Saturday, March 31, 2012

Breaking Out of Retro! - Brave 10 Review

As you may know if you managed to catch my brief mention of it in my original What to Expect page, I planned on reviewing some shows at the end of every season. And guess what? It's the end of a season. So, time to break out of my retro reviews! This time I'm reviewing Brave 10, a 12 episode series made by Studio Sakimakura, who are very new in the industry. The series aired from January to March in 2012.

Premise: A year before the battle of Sekigahara that ended the Sengoku Period, the ninja Saizou Kirigakure meets the miko Nami Isa as she's attacked by assassins. Her shrine was destroyed by Tokugawa Ieyasu for siding with Yukimura Sanada. Meanwhile, Sanada has been gathering ten warriors known as Sanada's Brave 10, who have the power to change history. As they gather one by one, Nami's own mysterious power awakens.
 -- ANN
(Note: ANN made a little mistake...again. Her first name is "Isanami," and I'm not sure we ever find out her last name. Just wanted to clear that up)

     Brave 10 is like a good peanut butter sandwich. It's solid, generic, you can always rely on it, and it can even be delicious, if you're in the right mood (or if the other food at camp all sucks...but I digress). I wouldn't call this series great, nor would I call it poor. I also wouldn't call it average. Though the ending is weak and the overall plot is hardly something to be impressed by, the great visuals, stylistic sound, large cast, and nostalgic approach serve to elevate Brave 10 to an overall "good" status. To make another food analogy, this series isn't a rich, heavy cake, nor an exotic foreign dish, but is instead a nice hunk of meat.

No, that wasn't what I meant...
     Okay, I'll start with the bad stuff. First up is the story. This is honestly the weakest part of the anime right here. Don't disregard the show just 'cause of this, but I have to say that the story in Brave 10 is sub-par. The main reason is its lack of cohesion. I suppose I should clarify here that by "story," I'm talking about the overarching plotline. Most of the episode stories are about meeting the other soon-to-be Braves, and honestly those stories are pretty fun. But the main plotline gets neglected and very confused, which makes for a fairly poor ending. The first two-thirds of the show are leading up to a big showdown between Yukimura and Masamune/Ieyasu (all warlords), but then it the last third or so a character story suddenly pops in and becomes the main focus. Even before it's abandoned as the main story, though, the warring states thing is always a little confusing. I will put in the disclaimer that if you are knowledgeable about the Sengoku era, who all the people are based off of, and what characters are talking about when they refer to specific events, then you'll probably get a lot more out of the story than if you aren't. For those with little knowledge of these things (like me), however, it's just confusing. We hear about characters who we don't really know talking about things we are never shown and referring to events that don't happen over the course of the story, and it's just hard to follow along. Even if you do understand what's happening, though, the story is, as I said, abandoned in favor of the character one later on, and the result is that all the stuff about the warring states and the rivalries in the Sengoku era just feel kind of weird and unnecessary.

And we care...why? Oh, because your VA is Takehito Koyasu. Right.
     This actually leads into another section, characters. Because I said I'd do the bad stuff first, I'm only gonna talk about the bad characters right now. There are three characters I want to specifically bring up here; the first is Date Masamune above, and I forgot the names of the other two, so I've decided to call them Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Tweedledee (left) and Tweedledum (middle).
     So, the biggest problem with these characters is that they don't really do anything. They're just there to further the Sengoku plotline (which doesn't go anywhere) and are therefore unnecessary. But even beyond this, they're poor just as characters. There is possibly no better indication of this then the mere fact that I forgot their names within less than a day of hearing them (I just finished rewatching the series yesterday). Even worse, though, is the fact that I never really knew who they were. I know that they're feudal lords who don't like Ieyasu, but beyond that I've got nothing. This is a totally different situation than if I forgot one of the Brave's names. I still know who they are and what their characteristics are. The worst thing, though, is that they have no purpose. You may think that Date Masamune is different, though. After all, he does cause some plot events to happen like Isanami's [spoiler redacted] or his fight with [spoiler redacted]. The problem, though, is that none of these events are important. And while this wouldn't be a big problem if he were just another minor character, Date just has too much presence. A clear attempt is made to make him the second biggest antagonist, but he simply doesn't play the part well enough. He needs a plotline of his own to be resolved before his character can be complete, and Brave 10 simply does not have this plotline. I mean, he, unlike the other two, isn't a bad character. His character is just executed quite poorly.

