’s not terribly exciting simply because I like the idea of seeing the characters in a new situation. By comparison? Anime/manga’s only new situation is a new physical threat or villain to the protagonists, which has been done countless times and you already how it’s going to end before it even starts. For now, anime/manga still has the monopoly on the “middle ground” levels of animation: ones that aren’t appropriate or suitable for children but aren’t so crude, disgusting, or violent that they shouldn’t be watched by anyone other than adults. Yet as the appeal of that age group continues to tempt various networks and online networks to cater to it, Japan better keep an eye on it or the market for anime/manga might stagnate or even dry up.

 

Junk Bin #22 (Special!): “Fate/Zero”

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The past few years have gotten pretty wild for me. I had largely abandoned anime for a period of time, to be honest, in favor of the new wave in America in which animators have adopted the trend of making animation that appeals to all ages and not simply all kids or all adults (and by adults I mean college students). In more recent times, I’ve tried to come back. And while in the past I dabbled mostly in “junk bins”, I’m trying to now get to what’s en vogue. I’m reading “Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic”, “One Punch Man”, “My Hero Academia”, and “The Ancient Magus’ Bride”, and I bought “Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid” and “Fairy Tail”, although I’m still getting to those two.

This attempt to get into the more popular animes and mangas has led me to some new and interesting stories, although I must say it’s also caused me to start identifying why I think anime/manga is failing in some storytelling compared to newer American material…but that’s a whole other story. And one of the ones that was suggested to me was the following…

Now, technically this isn’t a “junk bin” entry. The “Fate” series is very popular right now, after all. At ACEN, they were showcasing the “third path” to the visual novel that the source material was based off of coming soon, and last year “Unlimited Blade Works” was highly proclaimed as well. After finishing this series, I did a bit of research on the “Fate” series and found out that this was actually the prologue to the original series, which was “Fate/Stay Night”, although it was considered vastly better in terms of art style, storytelling, and plot. Nevertheless, the reason many people seemed to like “Fate/Zero” better was because “Fate/Stay Night” was largely considered a disappointment; meaning most people viewed it in the context of already knowing “how it would end”. And since it’s a tragedy, anyone who had seen “Fate/Stay Night” already knew how people would succeed or fail in “Fate/Zero”.

So, in spite of the fact this series is well-received, I am one of the few who walked into the “Fate” series with no prior context right at the point of the prequel, so I think I might have a different perspective than most. So, without further ado, the first ever “special” junk bin entry…

“Fate/Zero”

The setup to the “Fate” series is kind of interesting in and of itself. I find it somewhat of a mixup of Harry Potter and the Highlander series. The world is full of mages who live in secret under the radar but actually command very powerful and deadly orders right underneath mankind’s nose. Many of them do many cruel and inhuman experiments that kill innocent lives, but the mages themselves are largely apathetic. To them, none of it matters so long as they further their ends: the greatest of which is to attain a magical item known as the Holy Grail, which is said to grant the desires of anyone who obtains it. How do they obtain it? The Holy Grail War.

The Grail itself selects seven individuals from around the world to become “Masters”, which are the contestants in this war. All of them are mages, but in order to be chosen they have to have a very strong desire for the Grail to make reality. The participants almost always end up chosen from the three big magic houses in the world as well as four other outsiders. Once they’re chosen, however, the mages don’t duke it out with their own spells. Rather, they summon up the spirits of long-dead, legendary warriors to fight on their behalf. The warriors fill seven job classes…sorry, roles: Saber, Lancer, Archer, Rider, Berserker, Assassin, and Caster. They correspond to the respective Masters and they are the ones who battle it out for supremacy.

In this Holy Grail War, one of the Masters who has been chosen is a man named Kiritsugu Emiya, who is a mercenary and assassin of mages as well as a mage himself. His own father was an unscrupulous mage whose experiments led his entire village to being killed by vampires, but felt nothing other than it was a failure in his experiments. Enraged at his callousness, Kiritsugu killed his own father without hesitation and dedicated his life to killing all other mages who abused their power. He became so obsessed with saving people from the mages that he ended up killing innocent people in bombs and assaults, including his own loved ones, so long as it meant neutralizing his target as he believed the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. Kiritsugu ends up getting chosen by the Einzbern family, who marries him to a homunculus representative of the Grail named Irisviel. In doing so, he allows her to live as a human for a number of years and even bear his child, which the Einzbern family consents to so they can groom her to be the participant in the next Holy Grail War if the current one fails. His new wife and child become his focus, and his intent becomes to use the Grail wish to put an end to all of mankind’s struggling and warfare to ensure a peaceful future for them and everyone…and is ready to spill however much blood he needs to accomplish that end.

Of the many individuals opposing him in this war as not only rival mages but rival Masters is a man named Kirei Kotomine, who was raised as a priest but is truly a sadistic psychopath at heart; deriving pleasure only from making other people suffer and die by killing them himself. Realizing this all to be sin, he has suppressed this side of himself but now lives without pleasure or joy or feeling as only in the act of killing other people does he feel any emotion or happiness. To Kirei, Kiritsugu is both his perfect opponent because, like him, he’s emptied himself for his goals, as well as a target for his hatred because he abandoned his own chance at happiness of his own free will rather than felt compelled to give it up.

Among the other Masters are Tokiomi Tohsaka, a powerful mage, head of a magic house, and father to daughters Rin and Sakura…one of which he is grooming to be his successor and the other he gave as a free will offering to an evil and profane magic house so she could get success as well; Waver Velvet, a young, nervous, and timid mage who wants to win the Holy Grail War to be respected among his peers; Kariya Matou, a “prodigal son” mage who returned to be a Master in the Holy Grail War to hopefully free his niece Sakura from the horrible fate that awaits her in her magic school; Ryunosuke Uryu, a psychopathic serial killer; and Kayneth El-Melloi Archibald, a snobbish and egotistical mage who was Waver’s former teacher.

Kiritsugu himself ends up summoning the “King of Knights” himself, Arthur Pendragon…sorry, Arthuria Pendragon. That’s right: history lied to you. Arthur was really an attractive teenage girl the whole time. However, once summoned, she goes by the title “Saber”. Similarly, Kirei initially summons the Hassan for the “Assassin” role, Tokiomi summons the first and greatest of all heroes, Gilgamesh, for the “Archer” role, Waver summons the “King of Conquerors”, Iskandar/Alexander the Great for the “Rider” role, Kariya summons an unknown black knight from Saber’s past for the “Berserker” role, Ryunosuke summons Gilles de Rais in the “Caster” role, and, finally, Kayneth summons Diarmuid Ua Duibhne in the “Lancer” role.

So the Holy Grail War comes, and what follows? Three words: bitter, bitter tragedy.

“Fate/Zero” is one of those rare titles in an anime that has a double meaning. The series actually starts with a backward ticking clock such that, when it hits the end, it is the start of the main series that people are familiar with. However, the real purpose of the title is how everyone ends up being crushed by fate. The name of the entire series is all about living and (pretty much always) dying for one’s ideals and vision; whether that vision be a noble one or a grotesque one. One after another, characters are dispatched in the series in the name of their goals without ever having attained them. The “Servants” that were brought forth are, ironically, individuals who were undone in life by fate, and find themselves ironically bound to suffer the same thing inevitably crushing their hopes, dreams, ideals, and desires. Therefore, the series is not so much about battle and victory as it is about how someone who is doomed or forced into a sentence that is basically slavery chooses to face the inevitable.

