TV Review: The Flash

So there I was, reviewing Arrow, when I thought, “Eh, I might as well cover the rest of the Arrowverse at some point, too.” In which case, I might as well do them in order.

The Flash follows its titular hero, Barry Allen, after he’s struck by a special kind of lightning which gives him the power of super speed. He’s one of the world’s first super-people, or “metahumans,” and he dedicates his life to protecting others, most especially from the rampage of villainous metahumans. Aiding him in his quest are his friends at Star Labs, including Dr. Wells, Francisco Ramone, and Caitlyn Snow, as well as his adopted family, the Wests. The Wests took him in after his father was jailed for his mother’s murder, but Barry saw who really did it: a blur, a man surrounded by lightning. What Barry does not suspect is how close his true enemy really is to him.

As Arrow‘s little sibling, Flash is what turned one show into universe, and one can argue for and against the merits of that change till they’re blue in the face. The point is, it’s very difficult to discuss one show independently of the other, partially because they’ve always relied on each other so much, too much. Flash, however, has largely prospered from the connection, having never been anything else, while we saw what Arrow was before the rest of the Arrowverse came along. Flash has never stood alone. Which is unfortunate, because when it’s not interacting with Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl, The Flash actually does fairly well on its own.

Yes, there are some legitimate flaws. Three seasons in a row, the overarching villain has been 1) a speedster faster than him and 2) someone surprisingly close to Barry. Three seasons in a row, Barry did something stupid that managed to transport them from one mess to another, and he’s beaten himself up about it and been made to face his demons. Three seasons in a row, most major decisions come from Barry’s encounter with the episode’s villain. Three seasons in a row, it’s been all about Barry and Iris getting together in spite of whatever other couplings and obstacles are in the way.

I mentioned how Arrow is too distracted by the spin-offs that comprise the Arrowverse, and The Flash is largely the source of that. The two shows were very different in the beginning, but Arrow became like its little sibling, and while The Flash was lighter and more fun, it imported the theme of heroes being consumed with guilt over their failings, their mistakes, and their inability to save everyone. Basically, the two shows became virtually identical mirror images of each other. And, of course, the endless crossovers don’t really do either show any favors.

The show is, quite simply, not perfect.

But it’s still plenty good.

People, including myself, are generally willing to forgive a lot if we actually like the characters. And we definitely like these characters. They can be idiots at times, but what really sells it, I think, is the emotional depth. Our heroes care very much for each other and the people around them, and they’re genuine friends to the end. That camaraderie opens the way for a very human connection of feeling with the audience. This last season, the third, was easily the best yet, because the story was pushing our heroes to the limit, straining the bonds between them that they fought to preserve, and the audience was right there with them.

Also concerning the characters is the continuing depths the show explores. Perhaps the best example of this is Harrison Wells, who is actually several people instead of just one, the explanation of which involves both time travel and alternate dimensions, but which comes out to there being several versions of one person, and Tom Cavanagh plays all of them brilliantly. In fact, the show is pretty adept at changing the characters, adding to them, developing them, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but always in a way that, within the rules of the Arrowverse, makes sense. Not least of these is how they react as several of them develop superpowers.

Speaking of which, it’s ironic how Arrow has the characters who don’t have superpowers, and lately they’ve just been bulldozing their way through their enemies, while The Flash has so many people with superpowers, yet they think and “mad science” their way out of trouble more often than not. The best fights, I’ve found, aren’t just just an exchange of blows, but a contest of cunning as well. In that, Barry and his team are surprisingly capable. Mind you, their mad science is more like magic than the superpowers are, but the point still stands.

Basically, for all its flaws, I find The Flash to be an entertaining story of lovable characters facing terrible tragedies together and thinking their way towards determined triumph. Oh, and for all the tragedy and heartbreak, the heroes are still plenty bright and funny.

Rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Grade: B-Plus.

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Sunday’s Wisdom # 142: Loyalty

“No matter what will be ruined, we’d never sell out our friends!”
– Master Cat Viper, One Piece
Episode 767, “A Volatile Situation! The Dog and the Cat and the Samurai”

This quote comes from one of my most favorite moments in anime, and one of the most epic as well.

Going into the particulars of this scene and this quote would be both long, detailed, and filled with spoilers. Suffice to say, Master Cat Viper, as he’s called, knows exactly what he speaks of.