Oh. Right. That's his name. Okay Mitsunari, you've graduated from "Tweedledee." I believe my point stands, though.
      The other thing that's wrong with Brave 10 is the ending, and this is most likely due to story. But that's a separate matter. Sticking purely to what is wrong with the ending (which I define as the last three episodes), there's one issue that sticks out like a sore thumb; the pacing. A lot of things feel rushed in a really weird way. Probably what makes it so weird is that the show doesn't feel it at all. Brave 10 takes its time with all the events in the last 3 episodes, right up until the resolution of all the fights. However, an engaged viewer will be able to easily tell that the progression of events feels rushed. While I personally think that Brave 10 should have been a 52 episode serial with at least three big arcs after the Braves all get introduced, the fact is that a mere 2 more episodes (for a total of 15) could have marginally improved the show. Allowing just a little more time for build-up and a slower progression of events could have vastly improved the ending. As it stands, though, the ending just kind of leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth. And...that's really all that's *wrong* with the show. Everything else is actually pretty good. I'll start with the least technical of the good things, the action.

     Brave 10 is predominately an action show, and I have to say that in that regard, it really delivers. I've never really felt that it's appropriate to talk about how well a genre is represented in a show, because then I have to get into what makes a specific genre good (as opposed to the series as a whole). That said, though, it really wouldn't be fair to talk about Brave 10 without mentioning the action. I'll still try to keep it brief, and just talk about what makes the action so good. The most noticeable thing is how "free" much the fighting is (for the purposes of this review, action = fighting). There are no shounen-esque "I use my special ultra-move, then you use yours" battle sequences (though those are not necessarily bad); instead, there's lots of just regular slashing, blocking, and dodging. It sounds kind of boring when put into words, so I'm gonna try to relate it to something else. You know when anime shows take fights from the manga and add in parts where the fighters just kind of fight, without using special attacks or following a specific "battle plan" (looking at you, Gintama)? Think that, but as the entire battle. There's very little stopping in the fights, and everything flows really nicely. Now, there are also special moves. (Nearly) every Brave has more than one, and Saizou has at least three he uses. But they never dominate or interrupt the fights. It makes the moves feel a little less special, but it makes the fights feel so much more natural and realistic, which is a bit surprising once you consider that everybody uses fantastical, supernatural ninja moves. In any event, though, the bottom line here is that the action is very good. Obviously, not all fights are as good as the others, but for the most part each one is very intense and fun to watch.

     That actually leads to the next thing I want to point out about Brave 10; this series has a lot of genre-blending. This show has tragedy, action, comedy, adventure, and even some (light) fanservice. What's cool is that, with the exception of tragedy, it pulls off all of these quite well. The comedy is very natural and fast-paced; the show never stops and waits for a punchline to happen. Mostly taking place through great dialogue, it's also great because it meshes with the rest of the show perfectly and offsets the more serious parts. The adventure aspect is also executed pretty well. Remember that I said the plot takes a turn about two-thirds of the way in? Well, those two-thirds before the turn are basically all devoted to introducing and meeting the Braves. This is also where that "nostalgia" I mentioned in the beginning comes into play. This show has a very "classic" feel in the way it introduces the characters gradually, one by one. It not only serves to make the characters feel a little more special, but it's also a refreshingly traditional approach to things. This, along with the great action and comedy, lends the show an "adventury" feel to it. And last is the fanservice. As I mentioned in my Skip Beat! review, I view things like fanservice as a "bonus." Too much, and the show just starts to feel...dirty. However, used in the right places and the right amounts, fanservice can be a real boon to a show. It can lend the series a kind of sensual, style/character-enhancing aspect, without making it become too risque. Brave 10 does a really good job of getting the fanservice right. It's never so much that it gets particularly distracting, but it's enough that it makes the characters a little more likeable. The other thing they get right is the distribution. It's very spread out, but more than that it's spread out among both genders (see top). Again, not really enough to be offensive to either gender. It's just kind of nice to see a show that treats members of both orientations equally.

Yes, I'm talking about this.
     It feels kind of weird talking about something like fanservice so seriously. I...I need to move onto something more technical. That being the case, let's talk about the great visuals. Studio Sakimakura may be new, with only two shows under their belt including this one (according to ANN), but if this show is any indication they're headed for great things. The animation is fluid and near-constant. Even when characters are just standing around, there's still something like arm motions or a character walking away that keeps the movement up. It doesn't feel frantic, but instead very natural. The excellent animation is also one of the big reasons the fights are so good. You can see everything clearly, and everything looks good. Overall, great animation. Onto the art.