Being a prequel to the later “Fate” works, this is not a “happy” story. It’s not one where the hero gets to emerge triumphant or evil gets defeated. Rather, the sole consolation for the audience at the end of the series is in admiring those who met their fate bravely and still finding hope for the future even in the midst of losing everything else.

Now as for my personal verdict…

Well, unfortunately for me, before writing about this anime I went and did a bit of research ahead. The children who appear only briefly in this anime, Rin, Sakura, and, in the final episode, Shiro, are bigger characters in the following series I now know, but when I saw this series I knew little of what to make of any of them on seeing them. That biases me just a little for the future series, but I’ll try to consider this one as a whole.

To sum up my thoughts on the series, for me personally, I will quote Happy Gilmore:

“You were good out there. Maybe even a little great. But not that great.”

I will admit that I am not a fan of shows or series that feature large assemblages of morally ambiguous characters or of tragedies in general. The bottom line is there are precious few characters in this series that aren’t flawed to a point where they cross a bit of the Moral Event Horizon, and the ones that are that way have been forced into the roles of slaves or tools of other characters so neither their wishes or ideals factor much into anything. While I feel bad for many of the characters that perish, I don’t feel that bad about many of them as they were, to be honest, not terribly nice people. Early in the series, I got a sense that I wanted everyone to lose, so that diminished the tragedy aspect quite a bit.

I’ll just come out and say it: I really don’t like Saber’s character at all. Mostly because she was made out to be a Woobie but, the way the series was so ham-fisted about it, it comes off as a Wangst at points. I will cut “Fate/Zero” some slack as it was not this series’ intention to make King Arthur a girl, but now that she is in that form it seemed to be a cheap gimmick to get the audience to pity her and be behind her. She goes through most of this series being rather pitiful, constantly suffering self-doubt, constantly needing other Servants to bail her out or be chivalrous to her in order to allow her to succeed, and almost being “bullied” by some of the other Servants. Even when she does gain access to her Limit Break or whatever they want to call those special moves, she still gives the impression of being a pity sink rather than a formidable warrior. The fact that she’s the only female in the group and a cute teenager just seems like the plot is trying to slap you over the head with it.

But ignoring Saber, for she really is just a side character out of several in the series, I would say that the series only works halfway as a good tragedy. Spoilers are about to follow from here on in so you’ve been warned.

The ultimate crux of any good classical tragedy is not that something horrible happens to someone who had good intentions and now everyone in the world is a little bit more miserable and ticked off than they were before. A tragedy usually has one of two goals: (1) to teach the audience a lesson (such as in “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird”) or (2) to show the triumph of the human spirit. The latter case is what would apply here as none of the watchers are going to participate in any mage tournaments. In these situations, the key takeaway from the tragedy is that the tragic victim fell in the pursuit of a noble goal and, in the end, either left a ray of hope for the future or made things better by their sacrifice. That you can at least take joy in the triumph of an ideal that was held to the end.

Unfortunately, that does not apply in whole to “Fate/Zero”. It’s true that the main “winner” in this tragedy is Kiritsugu, who fails to achieve the world he wanted and loses everything but emerges a changed man who found salvation saving one of those “casualties of war” and spent the rest of his life trying to live up to be a true hero who devoted himself to saving everyone he could. Likewise, because of his friendship with Rider and witnessing his sacrifice, Waver is inspired to always shoot for the impossible and to have faith in himself. However, Lancer dies unable to atone for his own misdeeds in life, loads of innocent people die who get caught in the crossfire, and the main villains go off to kill countless other innocent people pretty much scot free.

Yet worst of all is Kariya. Goodness alive…this dude was put into the plot pretty much just to be tortured to death by it. His sacrifice is worthless, his goal goes totally unfulfilled, and the world is generally a worse place for him even trying. That’s not tragedy…that’s just a punch to the audience’s solar plexus.

For a tragedy to succeed, to paraphrase “To Kill a Mockingbird”, you have to at least believe the fight was worth fighting even if there was no way you could win. Everything would have been better for Kariya and those around him if he did nothing, and that’s just bad.

However, all of that said…

I will concede that I am not a huge fan of tragedy, but even then the “good” tragedies ended up making me smile a little in this one. The artwork was indeed very well done. Beautiful from start to finish, no matter the scene or setting. I don’t think the action was quite as great as everyone said it was, although the artwork, again, was beautiful during them. There’s a lot of talking, but the intrigue kept me invested from start to finish unlike its following series. And…because of all the tragedy and a desire for a better end, as I write this I have started watching “Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works” through the miracle of Netflix, so it must have done something right even for a guy like me.

Obviously if you’re a fan of the “Fate” series, this one is for you. Also, if you don’t shy away from a bit of tragedy and like some gorgeous animation and art, then it might also be for you…but only if you can follow up with the next in the series.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Because it’s not about if you win or lose, but how you fight your war…eh, most of the time.

What You Should Do With This DVD:

If you don’t mind the taste of bitterness and sweetness in your mouth, give it one good run before assigning it a place of eternal glory in your collection.

Junk Bin #21: “Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok”

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I kind of wanted to do this one earlier when Thor in the Marvel Movieverse was in vogue, but ah well. It’s no secret nowadays that anime/manga doesn’t confine itself exclusively to Japanese mythology. For years they’ve drawn on other elements of mythology from around the world for the purpose of crafting tales. And a favorite target for both Americans as well as the Japanese is Norse mythology. Probably the most famous of these in the USA is the Marvel treatment of it, in which the god of thunder, Thor, is one of the Avengers and Earth’s mightiest heroes, while Loki is his arch-nemesis and one of the big antagonists of the entire universe. It takes quite a few liberties with its source material while staying closer to others, but it overall does keep with many of the ideas of Norse mythology as a whole.

So, what did Japan end up doing with it in this treatment? Let’s just say they picked something of a different direction.

“Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok”

“Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok” is a one-season anime in the genre of occult detective, only, in general, far more kid friendly and drawing a lot of inspiration from stories that are more “villain of the week”. It’s set in the modern-day era and centers around two main characters.

The first is a teenage girl named Mayura who is obsessed with superstitions, fantasies, and mythology. She has a never-ending obsession to try and discover evidence of the supernatural in the modern age. Shortly after the series begins, she ends up falling in with a child named Loki, who bills himself out as an occult detective due at first to her mutual interest in supernatural mysteries and, later, due to her attraction to him as an individual.

The catch is Loki is, in fact, the same Loki, god of mischief, darkness, and chaos, from Norse mythology. It turns out he was banished from Valhalla to Earth into the body of a child by Odin and, in order to return, he has to collect “evil energy” (yeah, that’s what it’s called in the dub) to power himself back up. Hence he started the detective energy to find sources of it to harvest.

As it turns out, Odin apparently wants Loki more than banished but dead to boot, and so the series is pretty much one instance after another of a Norse god or monster being sent after Loki to assassinate him. And that’s pretty much how the series plays out more or less. Although the overarching plot is for Loki to return to Valhalla, it centers so much on the individual problem or opponent he has to tackle in every episode that the focus is usually from episode to episode rather than keeping that goal in mind.

