Review: Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1

Once upon a time, Xie Lian was the beloved crown prince of a beautiful kingdom, who ascended to godhood in his teens. But then he interfered in mortal affairs, made things worse, and was cast out. He ascended to godhood a second time… and was kicked out again.

And in “Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1,” we find out what happens when this unfortunate godling ascends to deityhood for the third time. This donghua series (think anime, but Chinese) based on Mo Xiang Tong Xiu’s novels of the same name, is a slow-burn that mingles romance with a uniquely Chinese brand of high fantasy, where the powerful or virtuous can become deities, but the tormented and tragic may become something else.

Upon his third ascension to godhood, Xie Lian discovers that nothing has really changed – he’s deeply in debt, and none of the other gods like or respect him. The usual way to pay off his debt is by receiving merits from the worship of mortals… except people stopped worshiping him eight hundred years ago. But there is another way – he can investigate a certain mysterious problem on a rural mountain, where seventeen brides have been abducted by a mysterious “ghost groom.”

With the assistance of the sulky, combative Fu Yao and Nan Feng, he goes undercover to find out what is abducting the girls – and ends up being escorted up the mountain by a handsome, mysterious stranger dressed all in red, who turns into a swarm of silver butterflies. But that man was NOT the ghost groom – which leaves Xie Lian to uncover the horror that lives atop the mountain. To make matters worse, the locals are also searching for the ghost groom, which only makes things more complicated when things inevitably go pear-shaped.

After that, Xie Lian decides to set up a shrine to himself in an abandoned shack, with the help of a young man named San Lang, who is very obviously not what he pretends to be. But trouble finds Xie Lian again when someone tries to trick him into going to the Half Moon Pass in the Gobi desert, near the dead city-state of Banyue. Even weirder, the other gods seem to avoid talking about this.

Along with San Lang, Fu Yao and Nan Feng, he sets out to the pass to find out what’s going on there, and ends up encountering a sandstorm, a few dozen merchants… and a cave full of scorpion-snakes. But that’s only the beginning of the undying terrors that still dwell in Banyue, killing anyone unlucky enough to pass through. And soon Xie Lian realizes that someone in Banyue has a very strong connection to him.

I personally like my romance stories with a heavy dose of plot, which makes “Heaven Official’s Blessing” perfectly balanced – even if the slow-blooming romance weren’t part of the story, it would still be a solid fantasy-horror series with gods, ghosts, goblins, zombies, and a really freaky undead face in the ground. The ethereal beauty of the lead characters and their sparkling heavens is a stark contrast to the nightmarish creatures that lurk in the mortal world below.

It’s also a fantasy that feels distinct from its anime cousins – its world and cosmology are uniquely Chinese, drawing heavily from Taoism and other Chinese beliefs. The two supernatural mysteries are pretty well-developed, both horrifying and yet tragic, and the stories occasionally slow down a little for either some mild comic relief (Fu Yao and Nan Feng’s constant fighting) or an ethereal romantic moment between Xie Lian and his mysterious red-clad man of the silver butterflies.

The animation is quite lovely for the most part, with some really beautiful moments standing out in the Puqi Temple or when the red-clad man escorts Xie Lian up the mountain. The only area where it falls down is when CGI is inserted, usually where it’s not needed. It’s very clunky.

Xie Lian is an easy character to like – perpetually unlucky and unpopular, yet unfailingly earnest and kind to everyone around him (as long as they don’t beat up girls). Howard Wang gives him a low-key, soothing kind of voice even when he’s upset. The mysterious Hua Cheng (whose identity is blatantly obvious) makes for a solid love interest, and the cast is rounded out by Fu Yao and Nan Feng, a couple of clashing, abrasive young men who actually do care about the disgraced prince.

“Heaven Official’s Blessing: Season 1” is an animated show that perfectly balances out a slow-growing romance, beautiful animation, and solid fantasy/horror. For those seeking an alternative to anime, this might do the trick.

Subverting Expectations and “Mob Psycho 100”

People don’t talk as much about it now, but for a few years it felt like aspiring critics (and some actual bad critics) were wibbling on constantly about stuff “subverting expectations,” which they treated as if it were the Holy Grail of storytelling. The actual quality of the storytelling in question was rarely actually examined – all they cared about was that the showrunners and directors didn’t give audiences what they wanted or expected.

