Uta No Prince-sama: Maji Love 1000%, Season 1 Complete Collection – DVD Review

Utano Prince Sama Season One

Review by: Kylee Strutt

Publisher: Sentai Filmworks
MSRP: $49.98 US (DVD); $59.98 US (Blu-ray)
Running Time: 325 minutes
Genre: Romance/Comedy
Rating: TV 14
Release Date: January 7, 2014

Welcome to Saotome Academy of Performing Arts, a school where musical prodigies come to prove themselves and pop idols are born from the music they help create. It’s no wonder that a girl named Haruka Nanami wants to enroll so badly and who can blame her since the place is home to some gorgeous guys who were born to be idols.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Uta no Prince-sama: Majii Love 1000% is your typical romance-comedy anime series with all the familiar requisites of the genre including the cute noble girl and a collection of hot guys who have taken an interest in her. Sentai Filmworks brings us the first season that introduces us to the cast of characters and a school where the love of music reigns supreme.

When we first meet Haruka Nanami, she is desperately trying to get through the guards outside Saotome Academy in order to take the entrance exam. Since she was delayed after helping a lost child, said guards wouldn’t let her in even when two hunky guys (the hot redhead Ittoki Otoya and the longhaired hottie Jinguji Ren) come to her rescue. As luck would have it, however, a mystery man is watching and tells the guards to let her in and she passes the exam with flying colors.

As Haruka quickly finds out, the school is a most unusual one with the Principal, a former pop idol called Shining Saotome, makes a flashy pop-star-like entrance. On top of that, the faculty is made up of either actors like the studly Hyuga Ryuya or pop idols like Tsukimiya Ringo (a young male who dresses like a girl). It’s a most unusual school indeed and, thankfully enough, Haruka finds herself surrounded by people who genuinely like her such as her roommate, Shibuya Tomochika, as well as her two hot saviors.

In fact, Otoya and Ren aren’t the only ones who have taken a liking to Haruka as she meets the other attractive guys working to become idols themselves. There’s the sullen Hijirikawa Masato who shares a similarity to Ren as head of his family’s business and then there’s Shinomiya Natsuki who, interestingly enough, suffers from a split-personality disorder he calls “Gemini Syndrome” that involves his glasses. Then there’s Kurusu Syo, a stylish blonde cutie who always ends up the target of Natsuki’s love for all things cute.

There’s yet another attractive fellow student named Ichinose Tokiya that attends the school and when Haruka meets him, she immediately thinks he’s her favorite pop idol named HAYATO. As it turns out, Tokiya turns out to be somebody else but it is through this meeting that we come to learn why Haruka wanted to enroll in Saotome Academy in the first place. You see, Haruka grew up with her grandmother and learned to play the piano but it isn’t until the frail girl encountered the music of HAYATO that she finds strength and the inspiration to create music for her favorite idol.

Of course, the music business is tough business and not everyone has the chops or natural talent to make it. We come to discover that Haruka can’t even read a music sheet and there are times when she chokes in front of her class when she’s asked to play a piece of music.

Still, Haruka finds that she has help from her friends and it is through them that Haruka gains the confidence to help create music. While those around her are not helping her, Haruka’s presence in the lives of the school’s “princes” begins to change the boys as well. For instance, the faculty threatens to kick Ren out of school if he doesn’t write a song as part of his class assignment and, while he didn’t plan on doing it, he does it because Haruka is determined to help him stay. She even gives Syo a hand when he tries his best to audition for a role in Ryuya-sensei’s new action film.

Meanwhile, the class assignments intensify as the students are asked to partner up according to their composer or idol track. In order for the composer and the idol to concentrate on their assignment, the school implements a “no dating” rule. Of course, this doesn’t stop the young men in Haruka’s life to show their affection towards her. In fact, a rivalry between two of Haruka’s circle of admirers becomes apparent early in the series.

Incidentally, the romance in this comedic romance anime is extremely light on the romance and heavy on the drama and goofiness. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but those expecting a sweeping romance between Haruka and one of the hot students will be greatly disappointed. Instead, the drama keeps the story interesting, especially when things start becoming clear about the identity of one of the students as well as coming to learn the little quirks and strengths of the male cast of characters.

Also, half the fun of the series is the comedy that, as I mentioned, is on the goofy side. It’s a blast watching Haruka try to make sense of the behavior between her circle of male friends and the effect she has on them to the point that – because of her – the boys form an sort of boy band group called ST*RISH that Haruka composes music for to complete the main assignment.

The animation in the series works perfectly and looks damn good when it comes to the dancing and the goofy humor. Of course, the men in the series are the main eye candy and Uta no Prince-sama does not disappoint in the very least. My biggest complaint is Haruka herself who looks cute enough but the yellow hue in her eyes makes her appear blind. It’s no big deal, really, but it makes it seems as if she were always in a state of shock. That said, though, the music is the real highlight here with a great selection of J-pop songs that range from cheesy to very catchy.

As I said in the beginning of this review, the story feels familiar and that’s because Uta no Prince-sama doesn’t stray from the usual formula that makes up the genre. That’s not necessarily a bad thing since the first season of this series hits all the right notes when it comes to writing. For every cheesy scene there are memorable moment involving Haruka or the school’s princes that make the series sincerely entertaining.

Then there’s the music in the series that punctuates nearly every episode. Most of the songs come from the male characters (including one sung by Haruna herself) and the majority of the songs are actually catchy albeit some come off as too sugary sweet. Still, it’s hard to complain when the voices are superb thanks to the talented voice-acting cast and an excellent score by Elements Garden.

Season 1 of Uta no Prince-sama doesn’t strive to be anything different and that’s perfectly fine since it does manage to deliver a J-pop-flavored comedy-romance series that is loads of fun to watch and even more so for fans of this genre. While Haruka isn’t exactly the most memorable heroines in anime, the rest of the cast is actually charming enough to make the lively first season a genuine joy to watch. Here’s hoping the second half is just as entertaining.