The big gimmick of this series is that the various gods and monsters that get sent after Loki are also not in their original forms. For example, one of the series regulars is Narugami, a teenage boy with a bokken who continuously is working every part time job he can get in order to make ends meet. As it turns out, Narugami is actually Thor, also in a different form, and the bokken is Mjolnir likewise disguised. Loki himself has a polite, mild-mannered, and dutiful servant/assistant named Yamino, who, it eventually turns out, is actually Jormungand. Later in the series he gets a small black puppy who is innocent and sweet to him but crude and crass to everyone else, who it turns out is actually Fenrir. Heimdall, god of light, who for much of the series is his arch-nemesis, is likewise a serious little boy named Kazumi who constantly ends up being the butt of jokes and is miserably tethered to his roommate Freyr…who himself has taken the form of a ridiculously stereotypical “dashing rogue”.

As a result, a great deal of this series is seeing classic characters from Norse mythology in very bizarre and unusual circumstances and bodies. It gives it a bit of its own unique quirk, though I think I’d only classify it as a charm some of the time. In addition to a bit of magical action, there’s a lot of humor in it too; mostly from the absurd situations the gods find themselves in and their reactions to them. Another big highlight of the series is its romantic aspects. Loki, apparently, has quite the slew of lovers, including in one of the Norn sisters and Freyja, who herself has become incarnate not by taking a human form but by resurrecting and “borrowing” the body of a deceased girl. Debateably, Mayara would also be one of his lovers, although, considering the fact that through the entire series Mayara remains oblivious to his true nature or any of the supernatural things happening around her, that would be kind of creepy as she would be attracted to a child.

The plot adheres to some true parts of Norse mythology even more closely than Marvel (Thor was, in fact, often Loki’s “partner in crime” in mythology rather than his opponent, so it makes sense that Narugami helps him often; Heimdall is in fact that one destined to kill Loki in Ragnarok, giving basis for their animosity; the characters of Jormungand, Fenrir, and Hel are all the children of Loki just as they are in the Norse mythology), but it also departs in some rather big ways. The biggest is that Loki, in spite of his titles and collection of “evil energy”, is actually quite benign. He’s not even much of a trickster. Whereas in the Norse mythology there is good reason for Loki to have been banished from Valhalla, here he seems to just be an innocent victim. He doesn’t even know why he was banished. Odin, on the other hand, is characterized as the main villain as it’s revealed almost everyone has been manipulated or tricked by him into going after Loki to kill him.

As for how I would rate or recommend this anime, I would classify it mostly as “fluff”. Action, magic, comedy, and romance “fluff”. The plot fails to really give a sense of urgency or purpose, and that’s one of the major failing points to me. We never even see or hear Odin himself on screen, or find out why he wants Loki dead so badly and, if he does, why he banished him first. Some of the antagonists and opponents seem to practically flip a coin off screen to decide whether for a given episode they’ll try to kill Loki or assist him.

There is a subtext to the series as a whole that the one crime Loki was genuinely guilty of was not paying enough attention to those who loved him and cared about him, and that he eventually learns he wronged them by not even acknowledging them. To that end, Mayura’s character can be viewed as someone who opens him up to thinking about caring about others besides himself. However, even that doesn’t seem consistent. Yamino and Fenrir, after all, obviously still care about Loki, and most of the people who want to kill him aren’t doing so out of vengeance or hurt but because they were manipulated. While the series does end with Loki deciding to make a personal sacrifice so he can avoid hurting someone who cares about him and who he in turn cares about, that he has indeed come to a greater understanding that’s changed him, it wasn’t played up enough throughout the series as a whole to really see it as that monumental of a moment but more like a character flaw that was “slipped into the background”. And since this theme isn’t emphasized that strongly, Mayura feels like a glorified MacGuffin: simply there to provide plot devices to get Loki where he needs to go from time to time.

Because you don’t get a sense of an overall plot and it focuses more on “villain of the week” type episodic deals, the series ends up not having much of a satisfying resolution or even a thought of having truly made progress at the conclusion. And since things are so episodic, you know that things are going to go back to the way they were more or less after every episode.

However, the series does have good “tidbits” and “nibbles”. The funny parts are usually pretty amusing (this was the first anime I ever saw that parodied “Ringu”/”The Ring”), and the last storyline, which takes place over a few episodes, is engaging enough to keep the viewer engrossed. And it’s kind of fun watching and waiting for what figure or object from Norse mythology will pop up in the next episode. Yet ultimately, this series just isn’t that fun or entertaining, which is kind of sad considering how much it had to work with.

If you’re big on Norse mythology or even Marvel’s Thor and you want to see an alternate take done on it, then you might want to give “Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok” a look just for curiosity’s sake. Otherwise, it’s really not worth the money.

Rating 2.5 out of 5

The only “strange mystery” about this set is how so many things from Norse mythology ended up being so “meh”.

Watch You Should Do with This DVD:

Use it as Wikipedia bait for people who are anal-retentive about mythology, then put it up on eBay and sell it to dutiful housekeepers who constantly order things online they don’t need.

Junk Bin #20: “Jing: King of Bandits”

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Boy have I let this one slide. It’s been ages since I covered any, and most of my junk bin entries I have at home are over a decade old. I need to see if I can knock any more of them out.

Here’s a good candidate.

“Jing: King of Bandits”

This is another one of those animes they pushed at a convention one year and, similar to “Spice and Wolf”, faded soon after. It got a fair amount of exposure when it debuted, not only pushing the anime on DVD but also releasing the manga at the same time, but the series itself was only 13 episodes long and it never seemed to catch on.

The story centers around the titular character, Jing, who appears to be nothing more than a roguish kid on the outside but is actually the greatest thief in the world. Aside from being incredibly skilled at thievery, he’s also an extremely powerful, tenacious and intelligent fighter. He has a wrist-mounted blade that apparently can cut through almost anything, and his partner, a talking bird-like creature named Kir, can mount to his other arm and spew out an incredibly destructive beam cannon. Personality wise, Jing is eternally cool, confident, suave, and on top of things. In addition to being at-home in any situation, he possesses a natural charisma and street-smarts that lets him almost always seem to know how to deal with an individual in a given situation. By comparison, Kir worries a lot, browbeats him a lot, and is far more “normal” in temperament and attitude, providing a natural foil to him.

The short series does not follow an overarching narrative. Rather, it’s a series of short storylines that involve Jing coming into a town or land looking to steal some priceless or well-guarded/coveted treasure. Why does he want to? The audience really never knows or gains any real grasp of his motives. That’s because almost every new storyline focuses more on a young woman he meets in each situation and who ends up briefly teaming up with him, and she usually ends up being the emotional anchor for the story arc. Then, at the end of each episode, he moves on and the next place is a new story and a new young woman. Since there’s only 13 episodes, Jing is barely in one, two are a two parters, and the last one is a three-parter, that only leaves a few stories to tell even in an already-short series.

The setting is an alternate universe, in a world that’s quasi-fantasy, quasi-technology, and filled with creatures that are normal, magical, and perhaps downright bizarre–most notably the use of beasts of burden that appear to be animate bones. Since almost every episode is a new setting, it gives the opportunity for a lot of different environments and locales, as well as continuous new characters and situations.

