July 3rd, 2016

Firechick's Anime Reviews: Shounen Maid

I give the spring season's most pleasant yet unexpected surprise...an 87/100!

If someone told me last year that I would find myself in love with a show called Shounen Maid, I would have called them crazy! Before this anime came out, I thought it was going to be absolutely terrible, just like what I thought of Steven Universe before I actually sat down and watched it. I mean, it's a show about a ten-year-old boy who has to live with his uncle, and said uncle makes him half-dress in a maid outfit for kicks and giggles. Tell me you didn't think "Oh my God! Is this gonna be some super sexual shotacon hentai?! Is it trying to condone pedophilia?! No way am I watching this garbage fire!!" when you read that premise. I won't lie, I thought the same way. But then the show actually came out and people were suddenly praising it up the wazoo. Again, just like Steven Universe. So I sat down and watched it...and while I admit I don't like the art style much for reasons I'll explain in a bit, this show really went against my expectations and actually wound up being really nice!

Based on the manga by Ototachibana, the show is about a young boy, Chihiro Fujiwara, whose mother just died from a heart attack. It had always been just the two of them, but with his mother gone, Chihiro is all alone...or so he thinks. One day, his mysterious uncle, a rich costume designer named Madoka Takatori, appears to take him in as his ward. But while Chihiro appreciates the gesture, Madoka isn't known for keeping his house clean, and Chihiro can't stand anything that's not clean, so he works hard to clean the house all on his own. Since Chihiro's not the kind of kid who just wants stuff handed to him, Madoka proposes a deal: Chihiro can stay at the Takatori house if he's okay with handling the chores, since Chihiro likes doing that. Chihiro accepts...though Madoka makes him wear a frilly maid outfit as a uniform for funsies. With that, Chihiro has a new home.

Let me tell you something right now: This isn't a dumb sexual shotacon anime like most people thought. Rest assured, Shounen Maid is nothing like that, misleading title and initial premise not withstanding. It's actually a wholesome, low key slice of life story about a kid trying to deal with his loss and meeting new people upon going to his new home. And thank God it actually turned out to be genuinely good. Otherwise, I never would have given this show the time of day, especially after hearing people talk about it. Of course, this isn't a perfect show, and it does have a few problems, one of those being the animation. Well, not really the animation per se, but the character designs, particularly how large the characters' eyes are. They're fine on the kids, but the adults having them just makes them look really awkward, especially with how their eyes almost take up the entire upper halves of their cheeks. The actual animation is quite good, with colorful backgrounds that are easy on the eyes and smooth movement as well, along with the occasional cutesy chibi head every now and again. The soundtrack is also nice and pleasant, with a lot of woodwinds, oboes, flutes, and violins that perfectly fit the soothing, heartwarming atmosphere the show is going for...except for the ending song, which is basically typical boy band fare straight out of the mid-2000s.

Thankfully, the dynamic characters more than make up for the occasional animation slip-ups. I loved the whole ensemble, as they all had a wide array of personalities and quirks, but also didn't lean into typical anime archetypes. Madoka acts like a whiny, lazy uncle, but he's actually compassionate and does genuinely love his nephew and worries that he might be growing up too fast. Keiichiro could have just been the overworked butler, but he also has quite a bit of charm to him by being a confidant for Chihiro, having a life beyond just being Madoka's butler, and being the voice of reason for Madoka. Miyako could have easily been just the busty girl next door character and little more than walking fanservice and boob close-ups, but thank GOD the anime didn't take her in that direction. She's klutzy and nice, but is also proactive and a lot smarter than people give her credit for. But I think Chihiro is the best out of all of them. At first, he does seem like the kind of idealized kid who acts more grown up than he should and is really OCD about cleaning and stuff, practically raising Madoka when the latter should be the one raising him, but the anime always makes sure to remind us that, at heart, he's still a young boy. He likes reading fantasy novels, is scared of horror movies, likes animals, and can be kind of demanding and bossy at times. His character alone pretty much carries the whole show, and his chemistry with all the other characters is wonderful to watch.