DVD REVIEW BREAKDOWN

MOVIE/EPISODES: B
A kind-hearted girl named Haruka Nanami enrolls in Saotome Academy in hopes of making it as a music composer that will compose music for her favorite idol that changed her life. The music business is not easy but, as it turns out, Haruna gets some help from a collection of handsome “princes” who want to see her succeed.

VIDEO QUALITY: B+
Saotome Academy is a colorful and imaginative-looking place that is far from realistic but, then again, this is a school run by an eccentric principal that makes flashy entrances. However, the nitpicky viewer in me wishes Haruka’s eyes didn’t have that yellow hue. Other than that, this series looks good on DVD.

AUDIO QUALITY: A+
The voice acting in this series is pitch perfect with the likes of Takuma Terashima and Junichi Suwabe but the highlight here is not only the score but also the oftentimes-catchy J-pop tunes that come from each prince. The boy band-like closing theme song is fun but it’s the opening theme song, “Orpheus” that is a highlight.

EXTRAS: C+
The set includes all 13-episodes in three DVDs and the only extras you’ll find are the clean opening and closing theme songs as well as a few Sentai Filmworks trailers. I wish the third disc at least included all the songs heard throughout this first season episodes.

OVERALL: B
The first season of Uta no Prince-sama follows a familiar pattern in the reverse harem genre but that doesn’t make this genuinely charming series any less fun to watch. In fact, there are enough memorable moments that keep the comedic and romantic elements fresh enough that you will find yourself enjoying the first half of this series and gladly await the second season.

Review copy provided by Sentai Filmworks

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Say, “I Love You”, Complete Collection – DVD Review

Say I Love You CC Box1

Review by: Brenda Gregson

Publisher: Sentai Filmworks
MSRP: $59.98 US (DVD); $69.98 US (Blu-ray)
Running Time: 325 minutes
Genre: Romance/Drama
Rating: TV 14
Release Date: Available Now

You’ve heard the story a thousand times, shoujo fans. A girl with a troubled past meets the kind-hearted boy. The girl, not wanting to risk being hurt, isn’t open to the idea of dating said boy even though he is clearly interested in her and slowly but surely she starts opening her heart enough to let in the boy and together they find happiness.

This is certainly not a new plot element for the genre but the Complete Collection of Say, “I Love You” manages to bring us a romance story that is as warm and as inviting as it is a cute slice of shoujo bliss. If that sounds like high praise for a series that doesn’t bring anything new to the table and will probably end predictably then I should add that sometimes it’s not the destination that matters but rather how you get there that does.

The 13-episode series introduces us to Mei Tachibana, a 16-year old student at Toumei Public High School who keeps to herself because of an unfortunate event in middle school that makes Mei realize that friendship will eventually lead to betray. Since then Mei has not made a single friend in her high school and that’s perfectly fine with her. Of course, this way of thinking has transformed an otherwise sweet girl into a gloomy loner who spends her lunch break seeing to a cute cat.

In the same school is a charming, chivalrous and kind-hearted boy named Yamato Kurosawa who is – of course – extremely popular with all the girls because he’s an absolute hottie. This boy who seems to have nothing in common with Mei Tachibana finds himself interested in her after a misunderstanding has the girl kicking Yamato. While every girl in the school hates Mei for kicking their school idol, Yamato sees the girl in a romantic light to the point that he gives Mei his phone number.

Yet Mei is the stubborn kind who is not willing to give friendship a chance let alone romance. In fact, the thought of having a boyfriend wasn’t an option and she had no intention of even calling Yamato until a creepy stalker forces Mei to call the only male she knows … Yamato. When he scares off the stalker by kissing Mei right in front of him, an awkward relationship is born as the girl who doesn’t want friends suddenly finds that she now has somebody in her life.

Awkward is definitely the right word to describe the relationship between Mei and Yamato. While she tries to come to terms with her growing feelings for a boy who has only the noblest of intentions, romance is still a relatively new deal for her. However, Yamato is never pushy and is actually patient enough to give her a chance to realize that he has fallen for her. Believe me when I say that half the fun of watching this series is that awkwardness as the pair try to transition from strangers to boyfriend and girlfriend roles.

While Mei can’t quite summon the courage to tell Yamato how she feels about him, it becomes clear that Mei is changing to the point that she allows herself to become a part of Yamato’s small circle of friends that includes his pervy buddy Kenji Nakanishi and his crush, the busty Asami Oikawa. Suddenly, the girl who intentionally turned to solitude as a defense mechanism is now becoming sociable and it feels good albeit strange.

However, not everything about her new social life and romance is all roses because there are obstacles that fall in front of the girl and it threatens her relationship with Yamato. There’s Aiko Muto, a girl who has a past with Yamato and despite the fact that she’s dating somebody it becomes apparent that she still has strong feeling for Yamato and will not give up on having him as her boyfriend. Aiko attempts to separate Mei from Yamato, not realizing that it is Yamato who loves being by Mei’s side … a fact that not only angers the girl but also pushes her to the edge in a very dramatic manner.

Then there’s Kai Takemura, a boy who had befriended Yamato during middle school only to feel abandoned by Yamato when Kai was mercilessly bullied in a violent confrontation. As a result, Kai has not only missed a year of high school but has exercised to the point that he no longer resembles the wimpy boy Yamato knew. However, Kai has turned his attention on Mei and attempts to woo her out of both revenge against Yamato but also because he identifies with Mei. Kai’s insistence on winning over Mei causes Yamato to see him as a rival.

While both Kai and Aiko cause problems in the relationship, it is a popular and very attractive model named Megumi Kitagawa who poses the biggest threat for Mei. She immediately sets her sights on Yamato and, despite her sweet exterior; she’s malicious and determined to drive a wedge between the couple in order to have Yamato for herself. Megumi even gets Yamato a gig as a male model, a job that he accept reluctantly and not knowing that it makes Mei insecure about their relationship. I mean, how can an awkward girl like her be dating a male model?