The episodic type of storytelling is a bit unusual for most anime but not unheard of. When most people think of an episodic anime about a bandit, the most infamous one that comes to mind is the “Lupin the Third” series. However, in this one, the focus is never really the heist. It’s usually focused more on the characters that Jing interacts with. Furthermore, the main conflict that gets resolved in each episode usually only distantly relates to the object he’s trying to steal. Usually, it instead represents a personal conflict being resolved with the characters, such as reuniting a mother and her child, a hopeless person finding a new purpose, or even learning to embrace and appreciate one’s own mortality. Jing himself shows early in the series that he has no actual desire for anything he steals, so one could infer that helping the individuals he runs into was his true goal all along. In that sense, far from being a story like “Lupin the Third”, Jing is more of a knight-errant archetype acting out that type of tale.

So, that’s the series in a nutshell. Is it any good or worth watching?

For people who don’t really have the patience to stick with a long anime narrative, the episodic take is nice. Each new episode brought the promise of a fantastic new setting and conflict to engage interest, and the artwork, while a bit childish and cartoony in many points, is colorful and creative. Most of the side characters are pretty interesting and engaging. And while the series has a lot of drama, it actually has a ton of crazy humor and fourth-wall breaks on top of it all, so combined with the action scenes it does offer a little something for everyone.

Yet where the series falls flat is the titular character. “Sword Art Online” has been criticized, and with some justification, that Kirito is a type of Marty Stu who just ran around assembling girls for his “harem” by being the one thing they needed in their lives to achieve happiness. But even Kirito eventually faced challenges he either couldn’t defeat alone or challenged him and his philosophy and forced him to grow. By comparison, Jing is a true Marty Stu. He’s always confident, always in control, always knows exactly what to say and what buttons to press, always is superior to his opponents, and always has a plan.

There are only two times I recall in the entire series in which Jing even looks caught off guard. One is early in episode three when one of the villains surprises him briefly, although he recovers from that and adapts quickly. The other is a joke: when Kir accidentally causes him to fall off a bone ladder. That’s it. The rest of the time, Jing is the picture of perfect confidence and charisma.

I kept waiting and waiting in this series for a threat to come up that Jing couldn’t just smirk off. Something that would push him to his personal limit or force him to make a difficult choice. It never happens, though. Combined with the fact the series reveals little to nothing of Jing’s background or how he came about his power and skill, and Jing almost becomes a plot device or a force of nature rather than a character. Most of the drama is lost in every episode by the end because you know in advance Jing will succeed. And when a character is simply perfect in every way, they’re not that interesting. And since he is the main character and the one central point of the series (other than Kir), he takes a little away from every episode.

It’s a bit entertaining and has some things that seemed interesting and new at the time when it came out, but it’s not much surprise this series quickly faded into obscurity and is hard to find. If you do pick it up, it’s a bit of good clean fun and some nice little adventures, and the final three-parter is a bit touching and bittersweet, but it’s definitely not a must-have. I’d recommend it over the other entries in the Junk Bin I’ve rated lower, but that’s all.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Good enough to be a somewhat uncommon treasure, but far from a rare find.

What You Should Do With This DVD: If you want something cheap, short, and you’re new to anime, pop it in for a quick little adventure. Otherwise, pass it by in search of a real gem.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Reviews ~ Friends Forever #35 (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Friends Forever #35): “Twilight Sparkle & Starlight Glimmer”

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Synopsis:

Although still months away, Twilight Sparkle is already planning Hearth’s Warming Even gifts for next season and decides, for Princess Celestia, to go to the Castle of the Two Sisters and pick up some of the nicer ones for her as a gift while sorting the old library in something she calls “Book-sort-cation”. She decides to also roll it into a lesson in thoughtful gift giving by bringing Starlight Glimmer along; who, in spite of being tired from friendship lessons, is eager for the chance to see if there are magic books there written by Starswirl the Bearded. On arrival, however, Twilight, Starlight, Owluiscious, and Spike find the place is rather dusty and a mysterious vine is spewing spore dust everywhere, making Spike sneeze and, as a result, causes him to head out with a book on “Ferocious Flora”. While he’s gone, however, Twilight and Starlight start getting into a progressively more heated argument about the best way to sort that eventually turns into personal insults, all while the mysterious vine grows bigger and more widespread. Spike eventually finds out from the book that the vine is a “Squirm-Spore”, a hive-like spore-based creature that generates animosity in ponies and feeds off of it to grow bigger and stronger, eventually reaching dangerous proportions. As the Squirm-Spore starts animating suits of armor and stonework in the castle ruin to attack, Spike rushes back and tells the girls the news, and they realize it has been fighting off of their hostility. Realizing this, however, the two are able to resist the effect and work together, combining their magic along with Spike and Owluiscious to weaken and repel the monster back into Everfree Forest. Following the incident, Twilight reads more and discovers Starswirl the Bearded himself once fought a monster like that, which was triggered into growing into monstrous proportions by an argument between him and Melvin the Manticore. Hearing this, Starlight realizes that even somepony like Starswirl needed help from time to time, while Twilight realizes even somepony like Starswirl didn’t always know everything. The two reconcile, Twilight marks off Starlight as having completed this “lesson”, and, without distractions, the book sorting resumes; much to Spike’s chagrin.

Review:

This is…an interesting one.

In a way, I kind of think this is a wasted arc. Starlight Glimmer is a fairly unique character on the show, and in many ways represents what would happen if a “normal person” was suddenly in the magic land of friendship that is Equestria. She definitely has a way of thinking more maturely and treating things with more human-like neuroses and reactions. Pairing her with any other character, therefore, would be interesting just for her to have to adjust to them. The fact they paired her with Twilight Sparkle, the character she already interacts with far more than any other character, seemed a bit of a waste. But considering this was so soon after “The Cutie Re-Mark”, it might have been appropriate.

At the time this came out, Starlight Glimmer was still relatively new as a cast fixture. And because her personality had shifted so much between her time as a villain and her time as a regular, it’s understandable that the writers would have had a hard time pegging down her character (because I know I sure did, and I think the show writers did as well).  Because of that, this arc makes some character flubs. Starlight tends to be a compulsive overachiever, and she overcompensates for her lack of social skills by trying her best to be a people-pleaser at times, even when she shouldn’t. While I can see her being tired of friendship lessons, it wouldn’t be something she would profess in this case because she’d have a chance to “impress her teacher”. Furthermore, although Starlight is awkward in most social settings and interactions, she still longs for them. There’s never been a moment on the show in which she hasn’t been invited to participate in an activity or had a subordinate task in which she hasn’t felt “left out”.

The lingering animosity between her and Twilight, on the other hand, is something that could be potentially appropriate. Starlight did, after all, have a rather quick turnaround, and it’s hard to believe she’d just throw off all of her years-long mindset just like that. Parts of her might still long for her commune and a more controlling society. It’s a topic that would be interesting to pursue on the show, but in this case it gets a pass in any event because we can attribute Starlight having been affected by the spores.

Also, I find something rather interesting about this arc. One of my issues with the main series is that Starlight is still failing to “integrate” into the Mane Six. In Season Seven, there was only one episode, “It isn’t the Mane Thing About You”, in which Starlight felt like she was fully on the same level as the rest of the girls; no better and no worse. Most of the time she either stands above them or stands apart from them…and, granted, while the second of those two might be what the writers ultimately want, it enhances her reputation for being “Mary Sue”. I like this one because it’s the first real time that Starlight and Twilight had to work together on something (unless you count their very brief scuffle with the Pony of Shadows in the Season Seven finale).