Now, this anime might not be for everyone. Since Shounen Maid is very much a slice-of-life show, its pacing is deliberately slow and languid, and much more character-driven than story-driven. This might not sit well for people who prefer faster pacing and more action-oriented stuff, and that's fine. I think Shounen Maid's slow pacing works to its benefit, and the show itself doesn't try to be anything more than the cute, wholesome family drama it wants to be. But there is one more bit of criticism I have in terms of its audio: Some of the characters' voice acting tends to border on grating or really overdone, the biggest offenders being Madoka and Hino. For the former, he's voiced by Nobunaga Shimazaki, who is normally a pretty good voice actor, but here he gives Madoka a ridiculously high pitched, whiny voice that makes him sound like a teenager than an adult, and when Madoka yells and screams, it is absolutely painful to listen to. Hino's voice actor, Mitsuki Saiga, is also a prolific and very talented voice actress, but the voice she gives Hino just makes him sound like a strangled duck, and I feel bad about saying that because she's normally really good at what she does. But I find she's better at doing low pitched voices for quieter, more stoic characters than upbeat, loud, and cheerful ones. It really says something when the English dub voice actors for them turn out to be way better and more listenable. Seriously, watch the English dub. It's really good! That's really all I have to say on the show.

Overall, don't let the misleading premise and image of Chihiro in a maid outfit fool you. Shounen Maid is the perfect example of how not to judge a book by its cover, and it's a nice, heartwarming, wholesome anime that deserves more love and appreciation than it gets.

Firechick's Book Reviews: Bambi: A Life In The Woods

I give the book that inspired the famous Disney movie...a 97/100!

Disney has been a household name in our childhoods for years, decades even. The movies he, and his company, would put out since the 1930s have been a constant presence in our lives, whether they were actually good or not. The movies I remember in my childhood were Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. My parents said I used to watch them all the time, though I do remember other ones such as Bambi and The Aristocats. I rewatched Bambi a few years ago, and I found it to be a lot better than I remember it being, and now I consider it to be my favorite Disney movie. But only later did I manage to find the book that inspired it, Bambi: A Life In The Woods by Austrian author Felix Salten. I know some of my recent reviews of what many consider to be classic books haven't exactly been kind, and it's nothing personal against anyone who likes those. I just didn't find some of them to be to my taste. Thankfully, that isn't the case with Bambi, which I feel not only absolutely deserves to be called a classic, but now consider it one of my favorite books of all time, ever.

Similarly to the Disney movie, Bambi tells the story of a young deer who is born into a forest, grows up, and lives his life. He experiences all that nature has to offer, from beautiful spring flowers to the harsh winters that make food scarce, meeting all sorts of animals, both friend and foe. The book doesn't really have much of a linear plot or an overarching conflict, as a lot of it consists of Bambi just living his life and learning about the world. I tend to like those kinds of stories, as I'm of the belief that while conflict can be necessary when writing a novel, it doesn't need to be so depending on what you're going for. But that doesn't mean there isn't any in Bambi at all, as during several points in the story, Bambi and the other forest animals have encounters with a human being, whom they refer to as Man, a hunter who shoots at the animals, killing some in the process, with Bambi's mother being one of his victims. Yeah, I know, spoiling a big event, but at this point, anyone who's even heard of Bambi knows his mom dies, so I don't really see any point in hiding it. It's not even a spoiler IMHO.

Just from reading the book, it's a very different entity from the Disney movie. For one, Thumper and Flower don't exist, as they were original creations by Disney. The only characters who get named or get the most focus are the deer characters, such as a male cousin of Bambi's named Gobo, his aunt Ena, mother of Faline and Gobo, an elderly deer named Nettla, a teenaged doe named Marena, and several male bucks, Ronno and Karus, both of whom become his rivals for Faline's affection. Yeah, getting this out of the way here, Bambi and Faline are cousins and they get together romantically...yeah. Apparently marriage among cousins was common in 1920s Austria, though that aspect is still rather...irksome. That's the only reason the novel doesn't get a pure 100 out of 100 from me. Furthermore, Bambi and his family are roe deer rather than white-tailed deer as depicted in the movie, and the animals aren't depicted as being overly cutesy and nice, either.