However, even with the obstacles that test a relationship between two young people who are new to this courtship, both Mei and Yamato show us that love can bloom for even the most unlikely couples. The series just doesn’t concentrate on Mei and Yamato’s romance but also that of characters like Asami, Kenji and even Aiko who change because of Mei.

The trouble with Say, “I Love You” is that it follows the usual shoujo trapping that we have seen countless times before and even the ending offers no surprise. The show’s real strength comes in the fact that the writing is still fresh enough to make Mei’s plight seem realistic enough that you will not only be drawn in by awkwardness towards love and friendship but you’ll be rooting for her. Sure, there are some overly dramatic moments scattered throughout but they are often overshadowed by the cute moments that make the characters actually quite endearing.

On top of the great storytelling, the series features some gorgeous animation that makes each character stand out in the best way possible. There’s also a solid voice-acting cast with the original Japanese seiyuu being the best way to enjoy the series thanks to the strong performances by the two main leads. However, the English dub isn’t bad either with the likes of Monica Rial, Greg Ayres and David Matranga joining a good cast of voice actors.

While never really offering anything new to the romance genre, Say, “I Love You” is tremendously charming and endearing enough to make this Complete Collection set a genuinely satisfying treat well worth savoring. Filled with an assortment of likeable and interesting characters, the series’ major highlight is the blooming romance between Mei and Yamato that is so touching and cute that you will not be able to take your eyes off the screen. Now that’s how you do good shoujo.

DVD REVIEW BREAKDOWN

MOVIE/EPISODES: A
Mei Tachibana had decided to abandon all hope in terms of making friends to the point that it has made her a sullen loner. Then, the handsome and very popular Yamato takes an interest in her after Mei kicks him on accident. It isn’t until an incident pushes the girl who is closely guarding her heart to find friendship once again as well as romance. Sure, there are rivals that pop up but the biggest obstacle for Mei is learning to trust again and make sense of her growing feeling for a boy who clearly likes her.

VIDEO QUALITY: A
The animation in this series is top-notch and gorgeous even on DVD as the backgrounds and character models are delightfully colorful. Sure, Yamato’s hair is atrocious but he certainly makes for some pleasant eye candy.

AUDIO QUALITY: A-
The original Japanese voice acting is definitely the way to enjoy this series especially with outstanding performances by Ai Kayano and Takahiro Sakurai. Still, the English dub cast isn’t bad at all thanks to the talents of Monica Rial, Greg Ayres and Brittney Karbowski just to name a few. Another plus is the score that is as delightful as the animation and the opening and closing theme songs are new favorites of mine.

EXTRAS: A
The Complete Collection set comes in a three-disc set with the first disc including the clean opening and closing animation plus the original Japanese promo videos as well as a few Sentai Filmworks previews. On the third disc, there are the Mei & Marshmallow 6-episode 3D animated shorts that you find at the very end of the closing credits. These are short yet cute and worth watching since both Mei and her chubby cat, Marshmallow, are funny.

OVERALL: A
Like most shoujo anime series you have seen before, Say, “I Love You” is a romance story that ends the way you expect it to end but the real magic here is in how this romance unfolds. Genuinely earnest, engaging and downright cute, this series will not fail in drawing you into its warm and inviting light from beginning to end.

Review copy provided by Sentai Filmworks

The Garden of Words – Blu-ray Review

GardenWordsBox1

Review by: Felicia Day

Publisher: FUNimation Entertainment
MSRP: $34.98 US (Blu-ray)/$24.98 US (DVD)
Running Time: 46 minutes
Genre: Drama
Rating: TV 14
Release Date: August 6, 2013

As the first cold drops of rain drizzle over the lush green gardens two very different people take notice of each another under the cover of the same roof. Both take an interest in each another and despite their difference in age, a relationship will be born mainly out of the fact that both seem to be stuck by the obstacles that life places in one’s path. Welcome to The Garden of Words, where these two souls might just help each another get back on the right path.

Those familiar with director Makoto Shinkai knows that he excels in telling a story about characters living in two different worlds – the real one and the one of their own making and The Garden of Words is no different. In this feature film, we are introduced to a high school student named Takao Akizuki who lives in the Kanto region. Getting off at the Shinjuku Station, however, the boy notices the first drops of rain announces the rainy season in the area so instead of going to school he heads to the gorgeous and seemingly lonely gardens that make up the region’s biggest park.

Takao isn’t just ditching class but rather using the time away from school to sketch shoe designs in his notebook. You see, Takao aspires to design ladies shoes – a dream he wishes to make a reality one day despite the fact that he doesn’t have the support of his older brother or his always-absent mother. So on that particularly rainy day, he finds a covered bench area where he sees a beautiful older woman sitting on the opposite bench drinking beer and eating chocolate.

Her name is Yukari Yukino and her very presence seems to haunt Takao who believes this lovely woman in her late-twenties seems to be running away from something. She also seems familiar to him, although he doesn’t know where exactly but this begins a conversation between the two. While Takao doesn’t find out much about her, Yukino discovers that he only skips class on rainy days, which will are plentiful during this season.

So the two start meeting in the same spot as the rain pelts the garden. Takao shares with Yukari his dream of designing shoes and the young woman even poses for him as the young man finally feels that somebody has taken an interest in his life’s goal. However, despite the fact that Takao has shared an intimate part of his life, Yukino has yet to reveal why she is avoiding going to work and why she is drowning her worries with beer and chocolate.

Suddenly, the rainy season comes to an end and Takao gets wrapped up in the summer’s offering of work and his studies. Since it stopped raining he doesn’t show up at the garden where Yukino continues to hang out. Despite the fact that he is living an active life, Takao feels the sting of loneliness that Yukari is feeling. Even when they’re not together the pair thinks about the other … even more so with Takao who makes use of an expensive book that Yukino has given him as a gift.

It isn’t until he goes back to school that Takao makes a shocking discovery about the identity of Yukari Yukino as well as finds out why she had been avoiding work since he had met her. This discovery leads to a dramatic turn of events that will either destroy them both or make them realize that there is hope for them both.