Aside from that, one other thing I want to mark this issue down for is the monster. It’s basically the same modus operandi as the Dazzlings all over again, and connected to Starswirl the Bearded to boot. I thought they could have gone with something a bit more original than that. It’s a small complaint, but still.

The characterization confusion on the part of IDW is understandable in this issue, but nevertheless makes some of it fall flat. Aside from that, while colorful the plot isn’t all that remarkable even for “Friends Forever” standards, and it doesn’t really offer anything new to Twilight and Starlight’s relationship other than hints that she still clings to her old way of thinking. If I forgive the confusion, it’s still pretty middle-of-the-road.

Fun Facts:

While Jay Fosgitt’s art style for ponies is fairly signature, Spike’s own design is more-or-less the same as on the show.

The mention of crafting friendship lessons for Starlight places this story in the middle of Season Six.

Two of the comics Spike takes with him are “Flying Mouse” and “Arachnerd”, possibly insults for Batman and Spider-Man, respectively.

Spike gets to experience being a full-sized dragon again…kind of. 😛

Starswirl the Bearded is still in his “pre-legends” canonical form.

Melvin the Manticore is a character from, shall we say, the “expanded lore” of MLP:FIM; first introduced in “The Journal of the Two Sisters” by Amy Keating Rogers.

Rating:

2.5 Stars out of 5

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Reviews ~ Friends Forever #34 (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Friends Forever #34): “Pinkie Pie & Cheese Sandwich”

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Synopsis:

Pinkie Pie, while traveling in the Everfree Forest (for an undisclosed reason), is suddenly ambushed by an old sentient house on legs, and is captured and locked inside. Once within, she’s surprised to find Cheese Sandwich and three other fillies are already trapped within. They explain that Cheese was entertaining the fillies at a birthday party when the house, which Cheese has nicknamed “Housey”, suddenly arrived and captured the four of them. Unfortunately, the reason it captured Pinkie as well was because Cheese accidentally mentioned aloud he knew the other greatest party planner in Equestria, causing it to seek out and capture Pinkie. Housey is seemingly unbreakable from the inside so the five decide to do a conga line through it in order to try and find another way out without “alerting” it. However, when one of the fillies mentions aloud she’s having fun, the lights in the house grow brighter; leading Pinkie and Cheese to conclude Housey likes it when its residents are having fun. They use whatever is on hand to make the biggest party they can muster but, although Housey grows brighter, it still won’t let them leave, and Cheese makes it worse when he accidentally says the only thing that would make the party better was more partygoers–prompting Housey to look for more victims in Ponyville. However, while it’s running along it accidentally dislodges a photo album that Pinkie picks up on, and sees that, years earlier, when the house was first built by a pony family a protection spell was placed on it, but the spell ended up interacting with the love of the family for three generations and came to life. Once the family moved away, the house grew lonely for the happiness from celebration and parties that used to take place in it and longed for more. Pinkie and Cheese end up making Housey an offer: in exchange for letting them go, they’ll enable Housey to have a continuous party in which new ponies are free to enter the house and join the party whenever they wish, provided they are allowed to leave again when they want. As a result of the constant input and output of guests, the house will be host to a never-ending party. Housey agrees and lets them depart as it takes on its first new guests, and the house departs Pinkie and Cheese comment on how the best parties are celebrations of life and love, and now Housey, who saw a lifetime of parties, now has become a lifetime party machine.

Review:

It went without saying that the odds of Cheese Sandwich ever appearing on the main show were very slim. Although hiring different voice actors for celebrity characters is not unheard of, Weird Al Yankovic is such an icon that it’s unlikely they’d ever be able to replace him without getting some backlash. (Although he does have a regular series in Milo Murphy’s Law now, so maybe…) The comic, however, is free to use whatever character it wants, and so thanks to this issue we got a return of one of the more popular one-shot characters ever in the series.

Unfortunately, Cheese doesn’t get a chance to do too much here, and the writers didn’t really think to have him do much in the way of Weird Al parodies either. There are a few gags, but with the big open panels there wasn’t much room for too much over-the-top humor. Rather, this plotline does something that’s a bit more “big picture” with a hint of science fiction in it, similar to Spike’s “Pony Tales”, only this one deals with a topic normally you wouldn’t expect from “My Little Pony” in how to satisfy the basic need of a machine-like object once it gains sentience. Normally these end in one of two ways: destruction or finding a way to fulfill its desire, the second of which is usually more fun and intriguing. Such happened here. It made for an intriguing conclusion that required a bit more thinking outside of the box than your basic friendship lesson, which was kind of ingenious on the part of the writers.

I will say this story was a bit of a downer, however. By constantly interspersing Housey’s own somber story, it detracted quite a bit from the plot with Cheese and Pinkie, who normally should be such funny characters that it should have been able to elevate any situation. It does end happily enough, although a house walking around the countryside is still a tad odd, but it didn’t seem to have the humorous punch one would expect from this sort of tale.

Overall, it’s a good entry. Just not one that really sticks out as much as the others, and one that brings back Cheese Sandwich only to not do much more with him than you would expect from Pinkie Pie alone being there. So, it’s a tad disappointing.

Fun Facts:

The plot to this issue shares some similarities with Star Trek episodes. In particular, the Star Trek episode “Metamorphosis”, in which an alien entity fell in love with a Earth human and kept him immortal and alive like her and, when he mentioned he would die of loneliness, rather than let him go captured the crew of the Enterprise to entertain him; and the original Star Trek movie, in which an inanimate satellite is given sentience threatens the Enterprise and Earth until the crew makes it possible for the newly-sentient entity to gain the fulfillment it longs for.

A “starry-cloaked” unicorn named Magical Miasmo casts the protection spell on the house, and based on the cart and appearance he seems to be related to Trixie.

Aurora Muffin’s sketch features Cheese Sandwich trying to ward off the house with a balloon animal…and muscles.

Kwinkles are obviously parodies of Twinkies, and the fact that Cheese Sandwich mentions “they stopped making them a few years ago” indicates that this comic might have been written in between Hostess going bankrupt and it’s product being picked up by a new company. He also mentions the infamous Twinkie myth that they’re so processed they never go bad…which is a lie, by the way. Don’t believe me just leave a Twinkie sitting out and see how long it takes to mold. 😛

Rating:

3 Stars out of 5

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Reviews ~ Comic Arc #25 (IDW My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Issues #51-53): “From the Shadows”

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Synopsis:

After an outing to see “The Bridle of Frankenstag” with the rest of the Mane Six, Twilight Sparkle and Spike are heading home to the Castle of Friendship only to find it has been broken into. The thief is still inside, a mysterious gray unicorn stallion, but he manages to escape with several of Twilight’s books after ransacking the library. Fearful about what just happened, Twilight calls the girls over for an impromptu sleep-over, and on ordering the remaining books she finds that none of the spellbooks have been taken but, rather, history books about monstrous figures from Equestria’s past. The next day, Twilight and Spike use a Location Spell she placed on the books to find them, but on finally tracking them down she finds the books abandoned in an alley with all of their pages blanked out. The girls split up in town, realizing the thief couldn’t have gone far, and through independent investigation find the culprit is a pony named Shadow Lock who has a specialty for book magic, including the ability to erase not only the contents of books but also the knowledge that the content gave to anyone who ever read that book. They manage to track him down to the Public Library just as he’s about to check out even more books, but on being confronted by the girls he uses his power to bring multiple monsters to life out of the books to attack them.