Thankfully, the end of Game of Thrones seems to have killed the popularity of this trend, as I haven’t heard much about it for awhile. I will admit that I still hear it pop up occasionally when a failed intellectual sings the praises of The Last Jedi.

And yes, I’m going to go there – I’m going to say that The Last Jedi sucks. It is not subverting the audience’s expectations to create whole subplots and characters in a movie that ultimately achieve nothing and lead to nothing. That is just wasting the audience’s time, and the fact that people expected competent storytelling – and were disappointed – doesn’t make it genius when that expectation is subverted.

Simply put, people like the Game of Thrones showrunners and Rian Johnson are the sort of people who like to break things for the sake of breaking them, because that is what subversion for its own sake is. That doesn’t lead to good storytelling.

But… subverting expectations is not always horrendously bad. It can be done well – it just usually isn’t.

That brings me to Mob Psycho 100.

In case you haven’t seen it, Mob Psycho 100 is an anime series centering on Mob, a young boy with apocalyptically strong psychic powers that are unleashed when his repressed emotions reach 100%. Despite his powers, Mob’s personal life is filled with very relatable concerns – he wants to be popular, he wants to win the affection of his first love, he wants to improve himself physically, and he works a part-time job with a con-artist pretending to be psychic.

So how does this show subvert your expectations? Well, that happens in the second episode, which is about a Telepathy Club at Mob’s school attempting to enlist him so that they won’t be abolished and lose their meeting room. If they don’t enlist another member – and Mob is their only potential candidate – the room will be given over to the Body Improvement Club, a gathering of musclebound jocks.

Anyone familiar with anime – or high-school settings in general – would probably expect the episode to end with Mob joining the good-hearted oddballs in the Telepathy Club, saving the day and protecting the club from the intrusive, probably bullying jocks. But… it doesn’t.

Throughout the episode, we see that the Telepathy Club is less a bunch of open-minded oddballs being picked on by the establishment, and more a bunch of slackers who hang out and eat junk food. At the end of the episode, he joins the Body Improvement Club instead, and it’s revealed that rather than arrogant bullies intruding on the club, the Body Improvement Club is actually made up of very nice, good-hearted guys who happily welcome a new member to their club.

Part of the reason that this works is that the episode doesn’t waste your time, as The Last Jedi does. It’s lean and well-written, with every scene ultimately serving a purpose in the narrative. Furthermore, when you get to the end, you can look back on everything that happened before, and realize, “Oh yeah, that makes sense now.”

But another way in which it succeeds in subverting your expectations is because those expectations are based on tropes and cliches, not in subverting the story progression up to that point. At no point does Mob Psycho 100‘s second episode try to overturn what has been previously established, as The Last Jedi and Game of Thrones did. So it doesn’t need to twist characters or waste build-up – all it needs to do is tell a familiar story from a different angle.

Here’s an example – take the Chekov’s Gun. In the first act, we focus on an antique rifle on a mantlepiece, and mention that it is the only weapon that can kill vampires. In a Rian Johnson movie, the third act would have someone irreparably break it, and toss it out like so much garbage. A waste of your time, and bad storytelling.

So the lesson is… avoid most media that “subverts your expectations,” and focus instead on stuff like Mob Psycho 100. Embrace media that wants to tell a good story first and foremost, and has expectation subversion as a natural and organic part of the process rather than an attempt to flip a table into the audience’s faces.

So… watch Mob Psycho 100. It’s really good.

Recommendation: Ghost Hunt

Like many people, I like anime. I’m not one of those people into super-obscure or niche stuff, but I enjoy anime like My Hero Academia, Bleach, Inuyasha, Fruits Basket, Fairy Tail, etc. I used to be into Naruto and Dragonball, until I realized that both of them were ass-numbingly long and I didn’t really like the characters very much.

And one of the lesser-known anime I love is Ghost Hunt, a series that adds a more professional, sometimes more factual aspect to the usual supernatural shenanigans of Japanese urban fantasy. It gets a little silly towards the end (one of the final episodes has a Catholic priest PUNCHING GHOSTS), but it’s an overall enjoyable series that mingles urban fantasy, horror, and a hint of romance.

