Hanayamata 

Naru is a self-labelled “average teen” who wants to shine but feels inadequate next to her gorgeous, popular, in-a-band friend, Yaya. A chance encounter with a mysterious blonde girl called Hana at a shrine leads her into the world of yosakoi, a traditional Japanese dance.

In spite of its cutesy graphics, Hanayamata adds some emotional depth from the first episode which I was pleasantly surprised by, and we see the main characters struggle with their insecurities and fears in an understated way. Naru, for example, agrees to join Hana’s Yosakoi group but only as an assistant at first, betraying her anxiety that she isn’t a good enough dancer to “dazzle” and be worthy of the group. Tami is a well-behaved daddy’s girl who chooses to break away expectations from of her to join the group, and Yaya in turn battles with her own jealousy as she sees Naru step out of her insecurities and start to believe in herself again.

Hana’s motto – life’s too short not to be happy!
Although I was impressed with Hanayamata’s commitment to clear-cut character motivation and insecurity from the beginning, it did then move back to comfortable and cutesy territory once this had been established. Some of the scenes are excessively sentimental – Naru gives more than one emotional speech about how much yosakoi means to her, and how much her friends mean to her, which might be more powerful if it was more than five episodes in, but luckily a lot of the more sugary emoting is usually balanced with some light comedy. Perhaps because of the solid character establishing at the beginning, even the simpler scenes in Hanayamata feel weighted enough to avoid slipping into pure fluff territory.

It’s tough being the only glass half full member of the group sometimes
For me, Hanayamata is a nice “middle of the road” sort of anime. It offers enough character depth and drama to avoid floating away on its own fluffiness, and Naru’s stage fright and insecurities will be easily understandable and relatable to many. But it is still a fairly lightweight cutesy anime about five girls embracing friendship and a new passion. If you’re looking for something with pretty shoujo style animation, silly comedy and engaging main characters it’s definitely one to put on your ‘to watch’ list.

Minami Kamakura High School Girls Cycling Club

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Hiromi has moved to the beautiful coastal town of Kamakura, a city just south of Tokyo that is filled with temples and hiking trails. She plans to ride her bike to school but is a little rusty on the basics, and fortunately bumps into a fellow classmate Tomoe who offers to help her relearn.

As Hiromi meets more of her classmates they discover that they all have an interest in cycling, and decide to form a club. Their cycling journeys and quest to secure a budget for the club (they have to prove themselves worthy first) form the basis of this anime.

If you haven’t already guessed, this is a light and fluffy anime through and through. I have never watched a sport anime before, it was the clean art style and soft bright colour palette that drew me to this show. It’s easy for anyone that isn’t a sporty person or expert on cycling to get into this show as it makes it very accessible for the viewer. Hiromi and her friends are newbs to the cycling world and much about the best bicycles for them to use and the correct cycling technique is covered both within the anime, and within a real life featurette at the end which provides extra hints and tips for any budding cyclists.

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Hiromi and her friends have fun riding around Kamakura
This anime is cute and enjoyable – for me the highlights are seeing the sights of Kamakura gorgeously rendered with lush greenery and stunning blue skies and learning about cycling. But there’s nothing to make it a stand out anime – I’ll openly admit that couldn’t tell you the names of all of Hiromi’s friends and the anime doesn’t do much to create any in-depth personalities for them. Nonetheless this is a fun and cheery anime so if you’re looking for a fluffy sport anime it’s a definite contender.

Yugioh! The Dark Side of Dimensions

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I am a huge Yugioh fan. The series was the bedrock of my childhood. I would spend hours playacting as the characters with my sister, to the point where we had moulded them to our own and created our own stories. So it was with some excitement that I sat down and prepared to watch a brand new movie, and I was not disappointed!

Dark Side of Dimensions picks up where our characters had been left off. Pharaoh Atem has ascended to the spirit world, leaving the Millennium Puzzle in pieces, and Yugi is missing him but carrying on with his life and thinking about life after high school graduation with his friends Tristan, Tea, Joey and Bakura. Things are not set to be peaceful for long though as Seto Kaiba seeks to reassemble the puzzle and challenge the pharaoh once more, and a mysterious man named Aigami has a special interest in Yugi…

The movie gets off to a very cheesy start as Yugi meets up with his friends for school, almost introducing them one by one. I was afraid the dialogue would be as slow and corny throughout the rest of the movie as it was in the scene in which Yugi and his friends discuss what they plan to do with their lives after high school, but their responses are effectively a quick way to get the essence of their character for anyone who is coming into the movie with no prior knowledge of the story. I was also pleased to see that whilst the character styles had been updated a bit, it wasn’t so much as to lose the heart of the original character designs.

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“Hey Yugi, does my hair look slightly different than it used to or is that my imagination?”
The antagonist for this movie is Aigami, a blue-haired bishie boy who takes an interest in Yugi and his friends. I instantly warmed to him, because he was a fairly understated villain, which is probably a good thing with Seto Kaiba’s planet-sized ego already filling the screen on a regular basis. Aigami’s backstory is nicely tied in to the character of Shadi and how one character acquired their Millennium item. Aigami has his own kind of magic which he can use to create special “dimension” duels, which makes duelling him all the more complex and difficult for Yugi and Kaiba.