As the girls begin to struggle with the monsters, Shadow calls out that what he’s doing is for their own good; that he’s trying to keep “a darkness” from returning to Equestria. While the girls manage to stop the rampaging monsters by hurriedly moving to the end of their stories, he escapes in the confusion. Over the next few days the girls attempt to stake out classrooms, newspaper offices, and historical reenactment sites to try and corner Shadow Lock, but he either doesn’t show or manages to escape in the same way he escaped the library: unleashing more monsters. Finally, Twilight and the girls set a trap at the Canterlot Museum by holding a huge “History of Equestria” exhibit, then staking out that location. Sure enough, Shadow Lock sneaks in and makes for the archives, thinking the girls asleep, but on arrival he’s surprised to see Twilight Sparkle is awake and waiting for him. She stops him from summoning another monster from a book and offers to hear him out on his reasons for why he’s doing what he’s doing; suspecting that she has the upper hand in she can always call out to wake her friends up to help her. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that Shadow Lock already dealt with them by trapping them in a world brought to life by the museum exhibits.

Pinkie Pie and Applejack find themselves stuck in the cavepony exhibit, Rarity and Rainbow Dash are stuck in the Egyptian-themed exhibit with Queen Cleopatrot, and Fluttershy and Spike are stuck in the medieval exhibit with pony knights and a full-sized dragon. Shadow Lock, deciding to let Twilight continue to think everything’s fine, explains that he discovered he is the last descendant of an ancient pony who was corrupted by darkness into a horrible monster capable of dooming all of Equestria. He first discovered it on reading about him in a book, and ever since then he’s continually found more passages of him that has made him obsessed with the fear that he too will be corrupted by darkness into the same monster. He felt the only way to prevent it from happening was to erase all memory of his existence so that none will ever follow in his footsteps. Twilight, however, points out this won’t stop the inevitable of another tyrant appearing and that erasing and hiding from history won’t stop it; that one has to embrace both the good parts and bad parts of their history if they want to learn from it and keep it from happening again. Her point is proven when Shadow Lock realizes, to his own horror, that by using his spell he has already erased from his own mind how the monster was stopped the first time. Not long after, he is surprised as the rest of the girls show up; revealing they escaped the history traps that they had been stuck in by doing something different from normal history–further proving Twilight’s point. He apologizes for all he’s done and changes his strategy; instead deciding to go through Equestria and use history to find a way to stop the monster from returning and the same thing from happening again. As he departs, Twilight realizes she never got the name of the villain from him, but the girls brush it off. Meanwhile, in the Ponyville House of Antiques, a shoppony accidentally knocks over a blind buy barrel that contains an old journal marked with a star swirl and a picture of the same monster from Shadow Lock’s memory inside…

Review:

With this story arc, the combination IDW comic/main series arc of the Pillars of Old Equestria and the Pony of Shadows was officially launched. The timing was good as it came out prior to the start of Season Seven, even though the actual arc on the show wouldn’t start until midseason. Plotwise, it was an interesting and clever way to launch things to me.

Overall, this whole arc is well-balanced. All of the girls are given something to do although they are shoved into pairs for most of it. Each one gets their own lines, quirks, and gags, just like you would expect from any episode trying to use all of them. The girls treat the whole plot in a rather “light” manner even though it does have some heavy implications, especially when the audience doesn’t know what Shadow Lock’s intentions are exactly initially. The balance works out well in this one rather than being a sharp contrast such as in “Reflections”, “Chaos Theory”, and “The Ponies of Dark Water” (to a lesser extent).

On the “darker” side, the biggest standout is Shadow Lock himself. There’s been a number of OCs in the IDW Comic over the years; many of them just there to fulfill minor roles. Creating a new villain, and a stallion no less, was eye-catching a bit in and of itself. I’m a bit grimacing at the use of a cloak yet again, but overall there’s something about Shadow Lock personality-wise that makes him seem a bit different from the other Equestrians. His attitude seems a bit sharper and more severe.

Some of the last issue is a bit of a callback to the plot in #15 and #16, especially with more monsters coming out of books. I kind of kept thinking of that arc as this one went on, so if there was anything I would mark this arc down for that would be it. Nevertheless, it was still fun and made for some good jokes.

Seen in the context of the entire season arc, a point I will make here and will make later is that the comics went a long way into making the Pony of Shadows a much more intimidating, fearsome, and dangerous foe than the show itself managed. Liberated from the Y-rating and having much more room to work with as they could focus on individual characters, the comic overall did a much better job of promoting the stakes for the Season Seven finale, which itself had such character overload it really only had time for a 44 minute exposition dump. This arc, on the other hand, created an intriguing and foreboding villain in Shadow Lock, and the fact that he was trying to save Equestria from something far deadlier and went to such lengths to ensure it, not to mention the hints and hype that began in this issue, really geared me up more for the Season Seven finale than I would have been otherwise. In that regard, it did its job very well.

If you frame this prequel in the light of what we eventually got out of the show, it seems to downgrade its rating a bit. But keeping in mind how much better the comic did plus how effectively this started building up for the finale, I give it a higher rating it deserves.

Fun Facts:

This comic arc is the prelude to the IDW “Legends of Magic” limited series and the second half of Season Seven’s overarching story arc. The last page connects directly to Season Seven’s “Uncommon Bond”. This arc also, in part, fixes the plot holes of many of the Pillars of Old Equestria never getting mentioned, the Pony of Shadows not having any reputation from legend, and Celestia and Luna not remembering that the Pillars were real individuals, although the “Legends of Magic” arc would later explain that as well by having them purposely avoid making their presence known to either of them. (As well as a brief line from Fluttershy using the incident to explain why the CMCs are still in the same grade after seven years. :P)

“The Bridle of Frankenstag” is playing in the same theater from “The Ponies of Dark Water”, which was apparently rebuilt. Although the girls clearly point out it was a play, the IDW Comic writers seem to have forgotten that film exists in Equestria (as evidenced in “Hurricane Fluttershy” and “One Bad Apple”). 😛

I just noticed…instead of sleeping bags, rollaways, or even spare rooms, for sleepovers Twilight has entire beds in her own bedroom. Weird.

As a nod back to Rainbow Dash admitting to Scootaloo that scary stories got to her when she was younger in “Sleepless in Ponyville”, she’s the only one who had nightmares of Frankenstag.

This arc might be the first time Fluttershy has ever used her attractiveness to get out of a situation.

The cyclops pony bears a resemblance to Bulk Biceps. His Cutie Mark is an eyeball. H. Pony Lovecart is a parody of H.P. Lovecraft, whose horror writings often featured elderich horrors of monstrosities that included tentacles. Hence, nothing but a mass of tentacles comes from his book. Frankenstag’s monster is a parody of Frankenstein’s monster and, as if often the case with those who have read the book, he corrects the cast on misconceptions given from the popular media version. 😛

The “Marshans” are parodies of the Martians in “War of the Worlds”. In that story, the Martian invaders were eventually destroyed by contracting infections and sickness from Earth’s native bacteria.