He is a leader among his people. They were recently attacked by an evil, amoral, destructive enemy. The conflict reduced their beloved city, a thousand years old, to rubble and ruin, and its conclusion would have resulted in most of their deaths if not for the intervention of fate and extremely good fortune. All of this was done because their enemy was searching for someone, a man, which the enemy believed to be among them. The people, every one, and especially their leaders constantly denied any knowledge of this, even at great personal cost and agony.

Here’s the amazing thing: he was there, and they knew it.

When this is revealed to the series’ main protagonists, they are struck dumb with awe and respect. Tears flow as they realize, every last man, woman, and child among these people had lied. They protected this man, their friend. Their ancient, beautiful city was ruined. They all almost died, and would have if not for the intervention of fate and really good fortune. And still, they held true.

When Master Cat Viper says these words, he’s not speaking metaphorically. He and his people have already put their bodies where their mouths are. They are nothing if not loyal.

As I think about this, I think about civilization. Some people say the foundation of human society is power, or knowledge, or law, or any number of things. I say that the true foundation of civilization is the ties that bind. Family, friendship, honor, loyalty, love, these are the virtues that make a people strong. Cast them aside, and you weaken not only yourself but all of humanity in turn.

Just think, if everyone in the world had such loyalty towards each other, would not the world be a better place?

I certainly know this: to see loyalty like this in others makes me want to be loyal to them, and woe to any who would do them harm.

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TV Review: Doctor Who (Why We Love It)

So… Doctor Who.

First airing back in 1963, the franchise slightly predates Star Trek, and ran practically without interruption until 1989. Then there was a TV movie in 1996. Finally, the series was resurrected and revamped for a modern audience in 2005, inspiring at least three spin-offs in the form of Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and, most recently, Class. That is more than enough time and exposure to firmly entrench Doctor Who as a long-lasting and iconic fixture in the annals of science fiction, utterly dwarfing the tenure and influence of nearly every other franchise that can be named. Many are the pop culture parodies and references.

…so, how is it?

I mean, it’s obviously got to be pretty good, right?

Yes. Yes, it is. It is pretty good.

I can’t really speak for the “classic” Doctor Who, but I have thoroughly enjoyed the modern version. I was lucky enough to catch it right at the beginning, just as it was broadcasting in America for the first time. From our first introduction to Rose Tyler, to the most recent season finale cliffhanger, where the latest Doctor meets the earliest (recast, of course, this being over five decades later), I have followed the show through its countless twists, turns, plots, evolutions, wonders, horrors, tragedies, greetings, and goodbyes. It was a natural addition to my lineup in “This Week on TV.” I most recently posted my thoughts and questions concerning the next Doctor, but this review isn’t about the future, it’s about the past, no matter how “wibbly-wobbly” the Doctor would say time is.

The thing about Doctor Who is, it isn’t just one kind show. It’s a show that becomes slightly different shows as it passes through the years and between lead actors, production crews, and managerial hands. What stays the same is the basic premise: a time traveler from another planet, passing through in his blue box that’s bigger on the inside, helping out, protecting people, stopping monsters, with the help of his trusted friends and companions. What changes is the cast, the texture, the technical aspects, the drama, and where the weight of the show falls most heavily, what it’s really about.

In the original renewal, with Christropher Eccleston and David Tennant taking turns as the lead, the show focused most on the things the Doctor has lost, on his lonely journey through time and space, the last member of an extinct, once-mighty people. When the show changed directors and Matt Smith became the Doctor, the story was about his humanity and compassion, his relationships, and it was as much about his friends as it was about him. In the latest series, featuring Peter Capaldi in the lead, it became much more detached and weaker in a way and felt more about the people around the Doctor than it did about the Doctor himself, and practically everyone who survived their time with him ended up outgrowing the need of him.

So, if it can change so much, what is really constant? What can we expect, and what do the fans really love about it?

We love the characters. After so many of them, especially companions to the Doctor, still they keep surprising us with someone new and unique. The Doctor changes from one character to another, each one brilliant and crazy, but with different quirks and personalities. The villains are clever and powerful and menacing. The new cast we meet with each new episode never grows stale.