But before I get to the biggest difference between the book and the movie, let's talk about the prose! Now, from what I've heard, Bambi was originally published in Germany even though Felix Salten was from Austria, and it was translated into English by one Max Schuster, co-founder of Simon and Schuster, and then published by them in America in 1928. There have been differing views on the translation. Some see it as admirable, while some thought it was terrible, with one person accusing Schuster of projecting his own values and opinions into it. Now I can't comment on the accuracy of the translation, as I'm not German nor can I read German, but I can say that the translated English prose is absolutely beautiful. The forest and its wonders are deliciously described in sumptuous detail, from dewdrops hanging off of leaves in the morning to the wild, ravaging storms that rip through the forests. Often times, I felt like I was right there in that forest, smelling the moisture in the air and walking along a tree-lined dirt path in the woods. There's hardly any purple prose, making the writing very easy to digest and process. It helps that Salten avoids telling a lot of the time, actually showing the characters' feelings and emotions through their actions, since they're animals and don't display the same characteristics as we humans do. The characters don't talk like cutesy Disney animals, and every bit of dialogue has meaning and is impeccably written. Nothing is ever taken for granted, from how the deer behave and take care of their young, to exploring how a human's actions can impact animals. I can wholeheartedly say that Bambi: A Life In the Woods has the best prose I've read so far.

In terms of the characters, those who are more familiar with the Disney movie might be surprised to find that Thumper and Flower are completely absent, which is totally fine. There are quite a good chunk of characters in the book, with Bambi obviously getting the most focus and development, though several other characters get fleshed out as well. Faline's brother, Gobo, who doesn't exist in the movie, starts out as a shy, weak, cowardly fawn who's afraid of the world, but after being taken in and raised by some humans, he sees the humans for what they really are, but his behavior no longer aligns with how the deer live, and his survival instincts deteriorate to the point where he lacks caution when confronted with danger. Character development doesn't always have to be positive, as Gobo demonstrates, and it's utilized to great effect here. Bambi is a lot more proactive and social as a fawn, in contrast to his meek portrayal in the movie, but gradually becomes more mature and stoic as he grows up and learns more about nature's blessings and hazards. Ronno was born with a limp and puts on a tough guy act, to the point where he bullies Bambi continuously throughout the book, in order to compensate for it. Even Bambi's mother, who still doesn't have a name, is given more complexity as a character than her portrayal in the movie would suggest, as small as her scenes are. Nobody is truly good or evil here, and Salten's other books taking place in Bambi's universe build upon this. All of the characters are wonderfully layered and complex, even though they may not necessarily be three dimensional, and I love the whole ensemble.

As much as I love the book, there are times when it can get a little weird. One chapter is entirely about sentient leaves talking to each other. That chapter is a common subject of debate as to its place in the narrative. Some say it's a good chapter that has a lot of symbolism and meaning in its discussion about life and death, and possibly a metaphor for Salten's experiences as a Jewish man in Austria before World War II. Some say it's a pointless waste of space and paper that doesn't add anything to the overall narrative. I'm kind of in the middle, as while I did find it jarring, as this doesn't happen again in the book, but I didn't outright hate it, as I did like how it was written and how it raised questions about how short life is. Also, apparently Salten has inserted chapters like these in other books as well, so you might say this is his signature.

If you're thinking about maybe showing this book to your four or five year old, don't, because the biggest difference from the Disney movie is that it's not in any way light-hearted or cutesy whatsoever. Not gonna lie, this book is dark. Not Sakura Gari-level dark, nor supremely grimdark or edgy. Predators are shown attacking and eating their pray in detail (Mostly animal on animal), characters get shot and/or killed, with blood being described without any hint of censorship, and themes of life, death, growing up, and the cycle of nature play a huge part in the story. At the same time, it never goes into emo or melodrama territory, thereby staying genuine and never dragging on more than is needed. I wouldn't recommend this to children under the age of ten or so, but I also wouldn't let the book's darker moments be a reason to not read this book. Bambi: A Life In The Woods is heartwarming, intense, savage, exquisitely naturalistic, impeccably written, and doesn't talk down to its audience.

I was originally going to say Elana K. Arnold's A Boy Called Bat trilogy is my favorite book (or in that case book series) of all time, but the final book's ending wasn't the best. Thus, I can proudly claim that Felix Salten's Bambi: A Life In The Woods is my number one favorite book ever. A true masterpiece, and that is not a comment I make lightly. I highly, HIGHLY recommend it for anyone who loves reading, animals, and pretty much everyone who wants to read something truly good. No, seriously, just read it!!!