It follows a young girl named Mai, who accidentally runs into a supernatural detective agency who are investigating a supposedly-haunted building at the school she attends. She accidentally wrecks some of their equipment and injures the assistant, so she ends up working for the paranormal investigator Kazuya Shibuya, whom she nicknames “Naru” because she thinks he’s a narcissist. There are also three other exorcists called in: the not-very-monkly Buddhist monk Hosho, the rarely-successful Shinto shrine maiden Ayako, and the perpetually mellow Catholic priest John Brown. Oh, and there’s a TV medium named Masako, who’s condescending and nasty and can’t take a hint that a man is disinterested in her, and Naru’s assistant Lin, who’s kind of weird and distant from Mai.

As a group, they investigate a number of paranormal cases, including a haunted doll and a child being terrorized, the seemingly-haunted school, a strict school where a girl threatened to curse people, a school game with potentially deadly consequences, a labyrinthine house, and a family being haunted by ancient spirits. There are also some slightly lighter stories, one of them about a child’s spirit possessing Mai, and a ghost that splashes water on couples. The last one is more funny than spooky.

Be forewarned: this series is in fact quite horrific at times, ranging from merely being uncomfortably eerie to having bloody ghosts emerging from walls in a cursed mansion. It’s also a slow-burner for most of its run, with long stretches of talking about equipment, psychic phenomena (and sometimes the fakery of it), psychology, Japanese folk magic, and so on. It’s not boring – there are strange occurrences fairly frequently, and the banter between the characters keeps the energy moving – but it’s not a big splashy anime. It takes its time, as it is a mystery show of sorts.

Review: My Hero Academia Season Four Volume One

The world of superheroing has changed forever, because the Symbol of Peace has stepped down into retirement… and his successor isn’t really ready to take up his mantle. In fact, Izuku Midoriya is only just entering the world of professional superheroes, and he has a lot to learn.

And he jumps into the deep end in “My Hero Academia Season Four Volume One,” which follows a handful of the Class 1-A students onto Hero Work Studies. No, not like their last internships — these ones take them right into the thick of superhero action, while also introducing a sinister new enemy with a very different kind of evil plan. And, you know, a colorful array of new superhero characters.

Izuku becomes determined to do his Hero Work Studies internship with Sir Nighteye, the straitlaced and grim former sidekick of All Might. Unfortunately, Nighteye has a personal dislike of Midoriya, believing that he is an unworthy successor for All Might; though he allows the boy to join his agency as an intern, he is still convinced that the talented and disciplined Mirio is the right kid for the job.

This puts Izuku in the middle of Nighteye’s investigation into the Shie Hassaikai, a yakuza organization run by the sinister Overhaul — and it becomes personal when he stumbles across a small girl named Eri, whom Overhaul is keeping captive. At the same time, Kirishima encounters bullets that can temporarily erase people’s quirks, which Nighteye believes are connected to the Shie Hassaikai and the little girl.

This investigation leads to a massive team-up of heroes and their interns — including Izuku, Ochaco, Asui, Kirishima and the Big Three — attempting to take down the Shie Hassaikai and rescue Eri. But they find that Overhaul is prepared for their attack, with the vicious Eight Precepts of Death ready to kill anyone who tries to stop their master. And that’s not even taking into consideration that Overhaul is ridiculously powerful himself, or that he has a connection to the League of Villains.

Just a warning: if you’re a big fan of the Class 1-A students other than Izuku, Ochaco, Asui or Kirishima, you’re not going to have much of your favorites this half-season. It focuses far less on school-related antics and more on professional superheroing with actual pros, which gets moderately dark, graphic and violent. You can tell things are going to get nasty when Overload casually liquefies someone’s upper body (and no, I won’t say whose).

The first half of the arc is a relatively slow burn, balancing between the mundane detective work the heroes are doing and the complicated relationships between All Might, Midoriya and Nighteye. And once the infiltration starts, the series goes full shonen, focusing on a series of fights between Overload’s powerful goons and the various heroes and teenagers. Lots of punching, lots of blood, lots of giant octopus tentacles, lots of weird wibbling wobbling corridors.