I'm not sure why, but I always look to leaves and tress for indications of whether or not art is good.
     The art in Brave 10 is also above average. Landscapes are very well drawn and good looking. Trees, pillars, buildings, and most every other object in the various environments are great too. Granted, the art does run into a few spacial relations problems (a la El Cazador De La Bruja), but they are few and can be forgiven. A very nice level of detail was put into everything to give a real feeling of texture. In short, very competent. The crowning jewel of the art, however, is probably the character designs.

     A little while ago, I read a review of a series saying that the show in question was an example of "why cliches are cliches." What the reviewer meant by this is that despite being cliched, the show pulled off those cliches well enough that they were still good. Now, Brave 10 is certainly cliched, and no, it doesn't really pull of those cliches well enough that they don't stand out. I brought it up, though, because the character designs are an example of why we like the anime style. It's very arguable that one of the main reasons anime in general is as popular as it is is because of the way it looks. I imagine that at least 90% of the people reading this review would admit to liking it. Well, the character designs in Brave 10 pretty much sum up why that is. Everybody is pretty looking (bishies, as they're sometimes called), look great in whatever clothes they wear, are aesthetically pleasing, and are memorable & stylized. While Brave 10 may not be a show that exemplifies why cliches are cliches, it is a show that exemplifies why people like anime characters. To sum up what I've said: if you really like the way anime in general looks, then the character art in Brave 10 is definitely for you.

On a side note, alternate costumes are great.
     Okay, enough about the visuals. Onto the sound. This is an area that really surprised me. I really wasn't expecting much, but I got something awesome. Before I continue, I will put it out there that I'm a huge music fan. I like nearly every genre of music, and there are a lot of great anime composers, so 90% of my reviews feature music as a strong point. I try to look solely at how well the music is implemented, but it's difficult, because I usually like it and want to put it in a positive light. That said, the music in Brave 10 really is pretty awesome. When I first heard the opening theme (which is used in the show at numerous times without the vocals), I was immediately reminded of the Battle Toads series, and that's always a good thing. Similarities to childhood nostalgia aside, though, a lot of the music does have a very "retro" vibe to it, which goes well with the traditional progression of character reveals. More impressive, however, is the range of styles it covers. In addition to the more old-school sounding tracks, there are several more setting appropriate parts of the score (with woodwinds, drums, and other classical instruments). Both of these different styles are implemented quite well, and always match what's happening onscreen. I mean, it's not the best soundtrack I've ever heard, but it is by no means the worst, and it's used quite well. Overall, good music. (What a surprise, right?)

     Next is the sound effects. This is an area often overlooked, and I'm constantly struggling with how to review it. In this case, though, it's not too difficult, because Brave 10 has a purpose with its sound effects. Much like the nostalgic music and the traditional character introductions, the sound effects have that "classic" feel to them. There's an attempt to evoke the feelings of older action shows (like Rurouni Kenshin, to pick a random example) through sound, an attempt that's somewhat successful. A lot of the effects, like sword-drawing and blocking, will sound very familiar to you if you've ever watched older shows of those kinds. You won't really feel it, nor will you consciously notice it (when do you ever pay attention to sound effects, after all), but the effects on your subconscious are undeniably there. In and of themselves, though, the sound effects are still good. They are very complete, and as I said have an "older" quality to them (this is a good thing). All in all, good.

Hearing this has so much more effect than reading it.
     And the last part of the sound is of course voice acting. If I had to summarize the voice acting in Brave 10 with a single word, it would be "topnotch." There are 13 major characters in this show, and there are 13 great voice actors. Which is not to say that the minor characters don't have good VA's, they do. Brave 10 really pulled a lot of stops here, and they got some great VA's to voice the characters. The voice acting really brings another dimension to the characters. Great line delivery, well voiced dialogue, and great matching of voice actors to characters are the main reasons why the voice acting is so good. Additionally, the script really allows the VA's to show their potential. Quickly paced dialogue and well written lines make sure that conversations and such don't get too boring (unless they involve Tweedledee and Tweedledum, but those scenes are rare). Great voice acting.