We love the adventures. With all of time and space at the Doctor’s disposal, there is limitless excitement to be had, crossing countless worlds, meeting new races, exploring intriguing civilizations, facing dangers the likes of which most mere mortals would tremble to behold. Facing dreadful, terrifying monsters that annihilate worlds or devour children.

We love the inspiration and emotion. Always, the Doctor takes a stand for those who lack the power to stand for themselves. Always, he tries to save everyone. Always, driven to inhuman feats of genius and daring by his human devotion to a morality that is based on compassion and rightness, always does the Doctor stand triumphant in the end. Sometimes, at very high costs to himself, his friends, and the people he is trying to save.

In short: we love the stories.

And, as much more as there is to say, that is the best place to end.

Rating: 9 stars out of 10.

Grade: A-minus.

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Book Review: The Wolf of the North

If you’ve seen The Princess Bride – and if you have not, then I suggest you go and do so without delay – you will remember the scene at the beginning, when the grandfather, who proves to be the narrator of the story, describes the story he has come to read to his grandson. The boy is skeptical, but the older man excitedly describes, “Fencing! Fighting! Chases! Escapes! Giants! Revenge! True love! Miracles!” I feel a bit like that grandfather right now.

The Wolf of the North is the first novel in a series of the same name, by Duncan M. Hamilton. It’s an adventure, a fantasy, and it’s a love story. It follows an intricate series of events over the course of several years, weaving a compelling, spellbinding tale of greed, honor, intrigue, love, revenge, justice, war, disaster, heroism, villainy – you can see where I feel like the grandfather from Princess Bride right now – and the changing of an era, a land, and a people. And this is only the beginning of the story.

I liked it. Can you tell? 😉

Like Princess Bride, the story begins with the narrator. He is called the Maisterspeaker. It is his job to tell stories, and this is a story most important to him, right now, as he is a part of it, and, in fact, he is living its conclusion. With a little time to spare, and with his mind filled with the past that has helped bring him here, he begins to tell the story, in its entirety, to the locals, who are, like the rest of us, quickly enraptured by the telling of it.

It begins in the village of Leondorf, in a land akin to old Germania or Scandinavia in Medieval Europe. There we find a young lad named Wulfric, who will one day be known as Ulfyr. We hear, in the beginning, the names of his legendary companions, but if they are seen in this story, then they don’t have those names yet either. For now, he is a boy, and we follow as he becomes a man. Just that, alone, is an epic tale in and of itself.

Through a complicated series of events, all driven by believable characters, the village of Leondorf is plunged into a terrible crisis, one that is only endured with great cost. The results of these events have dire long-term ramifications for the entire region and the people within. More immediately, though, before, during, and after the crisis, the dearest wish to Wulfric’s heart is to marry the girl he loves: Adalhaid. But even something so simple and precious as true love is a prize not easily won. Time and again, it seems the world means to tear them apart, but it is the final time, when their separation is the result of nothing more than petty, spiteful, greedy scheming of lesser men with greater influence, which is too much to be born. If the world stands between Wulfric and Adalhaid, then the world had best get out of the way if it knows what’s good for it.

That, alas, is where the novel ends. It’s probably the best stopping point which could be asked for, but a bit of me still wants to bash Hamilton on the head with his own book for the cliffhanger! 😛 And I am eager and greedy for the next book, Jorundyr’s Path, which is already out and which I am barely exercising patience in obtaining.

I absolutely enjoyed this book.

It was great seeing Wulfric’s development from a bullied boy into a man that, really, any other man would be in his right mind to beware of. He had lessons to learn, more than how to be physically strong. He had to learn about being a man, and a good one at that. He still has much to learn about people, but he’s well on his way.

I usually mention the characters, and I loved this lot too. …well, mostly. I absolutely hated the people I was supposed to hate, the real villains, but that, too, was very well done. The decisions which proved pivotal, like the hinges on which a door swings, were all believable and easy to comprehend because we understood the people making them, good and bad alike. The world felt lived in rather than just constructed, and the people felt like they were actually living instead of just being there.

There was exactly one point I felt a little iffy about, and that was the status of the warriors. I understand they were the northern equivalent of knights, being raised in status because they fought in the village’s defense. What I lacked understanding was how the rest of the villagers could be so helpless. This is wild land they’re in, with neighbors who are not always friendly. I would actually expect farmers and ranchers to be able to take care of themselves a bit. Perhaps not like trained, armed warriors, but capable of hunting and fighting for themselves. Even women in warrior cultures could often fight to protect their homes and children.