The Mane-Iac briefly returns in a cameo.

Trenderhoof (from “Simple Ways”) cameos at the Canterlot Daily News office. (Were newspapers really around back in the days of the Pony of Shadows? :P)

Ponebert by Trot Adams is (obviously) a parody of Dilbert by Scott Adams. It seems, just like in real life, the quality of its humor is somewhat up for debate.

In Colonial Whinniesburg, Prancy Drew makes a brief cameo.

So ponies DO have bathrooms and they DO use toilet paper. 😛

Somnambula as a locale (rather than an individual) is mentioned for the first time in this arc.

This arc is the first appearance of the Pony of Shadows (although only as a drawing in a book).

It’s never explained how Shadow Lock managed to descend from the Pony of Shadows, although it’s safe to assume he isn’t a direct descendant of Stygian. It’s also never explained how he got the scar across his snout. Shadow Lock doesn’t look like it compared to the show version, but he does bear a slight resemblance to Stygian in “Legends of Magic”.

Some of Pinkie Pie’s attempts to talk to the caveponies include saying “Artoo Deetoo” or R2-D2, the droid from the Star Wars franchise.

Pinkie Pie randomly mentions the Matrix, complete with shades.

Rating:

4 Stars out of 5

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Reviews ~ Comic Arc #24 (IDW My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Issues #48-50): “Chaos Theory”

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Synopsis:

The Mane Six, Spike, and Starlight Glimmer are all heading out with the residents of Ponyville to enjoy the Cosmic Convergence Conjunction, only to find that they have a “party crasher”: Discord. It’s not long before his chaotic nature and need to be the center of attention earn him a scolding from the girls, who pouts and disappears. Not long after, the Cosmic Convergence Conjuction occurs but, as it does, Starlight notices something nearby. The girls look and see what appears to be a blend of a strange egg and Discord smoldering in the ground. They take it back to the Castle of Friendship only for it to hatch, revealing a creature that looks like Discord but dresses neatly, talks calmly, and acts mannerly. He indicates that he’s a creature that Discord transformed into as a result of the energy of the conjunction, and is not a spirit of chaos but one of order and harmony. Twilight Sparkle names him “Accord” and, on learning that he wants to help bring order and harmony to Equestria, decide to reintroduce him to town. He ends up being extremely mannerly and helpful, earning the admiration of all of the girls except Fluttershy, but Starlight gets uneasy when Accord, rather than fix a hotel under construction that is suffering from a clash of styles from disagreeing architects, momentarily mind controls both of them instead to make them agree on the same design. Twilight and the others rub it off as a mistake, however, and the next day Accord and the girls are invited to Canterlot for a royal luncheon with Celestia and Luna to formally introduce him. While at the luncheon, Starlight vocalizes her disapproval with how Accord acted the other day, but Accord soon surprises everypony by saying he wishes to bring complete harmony to everypony in Equestria via unity, and he plans to achieve unity by making every resident in Equestria think exactly alike and run it under his own direction. He starts by trying to mind-control everypony in the palace and, while Celestia manages to protect the girls, herself, and Luna, everypony else is turned into a like-minded zombie.

Unable to reason with Accord, who believes he is simply doing what Celestia and Luna were trying to do “more efficiently”, Twilight tells Celestia and the rest of the girls to start evacuating Canterlot while she and Luna enter Accord’s mind using her dream magic. While they successfully enter, they soon discovered he’s changed inside and out and all he has is a uniform sameness throughout his mind. Nevertheless, Twilight manages to find a snow globe in one of the monolithic offices inside his head that contains the original Discord. She breaks it open and frees him, but Discord informs her that he is merely the last part of what Accord is now that is still Discord. He confesses that he was truly hurt when the girls scolded him at the Cosmic Convergence Conjunction and felt he would never fit in with them, so he decided to change himself into a harmonious form instead. Unfortunately, he can’t change back unless Accord willingly changes himself back into Discord, and shortly after confessing this the Accords inside his mind trap the three of them… Back outside, Celestia and the girls break for it only to discover Accord is not only rapidly expanding his control to all of the other ponies in Canterlot but he is, in effect, copying his own consciousness onto them in order to make them partially clones of himself from a mental standpoint. They manage to escape the zone of his magic influence and round up whoever isn’t converted yet to the train station, only to get a rather bad surprise: Twilight and Luna, both now mind-controlled as well, suddenly arrive.

The group manages to escape on a train and head toward Ponyville, but while en route Celestia begins to wonder if Accord might actually have a point; seeing as he seems to have brought harmony and balance far easier and more quickly than Celestia has. Starlight protests that he’s gone about it through making ponies conform and be controlled, as she did once, rather than trying to get them to work together as friends. She begins to speculate based on similar incidents (such as with the cursed water, the Mirror Universe, and Inspiration Manifestation) that both Discord and Accord themselves actually had the same goals (making friends) but went about it in different ways. On arriving in Ponyville, Celestia leads the girls to go for the Elements of Harmony with the intent of using them against Accord and Celestia taking Twilight’s spot. Soon after, Accord teleports in and invites them to try, and not only do the Elements not work they actually enhance his power to allow him to instantly mind-control everypony in Equestria except Starlight (who was protecting herself at the point of the attack). However, before Accord can do the same to her, she points out that since she’s the only non-controlled one left and no threat to him that he should be able to convince her to join his philosophy without forcing her. Accord agrees to the challenge, claiming that he’s made everypony in Equestria his friends by making them think alike and that “friendship is order”. Starlight counters that friendship is about understanding and connecting with others because of differences, and that Accord hasn’t really made a single friend or brought any ponies to work together. All he’s made is copies of himself who can only think and act the way he wants them to “and not a single friend”. Realizing he was wrong all along, Accord tells Starlight goodbye and says he hopes this is the last she’ll ever see of him before turning back into Discord. The girls all welcome Discord back and learn to appreciate how differences and “chaos” helps build friendships, and the cast ends with a proclamation that “friendship is magic”.

Review:

First things first. (Holds a gun to the head of the part of my Angry Inner Fanboy who’s mad that Starlight’s second appearance in the main IDW series was another “Starlight Saves Absolutely Every Other Protagonist in the Entire Series by Herself” story to keep him from complaining.) On we go.

A big theme that keeps getting revisited in the “My Little Pony” franchise is the idea of what would happen if characters would be the opposite of their true selves. Ironically, that idea first came around because of Discord way back in Season Two’s “Return of Harmony”. But with Discord reaching the point where he tried to fit in more with the regular cast, and him being such a stand-out character, it caused no end of fan speculation as to what Discord would be like if he was the opposite of his current self.

It was played up mostly for laughs but with a touch of “aw” and drama in “Discordant Harmony” in Season Seven. By comparison…this arc went much darker with it. It essentially showed that being an omnipotent creature is pretty much a dangerous thing for Equestria whether he wants chaos or order.