It took me a while to realize he was supposed to sound awkward, but after I did he was great.
     This leads me to my next section: the (main) characters. The reason I split this up into two sections is because Date, Mitsunari, and Tweedledum are directly tied in with the bad parts of the story, and they're bad characters because they lack purpose. The main characters (the Braves and Yukimura), however, have a purpose and are part of the actually good story. So how do these characters size up? A lot better than I expected, actually. If you've ever watched Shounen Onmyouji, then you know that most of Seimei's spirits are cool, but are also usually neglected. We see them, but a number of them get little screentime and we don't really find out much about their characters other than what powers they hold. Brave 10 stands on the other end of the spectrum. You know each of the Braves' characters (well...with one exception), probably a trait or two about them, and also what their specialties are. You will (for the most part) remember each of them, and they're all unique. But how are they from a technical standpoint? Honestly, not too bad. These characters aren't deep. They aren't three-dimensional. But you have to ask yourself if that's necessary for them to be "good." I think not. I can be just as entertained by a static, bland character being part of a really interesting story as I can be by a changing, interesting, deep character being part of a less interesting story. Take a look at Mushishi; to be honest, Ginko is hardly an amazing character. But Mushishi is one of the most amazing shows ever made. And while the characters in Brave 10 aren't on the same level as Ginko in terms of construction, they're still decent characters.

Kamanosuke's character in a nutshell. Is (s)he a bad character because (s)he can be defined by a single image? I don't think so. Personally, Kamanosuke was one of my favorite characters.
     There is one character in particular I'd like to go over for a moment, because he's a good example of the characters in this overall. This character is Saizou Kirigakure, our protagonist. First, the good stuff. Saizou is a cool fighter. Also, he looks pretty, he's got a memorable personality, and he even goes through a little character arc. This is true of most of the other Braves too. Now the bad thing (there's really only one): we never learn his past. Saizou's past and the event that shaped his current world view is given to us in a 50 second scene before the opening credits of episode 5. This is not a good way to deliver a backstory. This lack of attention is also shared by the rest of the Braves. Now, I realize that in a 13 episode anime with 10 main characters, you can't exactly have a backstory episode for everyone, especially not while also having and introduction episode for each character. Still, a single episode for Saizou and maybe Ana's past (you could even do both in the same episode) would have really strengthened those characters, especially because they're the ones who go through important arcs. The main reason I bring this up is because Brave 10 is a character-driven series. We want the characters to be as deep as they can be and to know as much about them as we can. That's why I said that Brave 10 should have been a 52 episode show, so the characters could shine as much as possible. As it stands, the characters aren't terrible because we don't learn their backstories. They just aren't as good as they could have been.

Yes, this is the story I want to learn about.

     Brave 10 is a solid show. Great action, great visuals, above average sound, a memorable cast, and a classic vibe make up for the weaknesses of the story and some of the characters. There are a few areas that could have been improved, all by simply increasing the running length, but overall the series is a positive experience.
     Plot/Story: The ending is probably the worst thing about Brave 10. Things feel rushed, and the overarching plot that had been present earlier was abandoned. Since things could have been much worse still, and since a (arguably) more important character plotline was resolved, the story isn't too bad. Still, "not too bad" doesn't equal "good." Below average.
     Characters: Memorable personalities, fun/cool traits, nice interactions, and pretty looking designs all tip the balance in the show's favor. While there are a few misses with characters (Tweedledum, the kid Brave, etc.), overall the characters are pretty strong. The lack of detailed backstories is a detriment, but a forgivable one. All in all, good characters.
     Sound: Great mood-fitting music, well made sound effects, and top notch voice acting make the sound in Brave 10 worth taking notice of. The music and sound effects both add to the "classic" feel of the series, and the voice actors really make the characters and script come to life. Overall, great.
     Visuals: Excellent visuals. Awesome animation, well drawn landscapes and backgrounds, and beautiful looking character designs make for a great visual experience. If you like eyecandy and the art style of anime, this show won't let you down.
     Rewatchability: One of the advantages of a plot-lite anime: there's no story to get bored of. Of course, it's hard to ever get bored of the best stories (like Mushishi's, for example), but anything less and sooner or later you're gonna grow tired of the plot. Brave 10 doesn't run into this problem. You're not gonna go back to this series for the great story, but for the great action. I mean, action can only go so far too, but I finished this series two days ago and rewatched the whole thing yesterday and today, and I'd be willing to do it again (in a little while), so there's definitely some good return value to this series.

Overall: Brave 10 is, as I've said twice now, a solid show. The main thing that stopped it me from liking it more was the shift in story focus and the poor ending. These aren't enough to truly hurt the anime, especially if you're a proponent of "the journey is more important than the destination," but they do hinder it from reaching its full potential. If you like action, nice visuals, varied casts of characters, a retro feel, and/or nice looking anime designs, then Brave 10 is a good bet. Avoid if you're looking for a great, cohesive story. Overall, a fun show.

Any suggestions/requests for my next reviews? Post a comment!

P.S. It's ironic that the review titled "breaking out of retro" is about a show with a heavy retro feel to it...

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