The Garden of Words goes for a big emotional finale that speaks volumes about the human condition. Sometimes it’s the most unlikely of people that could help you move on and sometimes it’s that quirky individual who drinks beer and chocolate in a park that could help inspire you to pursue your life’s ambition.

Then there’s the relationship between Takao and Yukari itself that will raise some eyebrows. Although she doesn’t cross the line between acquaintance and lover (or perhaps she does after one key scene but that’s for the viewer to decide), you can’t help but feel that the spark between the pair is romantic enough to seem inappropriate if but for the age difference. Sure, Takao is the most mature 15-year old you’ll meet but Yukari is in her mid-twenties.

Secondly, there’s the garden itself, which a feature in the extras points out was inspired by the Shijuko Gyoen National Park, that is like another character. The garden itself represents another world that Takao and Yukari share in order to escape the real world. It is in that garden that Takao can concentrate on his dream. It is in the lush green haven that Yukari doesn’t have to deal with an ex-boyfriend or the stressful situation that arose in her job.

Makoto Shinkai is a master at telling a story using a character’s expressions rather than filling his work with an abundance of dialogue. There are scenes that say a lot about the characters and their world with the subtle use of background noise (in this case the rain) and the beautiful piano score. Then there’s the animation that, thanks to some very talented animators and Hiroshi Tukituki (who serves as Art Director), is actually quite stunning. I’ve seen the DVD version and loved it but you really do have to see this on Blu-ray to truly appreciate the animation.

On top of that masterful score, there’s the voice acting that is quite stellar if you prefer the original Japanese language track. I think Miyu Irino (as Takao) and Kana Honiara (as Yukari) are absolutely brilliant in their portrayal of these two character but I cannot possibly dismiss the fact that Maggie Flecknoe managed to pull off an unforgettable performance in the English dub in a cast that includes Patrick Poole, Hilary Haag, Brittany Karbowski and Blake Shepard just to name a few.

The Garden of Words is a beautifully told and richly emotional story that finds two very different people finding each another and, in turn, learns to confront the things that are holding them back from happiness. That said, however, the story also has a familiar seen-this-before-way-too-many-times vibe to it as well as awkward romantic tension between the characters that will seem completely inappropriate considering the age differences between the two characters. In the end, however, you cannot ignore the fact that The Garden of Words will not fail to draw you into its world from the very start down to its emotional finale.


BLU-RAY REVIEW BREAKDOWN

MOVIE/EPISODES: B+
A rainy day in the Kanto region’s most beautiful garden brings together two very different souls. One is a high school student who aspires to be a shoe designer and the other is an older woman who is escaping from her job. Together they build a relationship that might just set them on the right path to happiness or to something else altogether.

VIDEO QUALITY: A+
Without a doubt, the Blu-ray version is quite simply the best way to enjoy this visually stunning feature film. Like most Makoto Shinkai films, the setting itself is like a living, breathing character and sometimes more is said with a single glance than with a short line of dialogue.

AUDIO QUALITY: A-
Personally speaking, the original Japanese voice cast makes for a perfect viewing experience but it is impossible to ignore Maggie Flecknoe’s breath-taking performance as Yukari that matches that of Kana Hanazawa’s stellar voice acting. On top of that, the score by KASHIWA Daisuke is beautiful and so is the ending theme song, “Rain.”

EXTRAS: B+
You’ll find the original Japanese trailer for the film in the extras feature as well as a number of Sentai Filmworks’ trailers for their Blu-ray releases. You’ll even find a feature called The Works of Makoto Shinkai that includes a list of his animated features such as “The Place Promised in our Early Days” just to name a few.

Also includes is an extended version of the Interviews feature that includes interviews with the crew as well as members of the Japanese cast like Hanazawa and Miyu Irino who voices Takao. Then there’s the English Production Stills with pictures of the English dub voice cast at work in a booth decorated to simulate the garden and rain. Finally, there’s Story Boards that allows you to see the film through its storyboard artwork.

OVERALL: B+
While you can’t help but feel like you’ve seen this kind of story before, The Garden of Words sets itself apart with its stunning animation and character-driven drama that makes this a moving tale about salvation. Sure, there are romantic elements that feel inappropriate at times but it is overshadowed by its scenes of two people who inspires each another to move forward.

Review copy provided by Sentai Filmworks

Durarara!!, Volume 4 – Manga Review

Durarara, Vol4

Review by: Kylee Strutt

Publisher: Yen Press
Author: Ryohgo Narita
Artist: Akiyo Satorigi
Character Design: Suzuhito Yasuda, Masayuki Sato (Cover)
Genre: Graphic Novel
MSRP: $11.99 US
Rating: OT (Older Teen)
Release Date: Available Now

AN Ed Choice Award1
I said it once and I’ll say it one more time: admittedly I am not an easy girl to please or surprise.

A magician would have to do more than pull a rabbit out of a hat to get a reaction from me and yes, Chris Angel, I have seen people levitate before. I can say the same thing about manga but, so far, I have found myself surprised by many works and even pleased by others that did not disappoint in spinning a yarn that had me hooked from the very start. Durarara!! is that kind of story … the kind that surprises and pleases as the fourth volume closes the chapter on a most unusual tale.

In Volume 3 of the series, we learn that the old saying about not judging a book by its cover is true as we discover that that is more to Mikado Ryuugamine than one would expect from a skittish and shy young boy. In fact, he turns out to have a secret that makes him seem like a young Japanese version of Tyler Durden from “Fight Club.”

As a matter fact, Volume 4 touches on a little social experiment that Mikado participated in with a group of school friends via their computers. Suddenly this little project came to life on its own as more people began to spread the word that a fake organization known as the Dollars is growing exponentially in Ikebukuro. When Mikado’s classmates leave the project that began as something of a joke, the young man realizes that somebody must take control of this group because a lack of leadership could be dangerous.