Lacking such, I was waiting for Wulfric or someone else to think of solving a serious problem they have by, you know, training the rest of the village in fighting, if only a little. Not only would they swell the ranks of their fighters, but it would certainly unite them, as everyone was fighting for their village together. But… that didn’t happen. Not at all. It was a bit disappointing to have something so obvious go unnoticed.

But, I suppose if they’d done that, they may never have been able to have a situation like they have at the end of the novel.

Outside that detail, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I’m not only looking forward to the next book in the series, I’m wanting to read everything else Hamilton has published.

Rating: 9 stars out of 10.

Grade: solid A.

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Anime Review: Sword Art Online

Be warned: Spoiler Alert!

As this anime has been out for a few years, and a proper discussion involves how people have reacted to it, which involves exactly what they are reacting to, I will not be nearly so careful about spoilers as I usually am.

When I first heard about Sword Art Online – SAO for short – and watched the first episode, it looked like it would be .hack//Sign on steroids. It’s the second anime I ever saw that used the idea of trapping players within a virtual game, turning it into something real, but SAO does it on a much larger scale. Instead of one player being trapped by what eventually (in the manga and games) turned out to be a computer program that became a computer virus, instead we now had ten thousand players trapped in the game’s fantasy world by its own creator.

With a setup like that, the first episode, the first few episodes, in fact, promised us a thrilling, gripping adventure with extremely high stakes as all these people have to fight through the entire game just to survive.

Oh yeah, this was going to be epic!

…and then it just fell far short.

Sword Art Online gets a lot of hate even from its own fans, and I think it comes down to how it began as one thing, and then it became something completely different. It was original, and then it became formulaic and predictable. It was strong and complex, and then it became weaker and simpler. We still like the anime, but it made promises, and did not keep them.

The most spoiler-free example is the first storyline’s overarching villain.

I remember, right after watching the first episode, I excitedly described it to my best friend. His first and only question to me was, “Why is the villain doing this? What’s his motivation?” I didn’t know, of course. It was the first episode. I figured we’d get to that in due time. Except… we don’t. I’ve watched the entire series, it’s been out for years, and I still do not know. In fact, when the villain was straight-up asked, near the end of his plot, he says, “I’ve forgotten.” So, after all he’s done, the people he’s murdered, even he doesn’t know why?! Come on! What kind of reward is that for the audience?

Now, going into more specifics.

When the story begins, it’s basically the ideal setting for a tale about human nature, both good and bad, in extreme situations of life and loss. There’s definitely a main character, Kirito, but there are plenty of other awesome characters as well. Some of them die, and some of them live, but for the first little while, the story feels like it follows Kirito without being solely about him.

And then, somehow, the show becomes far too Kirito-centric. It’s always what he’s doing. It’s always about him and his glory. It’s always him being chosen to save the day. And it’s always his righteous, screaming anger and sanctimonious speeches that hog the limelight. The other characters are all relegated to background characters, popping up when it’s convenient, but almost never being important ever again.

Nowhere is that more keenly felt than with Kirito’s love interest, Asuna. She begins as a strong, independent woman whose relationship with Kirito is both believable and adorable. Then, almost every moment where she ought to have triumphed is taken away from her. When she saves Kirito from a traitor, she dominates that fight, but then she makes a careless error and needs Kirito to save her. Then they turn her even more into a damsel in distress when he has to go on a quest to save her and she’s all but helpless on her own. When she finally, towards the end of the anime, has her own storyline to follow, even then, Kirito is popping up to save her. Heck, even her love story with Kirito is undermined as the show shifts towards a harem storyline where Kirito saves every girl he meets and they all fall for him.

So, what do we have thus far? The villain is undeveloped, the main character dominates the spotlight too much, the other characters become irrelevant even after stellar introductions and developments, and the female lead is robbed of the limelight she should be sharing with her man.

And the whole point of Sword Art Online just says, over and over and over again, “The game is real.” What we do in the game is real. How we play the game is real. Why we play the game is real. The relationships we make in the game are real. The things we feel in the game are real. The person that we are in the game is real.