Izuku also has to face some personal obstacles in this arc, discovering that Nighteye dislikes him as the One For All holder, and wants him to fail. This also leads to some friction with All Might, and the discovery that his mentor has been keeping a dark secret about himself. Kirishima also experiences some growth as a character, as we see him struggling to use his abilities to fight villains, even as we see what spurs him on to be a hero despite his lack of a flashy Quirk.

And there are a number of smaller stories being juggled — Sir Nighteye’s tragic fallout with All Might and the present distance between the two men, Mirio’s conflict with Overhaul to save Eri, the presence of the friendly and orb-shaped Fatgum, and Tamaki’s struggle to overcome his crippling social awkwardness and turn his Quirk into a devastating power. You know he’s a brilliant hero when he can take on three powerful Quirk users at the same time.

Compared to the arcs that came before, “My Hero Academia Season Four Volume One” is focused less on school and more on the dark and bloody business of pro superheroing. A great balance of powerful emotion and explosive action.

Review: My Hero Academia Season 2

Izuku “Deku” Midoriya has done the impossible — he has gained a powerful Quirk and made it into the top hero school in the world. He’s even fought villains, even though his Quirk shatters his bones when he uses it.

But his life promises to get a lot more complex in “My Hero Academia Season 2,” which crams together a few shonen anime standbys (a tournament, strength training with an old master) even as it spins up a truly harrowing, bloodsoaked subplot. Not only does the anime show Midoriya growing as a combatant, but it also fleshes out the history of his Quirk and the superhero world as a whole.

Mere days after the USJ attack, UA holds its annual, world-famous sports festival — a competition for the students that will allow them to show their Quirks to the pro heroes. All Might encourages Midoriya to show the world what he can do, but the boy is still struggling to use his Quirk without injuring himself. To make matters worse, he is competing not only with his classmates, but the other hero class AND the general studies students.

So on the day of the competition, Midoriya does everything he can to succeed without using his Quirk. But when he learns more about his reclusive classmate Shoto Todoroki, Midoriya is spurred to help the other boy with his… well, family issues. Let’s just say Shoto hasn’t had the best childhood, and he hates his abusive father with a passion.

Then the hero course students are faced with a new challenge: they have to intern with pro hero agencies. Midoriya is sent an offer by All Might’s old mentor, Gran Torino — and he soon discovers that Gran Torino might be just the teacher he needs to get One For All under his control. But he’s soon pulled into a chaotic attack on Hosu City, where Shiguraki has unleashed a trio of Nomus. Even worse, a vengeance-fueled Tenya Iida is on the hunt for the fanatical hero-killer, Stain — and even multiple UA students may not be able to take him down.

And no sooner have the UA students returned home from their internships than they are faced with the most terrifying threat yet: finals. Though they think they’re up against more mindless robots, the students quickly learn that they’ll be up against the UA faculty, all trained heroes with powerful Quirks. Worst of all? Midoriya has to fight All-Might… with Katsuki Bakugo as his partner.

If the first season of “My Hero Academia” was about Midoriya achieving his lifelong dream, than the second season is about how he’s going to live that dream now that he has it. He’s in UA, he has a Quirk, and he’s being mentored by the greatest superhero in the world. Now he has to tame that Quirk, and is thrown headlong into some extremely serious training and competition, as well as more encounters with actual villains.

And this season fleshes out the world of UA considerably, partly because it also fleshes out the students around Midoriya. There are a LOT of students in the UA hero course and beyond, and we see more of what makes them tick — Asui’s adventure on the high seas, Yaoyorozu’s collapse of self-confidence, Kirishima’s friendship with Tetsutetsu, Ochaco’s realization of her own limitations and her attempt to learn combat, and Tokoyami’s sensible and serious nature.

This development even extends to minor characters, such as a boy with a brainwashing Quirk who desperately wants to prove that he can be a hero. And we get some new characters, such as Todoroki’s cold and abusive father Endeavour, who sees him as nothing more than a project that he’s going to use against All Might. No wonder the poor kid is socially stunted and has major issues.