I will say no more but you can imagine the surprise when Mikado shows us he is more than capable of carrying out a plan to bring Namie Yagiri – head of Yagiri Pharmaceuticals – down on her knees. Along with the help of Celty Sturluson and Izaya Orihara, Mikado manages to learn a lot from Namie including revealing her sick love for her brother who Mikado connects to the disappearance of one Mika Harima.

With Namie Yagiri defeated and Celty taking down the rest of her thugs, we learn the fate of the mystery girl who is unhurt and brought to the scene in time for Celty to finally get a chance to talk to her. However, Seiji Yagiri also shows up and offers the girl his hand and together they walk off like soul mates that have finally found each another.

However, Mikado wants to know the truth about what had happened to Mika Harima … causing Seiji to reveal his dark and dangerous side as he attacks Mikado. The truth about the mystery girl is finally revealed and let’s just say that it’s an unexpected twist you will not see coming. I will say no more but the outcome of that event forces Celty to confront Shinra Kishitani about his role in all of this. The result is a memorable confrontation between these two characters.

Speaking of memorable confrontations, there’s one between Orihara and Namie Yagiri who comes to discover that Izaya Orihara, who playfully walks the line between good guy and villain, really leans towards the latter in a most disturbing manner. Meanwhile, Mikado returns to school as he witnesses the even more twisted sight of Seiji and his girl together … and happy?

Certainly, the final chapters of this volume end on a sort of happy note with characters like Celty and Mikado accepting who and what they are in this world. Ikebukuro is certainly an odd place but it fits both these characters perfectly. This is actually quite unexpected but, then again, this is a series that excelled in successfully springing surprises on their readers.

While the series ends here, those of us who know the story via the light novels know that this is but the first half of the series. Of course, whether or not Narita-sensei will bring the rest of the story in manga form remains to be seen but, as a fan, I would definitely love to see their interpretation. I, for one, would love to see Narita and Satorigi collaborate again by telling the rest of this story.

Volume 4 of Durarara!! reaches a most unusual yet satisfying finale as secrets are revealed and characters come to terms with their true nature. In short, it’s exactly the bizarre outcome you would expect from a story that includes a Dullahan, a cute stalker, twisted siblings and a character who turns out to be the leader of a gang that includes half the city. There was never a shortage of surprises in this series and that alone makes Durarara!! an interesting read you will want to check out.


MANGA REVIEW BREAKDOWN

STORY: A+
Having confronted the head of Yagiri Pharmaceuticals, Mikado’s big secret is out as he closes the book the mystery behind the girl with the scar on her neck and Namie Yagiri’s role in protecting her twisted brother, Seiji. Meanwhile, Celty comes to terms with her own existence as well as discovering the identity of the person involved with the mystery girl.

ART: A-
Visually, the series has been handled more than decently enough with recognizable characters and, of course, the city of Ikebukuro itself that manages to stand out as well. Akiyo Satorigi is good at what he does and it shows in every panel of this series.

OVERALL: A+
A worthy final chapter to this series, Volume 4 closes on a strangely positive note with a beginning that only gets more interesting as the story progresses. Narita and Satorigi-sensei has managed to surprise us every step of the way and this last volume is no different as secrets are revealed and the fate of each character becomes known.

COMPLETE SERIES GRADE: A+
An acquired taste to be sure, Durarara!! is not only an offbeat series but also a brilliant one that does not disappoint when it comes to the twists and turns the story offers. Filled with complex and mysterious characters, Ikebukuro is an interesting place because of it and the result is a tale well worth reading even if you already know the story. Here’s hoping we get to see the other half of this story straight out of the other chapters from the light novels.

Review copy provided by Yen Press

Occult Academy, Complete Series Premium Edition – Blu-ray Review

Review by: Felicia Day

Publisher: NIS America
MSRP: $64.99 US
Running Time: 334 minutes
Genre: Supernatural/Sci-fi
Rating: T (Teen)
Release Date: Available Now
You know you’re in for a unique supernatural sci-fi anime series when a young time-traveler falls from the sky stark naked and the cute new school headmaster is being chased by a pack of Chupacabras. It is these things that drew me to the Complete Series Premium Edition of Occult Academy, an anime series that doesn’t fail to entertain and – at times – make you laugh. Yes, it’s that kind of series where the world of the supernatural clashes with that of the science-fiction genre yet making room for some comedic moments.

Occult Academy revolves around a school called the Waldstein Academy that specializes in training its student body in all things involving the occult. We also meet a young girl named Maya Kumashiro who arrives in time for a ceremony honoring the newly deceased school’s principal who also happens to be Maya’s father. It’s clear from her attitude that she and her father have grown distant and she makes it even clearer that she hates the occult even though she had been obsessed with it growing up.

Suddenly, the series shows us what it’s all about when a poltergeist takes control of the principal’s body as well as that of a cute nerdy student named Kozue. Maya helps draw out the evil spirit but the big shocker is that, her father’s will has placed Maya as sole inheritor of Waldstein Academy … a responsibility that Maya takes seriously to the point that she takes up the role as the school’s new principal. Sure, the sexy Assistant Principal is against the idea but Maya is the type of girl who sticks to her guns.

Then, things gets even more interesting when Maya witnesses a naked young man slowly float down from the sky and land right in front of her. He is Fumiaki Uchida, a time-traveler who has traveled back to 1999 in order to locate what his handlers call the Nostradamus Key in order to stop an alien invasion in 2012. Armed with a cell phone that is able to snap pictures that will reveal the subject’s future, Fumiaki thinks Waldstein Academy is the best place to begin his search.

Of course, Fumiaki is something of a coward who frightened by the supernatural elements that occur around the school. Despite his yellow streak, however, Fumiaki comically catches the attention of the Assistant Principal who starts writing romantic entries in her diary involving him. He also becomes involved with an attractive waitress named Mikaze who spends her time having him try out her new curry dishes as well as drive him around (quickly) in her sports car.