The art is really great and the pacing is pretty good, keeping things at a very tense progression after Accord reveals his intentions that keeps you engrossed in the story. I don’t think that the show could ever get away with an ending this philosophical, but…it was rather appropriate, fitting, and even clever. Most of the times in the main series when a character talks down a villain it basically amounts to “I’ll be your friend”. In this one, the dialogue was more mature and satisfying. Using the more mature rating for a more intelligent plot is good to me. And there were quite a number of callbacks both to the TV series and the comic, making this a very unifying arc. And the ending message is good as well…that chaos in and of itself isn’t necessarily evil just as order in and of itself isn’t necessarily good, and that it’s possible to appreciate and even befriend both.

However, for being an arc that focuses on Discord and the normal zaniness that surrounds him, even when he’s trying to be “orderly”, this arc goes in a dark direction pretty quick. Even the narrative hook is a bit unusual. The odd egg/chrysalis thing that Discord changes into is a bit unsettling looking right at the start, already foreshadowing that things are going to go from humorous to dark pretty quickly in this arc. And indeed they do. Similar to the “Reflections” arc, this plotline very quickly gets into dark territory. Many of the scenes of the Stepford Smiler ponies are very disturbing looking, especially when it starts showing the other ponies aren’t merely brainwashed but have been turned into copies of Accord, in a sense. The comic makes numerous attempts to try and alleviate this with comic relief, but…similar to the “Reflections” arc, it doesn’t work out that well to me. In fact, it works a little less. The plot just gets a little too heavy to be able to lift it out of it, even with someone like Andy Fleecs doing the normally wonderful art.

This does have the feel of a season-capping episode, but…it also suffers from most of the pitfalls of one. The biggest part is the rest of the girls are just there to be random gags and one liners. Celestia, Starlight, Luna, and Twilight get a good amount of focus, but Fluttershy gets largely ignored after the first part even though anything that would happen to Discord would impact her the most.

And…what the heck, I’ll let him get it out. (Lowers gun)

This comic was likely in production long before “To Where and Back Again” came out or was even known about, but I’m a little disappointed at the show staff for not warning the IDW Comic writers they planned to do an arc where Starlight would save the entire cast more or less by herself, because the fact they put out a second arc where she does the same thing in the comic made me frown a little. In several ways, it’s worse than it was for “To Where and Back Again”. In that one, Starlight found herself forced into a position of leadership she didn’t want to be in. She was hesitant and self-doubting at least, and part of the story had to be her being willing to direct others to work together. In this one, Starlight is portrayed as already being smarter, stronger, and even possibly more empathic than the others. And the issue with that is that it continuously renders not only the Mane Six superfluous compared to her but also casts doubt upon how they ever did anything to change her, as she already seems to be “better at friendship” than them without them saying or doing anything to change her…a fact that seems accurate considering the flimsy resolution of “The Cutie Re-Mark”. It’s not to say I don’t like Starlight Glimmer, but…seriously? Could they have not done an arc or two where she was working with the girls instead of bailing them and the princesses of Equestria out? …Again?

All in all, this is still a good arc in spite of its flaws. It’s not quite as funny or show-appropriate as it would like to be and I personally feel it could have gone in slightly different directions, but overall it’s still a tense, dramatic, and colorful arc. A good solid benchmark for their 50th issue. Here’s to seeing fifty more. 🙂

Fun Facts:

This arc is also known simply as: “Accord”.

Discord breaks the fourth wall earlier than usual, saying “in the four color flesh”. Comic coloration is done in only four colors: Yellow, Cyan, Magenta, and Black. A moment later he’s unhappy on seeing that the script for Issue #48 has him saying puns.

Accord is physically identical to Discord in spite of being “a creature of harmony” except in one detail: instead of a beard he has a mustache.

In possibly a nod to “Fairly Oddparents”, Accord’s word bubbles are more rectangular and rounded on the sides rather than ovals.

Both this arc as well as “Discordant Harmony” in the main series explored the idea of what would happen if Discord started acting “less chaotic”, but it’s interesting to note in both versions Fluttershy doesn’t like how he’s changed and wants him to be more chaotic.

Spike dreams of eating Kentucky Fried Crystals. Not sure how that will work out…

As with most Andy Price drawn stories, the IDW exclusive character Kibitz makes a return.

I’m sure most fans thought Twilight Sparkle eating her Toasty Oats breakfast was adorable. 😀

This comic might be the only indication we’ll ever get of numeric distances in Ponyville. The distance between Ponyville and Canterlot is 14 miles, the distance between Canterlot and Dodge Junction is 48 miles, and the distance from Canterlot to New Horseleans (never before mentioned in the TV series) is 260.

The looks on the faces of the mind-controlled ponies is a classic “Stepford Smiler”, which is similar to what was done in Season Five’s own “The Cutie Map” with Starlight’s commune members.

This story arc features a number of callbacks to earlier arcs. A major plot point is a callback to the “Friends Forever” issue with Luna and Discord–namely the fact Luna has entered Discord’s mind before. Another is a callback to the “Reflections” arc when Celestia mentions the evil version of herself. Lastly, there’s a callback to “The Ponies of Dark Waters”.

In a bit of comic relief, when Accord says he’s trying to achieve the same goal as Princess Celestia, Celestia screams: “WAT.”

Discord’s original persona is found in Accord’s mind in a snow globe, which may or may not be an allusion to “Coraline”. At any rate, the sled in the snow globe is named Rosebud, an allusion to “Citizen Kane”.

The mysterious fedora pony appears at the train station.

A pony version of Jimmy Olson calls out on seeing the mind-controlled Twilight and Luna.

As more comic relief, Starlight easily distracts the mind-controlled Twilight and Luna with a toy monkey.

When Princess Celestia tries to use the Magic Element of Harmony, it connects to her golden collar instead of as a tiara.

At the part where Starlight makes the point that you can’t be friends with “someone who’s exactly like you”, she’s looking at a random picture of Sunset Shimmer. As this arc came out in Season Six, it’s likely that this is a joke at the frequent fan complaint that Starlight Glimmer was nothing more than an attempt to clone Sunset Shimmer into a permanent role on the show.

A number of jokes are on the page where Discord returns. He brings Twilight and Luna in a fourth-wall breaking cardboard box that says “characters not seen for 16 pages”, he has a pizza from Panucci’s (the pizzaria in “Futurama”), and Doctor Whooves, no longer brainwashed, says he can finally blink…an allusion to Doctor Who’s fights against the Weeping Angels. Soon after, Discord complains about the entire story arc, saying he was only on nine of the sixty pages.

The final page is a tribute to IDW’s 50th issue of the My Little Pony series. It has numerous little nods, such as another appearance of the fedora pony, a Changeling, a foal with a horn like King Sombra’s, and an appearance from a buffalo and stag.

Issue #50 was a plus-sized issue that capped the “Chaos Theory” story arc with a ten page short called: “For the Pony Who Has Everything”, in which Discord gives Celestia a “birthday present” of turning her into a normal pegasus to take a day off as an average pony. Her Sun Cutie Mark is replaced with a Christmas tree light bulb. Eventually, Discord turns himself into a pegasus to tag along…with the Cutie Mark of an electric cord (obviously to plug in Celestia’s light bulb). When incognito Celestia says hi to Pinkie Pie, she reenacts her reaction to Twilight from the first episode, and one of the ponies in the impromptu pony parade is Jay Fosgitt, the short’s artist, in pony form.

Rating:

4 Stars out of 5