There’s also a lot of energetic and colorful fighting, Quirk against Quirk, even as Midoriya learns more about his own abilities (“The frozen pastry in my hand… is me!” “No, it’s not. Are you okay?”). The shonen cliche of the tournament is here, but it moves along much faster than most anime tournaments, blasting through major rounds in less than an episode. And the same goes for the internships and the final exams, which provide us with plenty of interesting fights, often with teachers that we haven’t really seen much in combat situations (like Mr. Cementoss or Midnight).

But the heart of the second season is the presence of the Hero Killer Stain, a freakish noseless fanatic whose hatred for “fake” heroes leads him to slaughter or disable them. The most piercing aspect of this character is not only his ideology, but the fact that it begins to subtly creep into the society around him with just a few videos on social media. And to make matters even worse, the League of Villains is still in the mix, with some unpleasant revelations about its leadership.

The second season of “My Hero Academia” springboards off the first season, and flowers into an action-packed, dynamic adventure streaked with darker moments. It relies a little too heavily on the sequential-fighting-episodes of shonen anime, but that’s a small price to pay for such a solid season.

Review: My Hero Academia: Season One

In most superhero movies and fiction, people with exceptional powers are a tiny minority. But imagine for a second that there’s a world where superpowers – called “Quirks” – are a part of life for most of the population. What would it be like to be one of the minority who have no powers, and what would it be like if somehow that changed?

That’s the premise behind “My Hero Academia: Season One,” a vibrant and quick-paced anime that takes place in just such a world, which follows a steadfast underdog that wants nothing more than to save others. It has the feel of a classic shonen anime – lots of protracted fighting, a steadfast hero with an inspiring amount of courage who really needs to level up, and a colorful array of superpowers that get used in… interesting ways.

For his entire life, Izuku Midoriya idolized heroes. When he was small, he was found to be Quirkless in a world where the superpowers are commonplace. But rather than giving up, he dedicated himself to following and observing the superheroes – especially the beloved All Might, a seemingly invincible hero overflowing with positivity and heroism. And despite being bullied for his lack of a Quirk by his powerful classmate Katsuki Bakugō, he dreams of being a hero.

One day, he is saved by All Might and learns the superhero’s rather undignified personal secret. And after All Might witnesses the weak, Quirkless boy dash into danger to save his bully, he makes Izuku an offer: he will pass on his power to Izuku, allowing him to attend the hero-training U.A. High School. After months of training, of course. Can’t have a shonen series without training!

And that’s just the beginning of his woes – he has to actually make it past U.A.’s rigorous entrance exams, encounter U.A.’s eccentric faculty, and deal with the fact that any use of his powers immediately breaks his bones. But he may be forced to do some superheroing before he’s really ready – a force of supervillains (some more super than others) invade U.A., and the students end up having to defend themselves.

“My Hero Academia: Season One” is entertaining in multiple ways. On the one hand, it’s a shonen anime in the classic mold, though it moves substantially faster than many of its brethren (All Might’s training takes just one episode). On the other hand, it’s also a rather quirky (pun intended) examination of the Japanese take on the superhero genre, with superpowers ranging from the ordinary (ice, electricity) to the more eccentric (nitroglycerine sweat, belly-button laser, engine-powered legs).

The story whips by at a pretty fast pace, and things are kept energetic and colorful through the constant use of Quirks – the battles between the superpowered people is a pretty spectacular event whenever it shows up, and their weaknesses and strengths make for some pretty splashy fights. But the writers also don’t hesitate to pluck at the audience’s heartstrings whenever they have the chance, mostly focused on Izuku’s teary-eyed struggles to realize his dreams against all odds. At times, it’s really heartbreaking.

The character of Izuku reminds me a little of Marvel’s Captain America – he’s a weak, ordinary boy with a powerful, courageous heart and a real desire to save others, who is given superpowers artificially. He’s also shown to be quite bright, since he has to think strategically when “Kacchan” tries to actually harm him. The supporting cast is pretty compelling but not very developed just yet – all we know of Katsuki is that he’s violent and almost pathologically proud, Uraraka is the perky and kind love interest, and Iida is dutiful, composed and extremely conscientious.

“My Hero Academia: Season One” is a bold, colorful and energetic start to this entertaining series, and its likable protagonist makes it easy to get invested in his superheroic journey. Smash!