On top of Fumiaki’s relationship with Mikaze, the Assistant Principal and Maya, we come to discover an even more intriguing element. In 1999, a child star is born as Bunmei-kun takes the talk show circuit by storm with his ability to bend spoons with his mind. It becomes obvious who Bunmei-kun will grow up to be and that alone makes the character truly fleshed out to the point that we come to understand Fumiaki and Bunmei-kun.

It is because of Bunmei-kun that Maya comes to realize things about her past, particularly why she has stopped loving the occult as well as her father. We learn of Maya’s past by way of Ami Kuroki, a student at the academy who was something of a childhood friend to Maya. Ami tries to understand what led her once childhood friend to stop obsessing over the occult and even Ami’s father – a big man-child of a man – tries to rekindle the girl’s love for the occult with rumors of a UFO sighting.

The rest of the series revolves around the search for the Nostradamus Key that is often interrupted by some unsavory supernatural appearances from creatures we have all heard of at some point such as the Mothman and a pack of Chupacabras that have been connected to a string of cattle mutilations. At one point, they even try to reclaim the lost soul of the nerdy Kozue who took part in an experiment. There’s even the ghost of a little girl who the group takes it upon themselves to help.

Thankfully, Fumiaki and Maya have help from Ami and Kozue but also the school’s mechanic named Smile (who carries a giant wrench he uses as a weapon) and a pudgy goth kid named JK who uses rods that is able to pick up supernatural vibrations. They all take part in helping Maya and Fumiaki on their search. Meanwhile, the series hints at the Assistant Principal wanting to put a stop to their search.

Unfortunately, despite the interesting character developments and solid writing, you can’t help but feel like there should have been more in terms of the villains … if you can call them that. Some minor characters don’t really add much either. Unfortunately, Ami – who is suppose to fill the “childhood friend” role in this series – ends up being rather on the lackluster side and adds very little to her role. In fact, that only real drama she brings to the table comes when she slaps Maya’s face after the girl chews out Ami’s father.

Still, these are small gripes in an overall entertaining package. Watching Fumiaki’s past unravel to reveal the typical child star problems is fascinating and his growing relationship with Maya is fun to watch. Even the humor in the series is charming and laugh-out-loud funny, especially the Assistant Principal who goes from serious to doe-eyed very quickly when Fumiaki crosses her path. Then there’s the ending that, to me, is surprising and very fitting.

As far as the animation is concerned, it is the right balance between decent-looking character models and some stunning painted backgrounds with a side of eye-catching visual effects. Add a stellar voice cast and you have a series that will have you thanking NIS America for releasing it on Blu-ray.

Occult Academy is not a serious supernatural anime series and, as a result, ends up being wildly entertaining enough that you will find yourself enjoying every minute of it. It’s hard to not to like a series that features time travelers, Mothmen and Chupacabras all in one fun package and, somehow, this series pulls it all off with a tongue-in-cheek approach that works. Sure, the series is lacking in a few things that would have made it amazing but the Premium Edition package of the Complete Series of Occult Academy is a guaranteed good time.
BLU-RAY REVIEW BREAKDOWN

MOVIE/EPISODES: B+
It’s 1999 and a young girl named Maya inherits the Waldstein Academy – a school dedicated to the occult – from her deceased father. While she tries to make it clear that she hates the world of the supernatural, the arrival of a young time-traveler named Fumiyaki who has come in search of the Nostradamus Key that can save the world from an alien invasion. Together with the school’s students and faculty, Maya and Fumiyaki deal with a number of supernatural creatures and sci-fi elements that keep getting in the way.

VIDEO QUALITY: A
NIS America has decided not to include a DVD version, which is understandable seeing as Occult Academy is an anime series with gorgeous animation that includes impressive backgrounds, stellar visual effects and decent character design (with JK looking more original than the rest of the cast). The ending theme animation actually includes real actors.

AUDIO QUALITY: A
The series isn’t just about gorgeous visuals as it also contains an excellent voice acting cast that includes Yoko Hikasa as Maya and Takahiro Mizushima as Fumiaki. On top of that there’s also an appealing original score and an even better opening theme song (“Flying Humanoid” by Shoko Nakagawa) and closing theme (“Kimi Ga Iru Basho” by Ayahi Takagaki).

EXTRAS: A+
Once again, NIS America knows how to do a Premium Edition right and this one has enough extras and collectibles to satisfy fans of the series. For starters, there’s the 36-page hardcover book complete with character artwork, episode synopsis and an occult encyclopedia that makes for a fun read.

The Blu-ray discs contain extras as well such as the clean opening and closing animation with the closing being on the top of my list of favorite closers. Then there’s an exclusive “Love Machine” clip that you have to see for yourself as well as four bonus mini-episodes featuring Maya and Ami as children since the series touches on the fact that they hung out as kids.

OVERALL: B+
While it is not quite as stellar as it should have been considering solid storytelling and a likeable cast of characters, Occult Academy is still a blast to watch either way. It’s hard not to like a series that blends the supernatural with sci-fi elements topped off with a great sense of humor. Still, you can’t help but feel that the series could have been better but, for my money, the Complete Series Premium Edition of Occult Academy is well worth your money.

Review copy provided by NIS America

Clannad: After Story, Complete Second Season – Blu-ray Review

Review by: Sophie Stevens

Publisher: Sentai Filmworks
MSRP: $89.98 US
Running Time: 625 minutes
Genre: Romance
Rating: TV PG
Release Date: Available Now

Once again, it’s all about accepting the good with the bad.

The first season of Clannad is the kind of series that you experience rather than just watch as you are drawn into the lives of a young delinquent and a sickly girl. Through their eyes, we witness their times of happiness and sadness as well as the unusual yet magical moments that occur in their lives. In the Complete Second Season of Clannad: After Story, the story continues and comes to an emotional finale in true Clannad fashion and now finally on Blu-ray.

In the first season of the series, a young high school student named Tomoya meets and falls in love with the shy Nagisa Furukawa as he helped her get the Drama Club up and running. Together they encounter a few hardships and met a few interesting people they help out such as Mei, Yusuke and a girl named Fuko who wasn’t exactly “there”. After Story finds Tomoya and Nagisa in their senior year at the school and, yes, they’re still dating and very much in love.