Yes. We know. We get it. You don’t need to repeat it so much, SAO. We heard you already.

Oh, and they even managed to make it all about feelings and willpower overcoming everything else. When Kirito is on the brink of death, for instance, there was an item from and earlier episode which could have saved his life. But they didn’t use it. It would have been so easy. Instead, they just had him miraculously hanging on with a will to live, as if all the other people who died would not have wanted to live just as much.

Really, SAO? Really?

So, with all of this working against it, why is it still so popular, even among people who hate on it?

Well, it’s many flaws notwithstanding, it’s still pretty fun to watch. It doesn’t do so great when you follow it from beginning to end, but each story arch has its own endearing charms and epic moments. The first arch is more than a little choppy, but still emotionally gripping. The adventure Kirito shares with his cousin as he fights to save Asuna is fun. The change-up when he moves to a game based on guns instead of swords and magic is interesting. The emotional impact of Asuna’s almost-independent adventure had me tearing up. And so it goes.

And the fights and drama really were fairly entertaining, most of the time.

So, in summary:

Sword Art Online is flawed in ways both obvious and numerous, but somehow it’s just so fun that we tend to forgive it even as we hate on it. It’s dramatic and packed with action. It has characters we love. It’s often pretty funny. It has sick, nasty villains we love to see getting thrashed. The music is awesome. And the theme of our behavior in a game being as real as our behavior in the real world is fairly pointed and perhaps necessary these days.

All in all, I like it, and a bit of me loves it, even when I hate it.

Rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Grade: B-Minus.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #141: Do Not Dream in Vain

“They all dreamed of the glory victory would bring, none more than Wulfric, but dreaming alone would not bring it about.”
– From The Wolf in the North, by Duncan M. Hamilton

This is from a book I just recently read and enjoyed, and you can expect a review fairly soon. 🙂

Wulfric, the main character, is a typical teenage boy at this moment in the story. He’s been bullied until fairly recently, but having gained some real-world experience with life and death, he’s also gained a little backbone and drive to succeed. As he’s about to enter his first competition alongside the other boys, he’s reflecting on what he wants, and that is simple: he wants to show his home village, especially the girl he has feelings for, that he is not the weakling he used to be. He doesn’t need anyone’s pity anymore. He’s becoming a man, a strong, young man.

So, in addition to the local fame he can gain, he hopes to impress her.

He’s been learning, however, that wanting something, and dreaming about it, that alone does not get the job done. True, no job gets done at all without the desire to do it, but unless that desire is turned into the drive to do the work necessary for it, it will remain nothing more than a dream.

Sometimes, even then, it’s not enough. Which every boy in the competition learns, Wulfric among them. He was determined to win, but he lost focus for a moment, trying to show off for the girl instead of winning the competition. So, he didn’t win. He lost, and was humbled by the experience. All the more so because he knew going in that he had to give it his all, but he still failed to do so.

He failed to win, and he failed to impress.

He was, for a moment, too busy dreaming to actually do what he dreamed of doing.

The lesson Wulfric learned, besides humility, was the discipline of focusing on the task at hand. And that is how he was eventually able to achieve what he dreamed of.

Eventually, Wulfric becomes a great warrior, famous and renowned throughout the land, and loved by the woman he loves. This was undoubtedly an important step in that direction.

The same holds true for us and our dreams.

If we dream only, we dream in vain.

But if we dream and do something about it… who knows? We might just succeed.

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TV Review: Castle

I am going to start this review by jumping into the middle first: when I say Castle isn’t that special of a show, I want you to understand my full meaning.

At first glance, and second glance, and third glance, Castle may very well be just like every other crime show with a gimmicky twist out there. They’re all over the place, really, and they have been for decades. The Mentalist, Numb3rs, Bones, FBEye, the NCIS franchise, the one with a woman who has a photographic memory, and the upcoming Deception are just among the latest crop. Before them, there was Martial Law and Walker: Texas Ranger. Before that, Diagnosis MurderFather Dowling Mysteries, and Matlock. Before that, Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. And before that, Perry Mason. Really, there’s so many, and most of them feature quirks ranging from the simple to the complex: a lawyer or a doctor doing the detective work, an obsessive-compulsive detective, a foreigner joining the local police in a task force, someone deaf, someone with a specific skill set, and so on and so forth.

