Keith’s Anime Reviews: K-ON!

K-ON! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title) is an absolutely fantastic series. Unlike some of the other anime I’ve reviewed recently, it’s also quite upbeat and cheerful – in fact, whenever I’m watching it, I can’t help but smile. (Usually I’m smiling through the entire episode - it’s really that good.)

The premise of K-ON! is quite simple – a couple of high-schoolers join the “Light Music Club” (the Japanese name of which is where the name “K-ON” is derived from) and play music, form a band, have adventures, drink tea, and generally goof around all the way through high school.

Overall, K-ON! is a very lighthearted series, with a recurring theme of the value of friendship and being yourself. It really is just a lot of fun to watch; you can’t help but smile while watching it.

Another aspect that makes this series very enjoyable to watch is the music, which is simply fantastic (as you would expect about a series about people in a school music club that form a band). Everything from the opening theme to the closing theme (which is usually done in the format of a music video featuring the main characters), along with every song that is performed in-series is just terrifically upbeat and catchy, and you’ll undoubtedly find yourself humming one (or more) of the songs at some point.

Ultimately this is just an incredibly adorable and fun series. The characters are just so much fun to watch as they interact with one another, and there’s a nice mix of humor, sweetness, and “slice-of-life” style stories that just make it just a pure joy to watch – either from start to finish, or picking any random episode and letting yourself smile the whole way through.

You won’t find anything in K-ON! that is overly dramatic, but it is a great series that is just plain fun to watch. I highly recommend it.

Keith’s Anime Reviews: Kanon

Kanon is a very interesting anime series.

Originally released in 2002, and then re-done and re-released in 2006, this is an anime based on a game – much like Air. However, I didn’t find out about it until just this year, so once again I am sort of “behind the curve” on keeping up with the latest anime.

Like the musical style it is named after, Kanon is built on recurring themes that play out (with many variations) through the different characters. There are themes of memory loss, timeless love and affection, the struggle against the inevitable, along with many more – but you should just watch the whole series to find them all.

One of the reasons I like this series so much is the cast – or perhaps I should say the depth of the cast. Instead of a bunch of cookie-cutter characters which simply fill some stereotypical role, each character has unique characteristics  – and most importantly, everyone has a reason for those characteristics, which is eventually explained and explored along the way as we get to know the characters better.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of in-depth characterization – and Kanon certainly delivers in that department. I like finding out about characters motivations and the events that led them to be the way they are now. Even if we’re never told everything about a character, if the author has an in-depth history behind them (even if it’s just in the author’s mind), it will show, even if they don’t come right out and explain it. And that, I think, is the hallmark of a really great story, no matter how it’s told (novel, manga, or film).

Seriously, the depth of the characters’ stories in this anime is absolutely amazing. Here’s a quick summary to show what I mean:

  • You’ve got a Ayu (an old friend of our main character) who has lost something important but can’t remember what it is;
  • Matoko, a girl who has lost her memory (but somehow remembers that she has a grudge against our main character);
  • Mai, a strangely aloof girl who… hangs around school late at night with a huge sword and fights “demons” (yes, you read that right);
  • Shiori, a girl who seems to have some sort of serious illness (but won’t talk about it) who hangs around just outside the school and seems to have some problems at home.

Over the course of the 24 episodes, each of these people’s stories are explored in-depth. And that’s just the “main” characters – there are also several supporting characters who also have their own stories, which are also explored (although they are not as dramatic and aren’t explored quite as deeply). For example, Sayuri, Mai’s friend, has her own background drama which explains why she often talks about herself in the 3rd person.

I must also admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for what you might call “sappy” (or maybe “emotional” is a better term) stories – and again, Kanon certainly fits the bill. This anime is not a silly happy story, nor is it a comedy – it has a heavy dose of bittersweet sadness and regret. (Though of course there are silly happy bits, and comedic parts – and they fit very well into the overall story, which is always nice to see!) If you are the emotional type, you may want to keep some tissues nearby when watching this series.