The story starts off much like the first part as they find themselves doing things together with their friends such as joining Nagisa’s baker dad who forms a baseball team. Since this is their last year in high school, though, the pressure is on for Tomoya and his buddy Youhei to plan for their future. Youhei’s sister, Mei, is worried about his brother to the point that she begs the creeps at the soccer club to forgive Youhei and let him rejoin the team again.

Speaking of Youhei, in order to fool Mei into thinking her brother is doing Ok, Nagisa’s young mother – Sanae – pretends to be a high school girl going out with him. In one of the funniest moments, Youhei (who thinks Sanae is actually Nagisa’s older sister) asks Nagisa’s father for her permission to date Sanae only to have Nagisa’s dad chase the poor kid around the block.

There are more fun moments like this as we look into Misae the landlady’s High school days when she met a strange younger boy who has come to grant her a wish only to end up falling in love with the girl. In true Clannad-style, the boy turns out to be something else. Then there’s Yukine, the girl who spends her day in the reference room in school who turns out to be the girl two rival gangs turn to for healing and her delicious cooking. When things between the gang get out of hand, it is Tomoya who steps in to help Yukine by getting into a fight that will keep the gangs from spilling blood on the streets.

Meanwhile the story shifts back to Tomoya and Nagisa as, once again, Nagisa’s health takes a turn for the worst and she misses graduation. While Nagisa is recuperating, Tomoya gets a job working with ex-rock star Yusuke and he even gets his own apartment. He gets a better offer but Tomoya doesn’t get the job thanks to his father’s recent arrest. All of this wears the young man down as he realizes the one good thing he has in his life is Nagisa so he proposes to her and the two get married.

On top of that, Nagisa finds out that she’s expecting a baby but what should be a very happy occasion turns into a tragedy that makes an impact in the episodes that follow so believe me when I say that you should have a box of Kleenex ready. If you cried during Kanon or Air, you will definitely cry in the later half of After Story. Personally speaking, it almost becomes too unbearable even after Tomoya – who takes the tragedy badly to the point that he lets Nagisa’s parents raise the baby – starts to emotionally breakdown.

It is Sanae who eventually gets Tomoya to spend some time with his daughter and it is finally being a part of his child’s life that he comes to accept the good with the bad. He matures during this time as he reconciles with his father after learning the truth about him and he even takes an active role in becoming a better father but nothing good lasts in the later half of the series.

In fact, the second tragedy just becomes too much and the ending suffers greatly because of it or, I should say, by how it is handled. I’ll even go as far as saying I hate the ending for finishing the story on a dark note and not exploring the alternate reality it hints at when a returning character runs into the familiar girl and her robot. The alternate world does bring up an interesting question for Tomoya, though. If he was given a chance to restart from the beginning would he walk past Nagisa that day he met her to avoid the tragic events that would eventually occur as a result or would he relive it all again?

Like the first season of the series that gave us an alternate romantic take where Tomoya and Tomoyo are dating, we get an episode where Tomoya finds himself dating Ryo only to find out that he loves somebody else. Meanwhile, in another alternate world, Nagisa – having never met or fallen in love with Tomoya – gets over her shyness and finally makes some friends.

Clannad: After Story is an emotional rollercoaster that is touching and beautiful to the point that you won’t help but fall in love with the series all over again so this Complete Second Season set is definitely a Must Have and even more so on Blu-ray. Of course, the series is far from perfect thanks to an ending that feels like it was quickly swept under a rug but what we have here is a romance/drama worth watching again and again. Just like the part of the series, I cannot recommend this one enough.

BLU-RAY REVIEW BREAKDOWN

MOVIE/EPISODES: A-
Tomoya and Nagisa’s last year in High school finds the couple happily enjoying their days with their friends but when illness takes Nagisa out of school again, Tomoya stands by her side and even proposes to her. Unfortunately, not all days are happy as Nagisa’s health during her pregnancy takes a turn for the worst and suddenly Tomoya finds himself facing a cold reality.

VIDEO QUALITY: A+
Like the first collection that Sentai Filmworks re-released on Blu-ray, After Story looks amazing in HD thanks to the gorgeously colorful backdrops and cute character models. This is definitely a series that deserves to be seen on Blu-ray.

AUDIO QUALITY: A
The original Japanese voice cast is back and they do a marvelous job once again but if you prefer the English dub cast then you’re in luck because this set brings back Luci Christian, David Matranga, Greg Ayres and Brittney Karbowski just to name a few. The score is also beautiful and the opening them song is great but you will fall in love with the closing theme song, “Torch.”

EXTRAS: B+
The fact that the series is on Blu-ray is a major plus but this release includes a special bonus that accompanies the clean Opening and Closing animation and the few Sentai Filmworks trailers as well. I’m talking an audio commentary track for Episode 16 with David Matranga (voice of Tomoya) and Luci Christian (voice of Nagisa) talk about the complexities of their characters and how much both these talented voice actors have come to love Tomoya and Nagisa.

OVERALL: A-
A beautiful, sometimes comical and emotional story that will quickly sweep you away, the Blu-ray version of the Complete Second Season of Clannad: After Story will have you completely enthralled. Sure, the ending won’t be a fan favorite but what we have here is a timeless anime classic worth owning and more so if you were a fan of the first part of the series. If you don’t already own this series, this Blu-ray release is a Must Have.

Review copy provided by Sentai Filmworks

Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – DVD Review

Review by: Brenda Gregson

Publisher: Sentai Filmworks
MSRP: $29.98 US (DVD), $39.98 US (Blu-ray)
Running Time: 105 minutes
Genre: Action
Rating: TV 14
Release Date: Available Now

For the heroes of the Holy Grail War, the battle is on!