Castle quite obviously draws on and renews the idea of Murder, She Wrote, where a writer is solving genuine murder mysteries. So, it’s not really that different from a host of other quirk-based crime shows, none of which are particularly different from the rest. They may have their own taste and texture, but they all hail from the same family of dishes.

Another common trick with crime shows, especially the more recent additions to the genre, is to have something personal driving at least one of the protagonists, generally a personal grudge with a criminal adversary. The Mentalist, Martial Law, and apparently Deception all use that trick, and so does Castle. So, again, it’s not that different.

If what you are wanting is “different,” then you’d best not bother with any stories in any genre at all. It’s all the same, really, when you get down to it.

The trick is, simply, making it entertaining anyway. And that is where Castle, like many of its peers, delivers.

That’s why we love it. Not because it’s one of a kind, but because, whatever the similarities, it’s fun and thrilling and sometimes even heart-warming to watch.

Castle follows the adventures of its titular character, mystery novelist Richard Castle, alongside his partner and romantic interest, homicide detective Kate Beckett, as well as their close friends and family. They deal with murder cases almost on a weekly basis, often unusual in some way, exploring some niche of our culture. The encounter serial killers, some of them more than once. They also, over the course of the entire series, eight seasons long, follow the shadowy tendrils of a conspiracy all the way to the very heart of it within the halls of government power, and it all begins with Beckett’s lifelong quest to find, and bring to justice, the people responsible for her mother’s murder.

Also over the course of eight seasons, in addition to Beckett’s success and the development of Castle and Beckett’s relationship, we see Castle’s daughter grow up and become a vibrant, capable woman, we see his eccentric mother eventually find her calling in life, we see how Castle and Beckett each became who they are, and we see their friends and fellow officers develop relationships of their own, one even starting a family with the woman he meets and marries within the show’s story. In short, the characters become like family to each other, and together they go through the long, bumpy road of life, doing good deeds as they serve the community.

So it’s less “distant,” you could say, and more personal. We love the characters, we love the story, we love the humor, the heroes, the villains, the plots and subplots, the drama, the tension, the suspense, the action, the mystery. It makes for a show where most episodes are able to stand on their own, but the narrative develops constantly from beginning to end, avoiding that episodic feel which I personally dislike.

Do I like this show? Oh, yes. I do. I binged the entire thing when I was first introduced to it, a few years ago, and I was not remotely tired of it when my binge was concluded.

I do feel like they took their sweet time getting Castle and Beckett together, but I’ve seen much worse. It was more like putting the romantic tension on a slow boil and letting it simmer, rather than either boiling it too quickly or letting it go stagnant.

They may have also been reaching a bit in the concluding season, not least because of behind-the-scenes drama, but that just meant they got more creative and developed the characters ever more while still keeping things fresh. I very much approve! 🙂

In short: I found Castle to be riveting and entertaining, gripping and hilarious, from beginning to end. I am happy to own the entire series.

Rating: 9 stars out of 10.

Grade: solid A.

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Anime Review: Castlevania

I had absolutely zero hopes for Netflix’s Castlevania anime. None. At all. Whatsoever. I think I only began watching it solely because of my unruly curiosity. So, safe to say my expectations were pretty low.

On which note: provided you are jumping over it instead of playing limbo, it is very easy to clear a bar set so low that it’s actually just laying there on the ground. 😉

I can’t say it’s fantastic or anything, but, somehow, it’s actually… not that bad.

Actually, the first completely objective criticism I have is that the first season is too short. There’s only so much one can do with four episodes instead of, say, a dozen. While there are certainly flaws, it generally says something good when the immediate complaint is, “It’s too short.”

The story follows the most iconic of all vampires, Dracula, as he wages war against the nation, the religion, the people, even the very species which murdered his beloved wife. Or at least, the first episode does.

Then, for the next three episodes, it suddenly shifts to Trevor Belmont, the last survivor of an outcast family of demon hunters, as he tries to mind his own business amidst the nation-wide slaughter which is courtesy of Dracula’s unleashed horde. Unfortunately for him, his conscience isn’t quite dead yet, no matter how cynical, selfish, and disillusioned he is. Over the course of the story, or at least this beginning part of it, he comes to care again, albeit in a somewhat cold, practical way. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say he begins to see what is worthwhile in humanity as he sees the same in himself. Either way, he steps up as a defender of humanity, both the people and the principle, in a most desperate hour.