I also love the attention to detail in this series – if you’re watching it, be sure to pay attention. There are subtle clues and seemingly-random events that become relevant much later on. There is a fair amount of foreshadowing, but it’s subtle and easy to miss – it’s not in-your-face or anything like that.

Ultimately of course it’s the story that will really draw you into this series – and it is a very well done story. There are several “arcs” which usually focus on one (or two) characters, and each time you really feel very connected to the characters – you care about them and want to find out what’s going on, or find out what happened to them.

And that’s what I think is best about Kanon - an interesting story with memorable, well-developed characters and just the right mix of mystery, sadness, happiness, and a touch of the supernatural.

If you like your anime with good, deep stories (even if “romantic” stuff is not necessarily your cup of tea) and lots of interesting characters, then I would strongly recommend you give Kanon a try – you won’t be disappointed.

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Kia Soul

Ahhh, the 2010 Kia Soul… yeah, that car, the one with the funny commercial featuring rapping hamsters (or are they gerbils?)

I got a chance to drive this odd-looking little car recently, and much to my surprise, I actually liked it – a lot!

I was a bit worried when I first saw the Kia Soul, because I had conflicted feelings about these little cube-cars that have started to become popular lately. I worried that it would be woefully underpowered, have lousy gas mileage, and be top-heavy and completely uninteresting to drive.

Fortunately for me, the Soul turned out to have none of these problems.

The Soul has a fuel-sipping little 2.0L 4-cylinder engine, which pushes out a surprising 142 HP. (For comparison, my own car, a 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander, has a larger 2.4L 4-cylinder engine which puts out… 140 HP.) Because of this, the Soul is zippy enough to be enjoyable to drive – which I think is important, especially in small cars.

Surprisingly, although the Soul looks like it would be kind of top-heavy, it actually holds quite well through the curves. The steering on the Soul is very crisp and responsive, and you don’t feel nervous hitting a curve at some speed (although obviously not too much speed!).

On the inside, the Soul continued to impress me. The Soul has the kind of driving position I just love – elevated a bit, with good forward visibility and a comfy chair that you sit straight up in (no “leaning all the way back while driving” positions here!). The seats are at hip-level, so you just slide right in – you don’t have to fall down into the seats (like you do in some cars), and you don’t have to climb up into the seats (as you do in some big SUVs).

There is also a lot of neat techno-stuff on the inside of the Soul – the radio is cleverly laid out, and very nice – it has both a regular auxiliary input for any MP3 player, plus you can plug in your iPod and control it using the radio’s own controls (although you do need a special cable for that). You can even control your iPod using the controls on the steering wheel – which is really nice (and a safety bonus – you don’t have to take your hands off the wheel or your eyes off the road to skip songs!).

The steering wheel controls, by the way, were some of the best I’ve seen yet. Unlike a lot of other cars, the controls are easy to operate just by feel alone – the buttons and switches all have unique shapes, so you can tell what button you are pressing just by feeling it. Too few car manufacturers take this aspect of steering wheel mounted controls into consideration, and you end up with controls you have to look at first before you use them – and if you have to look down from the road to see what you’re going to push, then what’s the point of having them on the steering wheel in the first place?

It almost seems like the Kia Soul is the “Goldilocks” of cars – not to big, not too small, not too sluggish but not over powered, clever but not overdone – in other words, “just right.”

However, there is one rather… jarring downside to this car, if you’ll excuse the pun – the suspension. The suspension on this car is very, very stiff. Going over bumps and such was almost painful. We’re talking “almost jolt you out of your seat” bad. Now, I know the suspension is probably stiff to help give the Soul good handling in the corners and prevent it from feeling top-heavy, but honestly I would almost prefer a little bit of top-heaving feelings just so I don’t shatter my spine every time I hit a pothole.

With that one black mark against it, the Kia Soul is otherwise a very nice car which I greatly enjoyed driving. I think it’s a very practical and economical car, without being boring, which is a rare thing these days. If the suspension wasn’t so tooth-rattling, I’d almost give it perfect marks. But even so, I still think it is a really good car. If you don’t mind a rough ride, and are in the market for something small, fun, practical and economical, I’d highly recommend the new Kia Soul.