There are a number of feature-length animated films based on popular anime series that is aimed at the fans of the series its based on while alienating the rest of the viewers who aren’t familiar with the characters or the main plot and then there are the rare movies that not only serve as a proper introduction to said series but also offers its loyal fans a story that is a satisfying addition. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works is the second one as it caters to the show’s fans as well as making it accessible for those who always wanted to check this series out.

Unlimited Blade Works certainly takes up some of the film’s running time recapping the events of the anime series’ first season as it explains the story, introduces us to the characters and the fascinating world of Magi and their Servants. You see, seven Magi are locked in an epic battle known as the Holy Grail Wars as they fight to obtain the power of the Holy Grail that could grant them a wish as well as give the winner unlimited power. Magi don’t battle alone since the most talented of them have the ability to summon Servants – the spirits of legendary heroes that will fight on a Magi’s behalf.

One of these Magi is a young high school student named Shiro Emiya who has a partnership with his Servant named Saber who is a beautiful female knight. Shiro is participating in the Holy Grail Wars for one reason … to put and end to it and become the hero the world needs right now. You see, Shiro is connected to a horrific event known as the Fuyuki Fire that took place ten years ago that changed his life forever. Unfortunately, despite his noble intentions, Shiro doesn’t have that killer instinct that is needed to win this war since every other Magi and Servant is prepared to kill.

Well, not everyone, as Shiro’s attractive schoolmate, a girl named Rin Tosaka, decides to work alongside him rather than battle it out. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with her Servant named Archer who sees Shiro as a weak boy who will not only end up getting himself killed but her as well. I mean, their opponents aren’t slouches. Take the little girl, Illyasviel who has a behemoth named Berserker as a Servant for instance. She becomes one of the toughest opponents to beat.

While the movie doesn’t get into very specific detail that the main series shows us such as the connection between Rin and the priest named Kirei Kotomine who is at the center of the Holy Grail Wars nor does it show us why Shiro bounces back from his injuries so easily or his relationship with Saber, which this movie only hints as one leaning towards a romantic one. That’s actually one of my few gripes I have with the movie because it was intriguing to see Shiro and Saber’s relationship bud just as it was fun seeing the relationship between Rin and Archer unfold.

With the introductions out of the way, the story takes a turn down a different path from the series as Shiro and Rin discover that somebody had put up an unusual barrier that is draining the life-force from all their classmates. We are introduced to Shinji, a deranged classmate who has a beef with Shiro and attacks him in the school using his female chain-swinging Servant named Rider but he’s clearly not the Magi who put up such a powerful barrier.

The identity of the attacker is revealed and it is the mysterious Caster who has taken control of the Servant Assassin who guards the Ryudo Temple. Battling Caster, Shiro is nearly killed if it wasn’t for Archer acting along without Rin. Since Shiro won’t kill, Archer attacks the boy in hopes of taking him out of the war once and for all. If it wasn’t for Saber, Shiro would have been killed. However, back at their home, Saber is stabbed with a mysterious blade by Caster, which nullifies the contract with Shiro.

Teaming up with Rin once again, the pair try to find help by turning to Illyasviel and Berserker only they arrive in time to witness the tragic end of a Magi and Servant in a bloody battle. Instead, they get help from a familiar face to those who know the series and it is the Servant named Lancer who offers them his assistance in the name of his Magi. Together, the trio attempt to rescue Saber from Caster and her ally who fans will recognize.

I will say no more because it would spoil the surprises and plot twists the movie throws at you and the awesome ending that makes this story very satisfying even for those who have seen the main series. Of course, even at a running time of 105 minutes those who are not familiar with the story will find themselves noticing the way the transitions between scenes that feel like the first 25 or so minutes are made up of some highlight reels that cover the most important parts of the plot. Although the appearance of Gilgamesh and Rider fit right into the story, Lancer isn’t even properly introduced … thus his involvement in the finale doesn’t have the emotional impact his character deserves.

Still, despite that annoyance, the movie is filled with exciting moments and intense battles that range from awesome to downright bloody. As I mentioned earlier, the movie does throw some cool plot twists and surprises, especially when it comes to the relationship between Shiro and Archer.

Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works is the perfect opportunity to become acquainted with this amazing series and returning fans will find this alternate path an exciting one that doesn’t disappoint in the very least. That said, the weak transitions are noticeable flaws in an otherwise stellar production that makes this story stand on its own. It’s great to see Shiro and Saber in a feature film and Unlimited Blade Works certainly lives up to the main Fate/stay night story that made the series such a blast to watch.

BLU-RAY REVIEW BREAKDOWN

MOVIE/EPISODES: B+
Young high school students Shiro and Rin call upon their Servants to defend themselves from other like them as they are locked in a battle to obtain the power of the Holy Grail that could grant the victor of this savage war with absolute power. However, it is Shiro who is determined to play the role of hero as he and his knightly Servant, Saber, must face off against those who will stop at nothing to obtain the Holy Grail.

VIDEO QUALITY: A
The movie does look good on DVD but the animation in this feature film definitely benefits from the Blu-ray treatment since there’s some soft lighting in certain scenes but other than that the action sequences are simply awesome and so are the visual effects.

AUDIO QUALITY: A-
The original score by Kenji Kawai is absolutely gorgeous and the Japanese voice cast is nothing short of stellar to the point that it will be your favorite way of watching this series. We love the voice talent that Bang Zoom! brings to the table such as Sam Regal, Tony Oliver, Tara Platt and Patrick Seitz but the Japanese voice actors make the dialogue work even better. You’ll also love the theme song at the end of the movie.

EXTRAS: D
There are no real extras to speak of in this DVD release except for a few Sentai Filmworks trailers and a DVD credits feature. We would have really liked an audio commentary track for this movie at least.

OVERALL: B+
Unlimited Blade Works will definitely make a Fate/stay night fan out of you and serves as a great introduction to the main series while giving already established fans something savory enough to satisfy. While the movie doesn’t smoothly transition from scene to scene in certain spots, that doesn’t distract from an overall epic story. This certainly needs to be among your collection, Fate/ stay night, fans.

Review copy provided by Sentai Filmworks