Joining him, and partially inspiring him, in this journey is the mystic scholar, Sypha. They didn’t throw her use of magic right in our face to start with, but I should have figured she’d be a sorceress of some sort. It’s just how fantasy often works, ya know? Especially in Castlevania, the female heroes are always mystics. But I digress. She provides not only a different skill set but a different perspective to Trevor. She might be a little idealistic and unquestioning in her faith, but she has a determination born of hope, and she’s able help rekindle some hope within him.

Complicating matters for Trevor and Sypha, making things even more difficult in the face of Dracula’s would-be genocide, is the corruption of the local church authorities. Not only are they a disgrace to the name of all Christianity, but they actually believe their own lies and have faith in their delusions of grandeur. It is this bull-headed lunacy which drove them to destroy their most competent allies against the powers of Hell, both the Belmont family and Sypha’s people, crowned with the murder of Dracula’s bride, a woman of science, whom they called a witch. In short, they have thoroughly crafted their own demise, which they blame on everyone else, and stubbornly refuse to listen to their critics.

So, the humans’ side is not so innocent, but still, Dracula’s edict of their destruction is born only of his wrath, his pain. It is without limit, sparing no one, no matter how guilty or innocent. This, not the demons he calls up, is what makes his work the purpose of Hell itself. He is taking his agony and unleashing extinction.

A final member of the cast, classic to the video game franchise the anime is based on, is Alucard, the son of Dracula. He stands against his father not for the sake of the humans, but for his mother’s sake. This destruction, this hatred, this unrelenting bloodshed, this is not what Alucard’s mother would want, not for the people, and not for her husband. So he stands as an enemy to his father’s goal, a move which nearly got him killed the first time around. This time, as he returns from his recuperation, he is bringing along help: Trevor and Sypha.

So, there’s a lot that happens, but it’s only the beginning of the tale.

In fact, I would say too much happens. The dialogue, even in Japanese, felt like it was delivered quickly and without pause, going over philosophy and exposition in rapid fire without really letting the mood settle. It was just like a game, you go, have a quick talk, get a quest, and off you go.

And, again, this is only the beginning of the story. It barely begins before it ends in a mild cliffhanger. They could have taken a little more time and made it a bit longer, ya know?

Still, for rushing, they manage to make an intriguing mess of intrigue. Dracula, his son, the Church, the Belmonts, Sypha’s people, the locals, everyone has their own side in this. The story is both richer and more intricate than I’d imagined.

It looked like the show would basically be a bloodbath. Instead, we got a fairly good story’s beginning. The action was well done too, not nearly so over-the-top and bloody as I’d feared, though, in fairness, it was quite bloody. It strained credulity only a little, and was generally realistic.

I make exception for when Trevor finally rallies the people to defend themselves – oh, what an idea, actually fighting for your own lives with your own hands instead of waiting for someone else to do it for you – and they have everything they need ready instantly, despite how the demons descended on them while they were running around in the form of a mob. That was a detail which made me roll my eyes.

Overall, though, I have to say… I actually want to finish Castlevania, whenever the studios finish producing it. It’s not perfect, and it’s not “great” just yet, but it’s not that bad. Not meant for the younger portion of the audience, of course, but still, not bad.

Rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Grade: solid B.

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Anime Review: Gargoyle of Yoshinaga House

Airing back in 2006, Gargoyle of Yoshinaga House is a child-level dramatic comedy, featuring the adventures which surround its titular character. Named “Gar,” short for gargoyle, he is a living statue, modeled as a winged wolf, who acts as a guardian, or “gatekeeper,” of the Yoshinaga household. Between himself, the family, their friends, and their community, things get pretty hilarious, and usually in a way that is ridiculously child-friendly.

By that last, I mean that there are some things which are technically dangerous happening, but one eventually learns that there’s no real need for tension. Nobody gets hurt. Everybody comes home perfectly safe. And there are only two “bad” people in the series who are actually bad.

But, it also has one joke I can think of which is not exactly child-appropriate, featuring a magician-like thief who frequently steals the bra off a particular woman. Which, personally, I think is less humorous and less child-friendly, rather trivializing something that, in the real world, would be grounds for a sexual harassment charge.