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Dodge Charger

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days behind the wheel of a car I really wanted to drive – a 2010 Dodge Charger. Yes, that’s right – I wanted to drive what is essentially a muscle car.

Unfortunately I didn’t have much time (just 3 days) with this car, so I didn’t get a chance to really put it through its paces. However, I did get to drive it along a lot of various roads, ranging from straight & boring (but high-speed – 70 MPH speed limit, yippie!) interstate highways to twisty (and properly banked!) secondary state highways that followed the Mississippi river.

The Dodge Charger is a surprisingly big car – as soon as you get behind the wheel you really feel how big the car is, and you sense its muscle car heritage. However, even though it feels big, the Charger isn’t terribly large on the outside, and in fact it is quite easy to handle, both at high speed and low speed (e.g., parking).

The interior of the Charger was actually very comfortable – it was easy for me to find a comfortable driving position, which is often a challenge for me in cars, since I’m so used to the higher-up seating position in SUV’s and trucks. I had 3 other people with me as well when I was driving the Charger, and the back seats had plenty of room for 2 full-sized adults.

Unfortunately I forgot to check which engine our rented Charger had – it would have been either the 2.7L 178 HP V6, or the bigger 3.5L 250 HP V6. Given that it was a rental, I’m going to guess we had the smaller engine, but don’t let those numbers fool you – the Charger isn’t a terribly heavy car, so it gets up and goes quite well. And it’s rear-wheel drive as well (yay!) so you can have some good-old fashioned tail-spinning fun.

All-in-all the Charger was a pleasure to drive, with plenty of power and smooth steering. The automatic transmission, while simple, was fine – I never felt like it was “hunting” for the right gear, nor were the gear shifts really noticeable. I’m sure this car would be quite a ball with a manual transmission, but (sadly) of course you’d never find a manual transmission on a rental car.

The Charger did have a couple of things that bugged me, however. As is apparently typical of all American cars these days, the Charger comes with automatic headlights (I guess because we’re too stupid to remember to turn them on when it gets dark?) and doors that lock automatically once you get moving – and can’t be unlocked (at least from the rear seats) unless you shift into Park. This last one in particular is really annoying – if you’re dropping anyone off, and they are sitting in the back seat, you MUST shift into Park before they can get out of the car!

Also, watch out if you go into the trunk on the Charger – I hit my head more than once on the very low latch on the trunk. And I can attest – it HURTS.

Other than those few problems, the Charger was a fine car and I quite enjoyed driving it. If I ever felt the desire to own a muscle car, I would definitely consider the Dodge Charger as an option. Hey, if it’s good enough for the police, why not for me?

Behind the Wheel: 2010 Chevrolet Malibu

I recently had an opportunity to spend a good amount of time behind the wheel of a 2010 Chevrolet Malibu while driving from Miami down to Key West.

Unfortunately, although I certainly didn’t hate the Malibu, I didn’t exactly like it either. Like so many American cars of the last, oh, 5-10 years or so, it felt like it was trying really hard to feel more upscale than it really was.

A few things I didn’t like were:

  • The very low ceiling (not helped by the fact that our car had a sunroof)
  • The annoying automatic headlights (and what ever happened to all Chevy vehicles having daytime running lights?)
  • The annoying automatic door locks… which passengers could not unlock until you put the transmission into “Park”
  • The steering wheel control buttons that you had to look at to see what they do (you can’t tell by feel)
  • The 3-spoke steering wheel (each of the spokes was just too big to hold on to when cruising, probably because of the need to fit in all the radio & cruise controls)

Some things I did like were:

  • The radio (I do like that Chevy’s have one of the few CD players that actually read CD-Text for song titles – why don’t more cars do this?)
  • The engine (peppy without being hard to control, and definitely nice considering it’s just a 4-cylinder, albeit a 2.4L one, putting out 169 HP)
  • The paddle shifters (completely unnecessary, but still kind of nice to have)

All-in-all, the Malibu was an OK car, but nothing special. If it was a little bit less expensive (running somewhere between $21K-$27K) I would say it’s a good deal for the money. But as is, it’s just… meh.