Outside that, however, the entirety of the show is quite certainly crafted with children in mind. The result is pretty campy, not always in a way that works, but still pretty funny at times. Being so childish and campy, I wasn’t really able to binge the entire series all at once, but I was never averse to watching the next episode in a little while. What I enjoyed outweighed what annoyed. And speaking of what I enjoyed…

Most obviously, there’s Gar. As an artificial creature created through alchemy, his perspective on people was interesting, and I enjoyed the obvious honor he sought to live up to within his station. His interactions with the Yoshinaga family – a talkative, ridiculous father, a quiet mother of surprising physical ferocity, a soft-spoken son, and, the main character of the bunch, Futaba, a violent tomboy of a young daughter – were very entertaining, and the primary force behind the development of Gar as a character. It’s not easy making a talking statue an entertaining lead character, but they did it.

Also, Gar and the Yoshinagas develop relationships with some other colorful characters. There’s an obscenely wealth businessman, with a host of maids, who used alchemy and technology to create his own talking statue, modeled after a winged lion. There’s the phantom thief I mentioned earlier, who rescued a young girl about Futaba’s age, Lily, from her evil mad scientist father. Lily has another guardian angel of sorts in a headless robot her father built, called Dullahan. There’s an alchemist who creates a plant-based woman, rather stupidly named Osiris (really, you named a plant-woman after the Egyptian king of the underworld?). And, of course, there’s the alchemical mad scientist who built Gar in the first place. Toss in all the “normal” people of their local community, both a colorful cast that runs a nearby shopping district, and the statues and animals which Gar can converse with, and it’s a pretty lively neighborhood the Yoshinagas live in.

Which goes into something I really like about this anime. It follows a handful of people, but it feels more like it’s about this amazing, friendly community. Incredible things happen here every day, especially with the introduction of Gar and the host of people and creatures interested in him. They all show respect and love to him and to each other, and so they’re like one big, happy family.

Is this a particularly epic anime? No. No, it’s not. But not every anime needs to be. Not every story needs to feature endless drama, danger, and tension. It is a touch disappointing when they sort of promise things like that, and then don’t deliver. But, really, this story doesn’t need all of that in the first place.

I can’t say I loved this show. But I like it. I like it fairly well.

Rating: 7 stars out of 10.

Grade: C-Minus.

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Sunday’s Wisdom #140: Small Problems

“It’s so easy to get lost inside
A problem that seems so big at the time.
It’s like a river that’s so wide
It swallows you whole.”
– from “So Small” by Carrie Underwood

This is one of the earlier songs produced by the popular country artist, who has since become an icon within the industry. The lyrics are about how often the troubles of our life, the ones that we think are ready to swallow us whole and destroy us, sometimes aren’t so great. When we’re inside it, it’s all we can see, but that doesn’t make it all there is.

Problems are often smaller than they appear to be from inside them.

The music video for this song uses examples of familial discord, of fighting and arguing with one’s loved ones. A painful thing, to be sure, feeling strife with a parent, a spouse, a family, but it’s not the end of the world. It applies to a number of other situations, though. It could be depression, or unemployment, or a terrible accident, or the loss of a loved one, or the pain of failure in something important to us, or the trauma of being hurt by someone else, or an infinite number of other possibilities. The point remains the same.

There are few pains so great that we can’t live through them.

Where there is life, there is hope.

Where there is love, there is life.

Sometimes all we need is to take a step back, away from the problem. Step outside the river. Take the time to look upriver and downriver, and away from the river. Stop worrying about everything you can’t change, start looking for things you can.

Most of all, remember what is most important. Use that as your compass, and ask yourself what else really matters. Some problems may turn out devastating, and the pain of that is very real. But focus first on what’s most important. Do that, and let all the other problems fall where they will. Do otherwise, and you may well lose the most valuable thing you have in this life, because you were too occupied with something else.

And remember: all troubles will eventually pass. Focus, use your head, keep going, hold onto what’s most important, and eventually you may just find yourself looking back and thinking, “That was not nearly so bad as I thought it was at the time.”

As the refrain says, “Sometimes that mountain you’ve been climbing is just a grain of sand.”

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