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Aigami – not your average bishie
So what did I enjoy so much about this movie? The humour was a big one, and I was pleasantly surprised by how often I laughed. Eric Stuart is on brilliant form as Seto Kaiba, with so many hilarious lines referencing his own colossal ego, and a great one in which he refers to painstakingly recreating the pharoah’s “perfectly coiffed” hair for a simulation duel. The movie makes numerous hilarious nods to the fandom as well, with Bakura’s acknowledged entourage of fangirls (“it’s the accent”), Joey dressed as a dog (again) and more over-the-top Seto Kaiba behaviour (Space elevator? Check. Casually jumping out of a moving jet? Check.)

Although there’s much that feels comfortably familiar, it also feels like characters have grown a bit too. Yugi is the heart of the series and he gives a gentle and touching speech at the beginning about missing Atem, but we nonetheless see him go on and do battle with Seto and Aigami on his own as brave as ever. Even when not mentioned, Atem’s absence is very much felt, and as Kaiba seeks to reconstruct the puzzle we wonder if we will see a return of the figure everyone is missing so much.

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Yugi may be one Pharaoh down, but he’s stronger than ever
I won’t spoil it, but the ending of the film is touching, and ends on the most thrilling tease of what I hope will be the start of a sequel movie or anime series. Even if it doesn’t, Dark Side of Dimensions reminded me of what I really love about Yugioh, and it’s vastly superior to its two predecessor movies (in my opinion). If you’re a fan it’s a must-see, and if you’re brand new to the Yugioh world, why not give it a try?

March Comes in Like a Lion

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As a young boy, Rei’s world is torn apart when his family are killed in a car accident. There’s hope for a new family when a kindly man takes him in and the two bond over shogi, much to his own children’s jealousy. Flash forward and Rei is on the cusp of adulthood, living alone in an apartment funded by his shogi game wins. Still lost in loneliness and grief, he is surrounded by new friends who gently support him.

For me, one of anime’s outstanding qualities is its ability to capture the subtle but important nuances of emotion and March Comes in Like a Lion does this wonderfully. An example – when Rei meets three sisters, Akari, Hinata and Momo Kawamoto who frequently invite him over to their home for dinner, Rei’s own inner monologue reflects the home he finds there. At one point he describes holding some warm leftovers as he walks home as being like a small animal that warms his heart and it’s painfully clear how starved of love and kindness he has felt up to that point. This anime is full of poetic monologues in that vein that really show how mature and sensitive Rei is in spite of his reserved outward personality.

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Rei’s inner monologues are poetic and often heartrending

Visually, the anime is much less subtle. Rei lives in hues of black and grey, and many of his flashbacks and monologues are cast in a strong monochromatic style. In contrast, the Kawamoto house is filled with warm orange tones and the love and affection the girls show to Rei shines off the screen as he appreciatively sits down to delicious homemade meals with them. Rei himself can be a quiet and introspective young man for a lot of the time so the intense visuals work really well to communicate his thoughts and feelings about the world around him.

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Rei’s apartment is stark and bare
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The Kawamoto house is filled with life and love

Rei himself is a fascinating character, and I was pleased that March Comes in Like a Lion also extends this complexity to other characters. For example, Harunobu, Rei’s longtime shogi rival, is shown to be a chronically ill man who finds it frustrating to continuously lose to Rei. All the same we see him supporting Rei in his shogi games. He could have been reduced to a plot device or one dimensional character, but he never blames his losses on his illness, and is never shown as someone to be pitied but rather as a kind and good person with a positive outlook on life and a drive to better himself.

I was impressed with the realism the show devotes to shogi as well. As well as describing moves and strategies, we see Rei playing in real time, sometimes at least five minutes of an episode patiently displaying the silent, paced methodology of a real match as if it were being filmed. The show also accounts for viewers who aren’t familiar with shogi, and an episode early on explains the how to play the game with a cute and silly cat animation which reappears later on during the occasional match.

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The pacing and detail shown in shogi matches offers a nice realism

I’d forgive you for getting impatient with this anime. It starts off promising, then gets a bit wacky with a very disjointed mood change, and overall takes a while to provide some of the emotional backstory you might want to feel invested. Do stick with it, you’ll find some very rewarding scenes that tackle depression, loss and the contrasting rigidities of honour in competition versus honour in Japanese family. If you’re a seasoned anime viewer and looking for something to invest in that will reward you over time, this is a great choice.

March Comes In Like a Lion is now available on Crunchyroll. The original manga by Chica Umino can be read online here.

Afflecks Palace, Manchester city centre 

If you live in the United Kingdom and can make a trip to Manchester city centre, Afflecks Palace is the place to go for all your anime and manga merchandise needs! Located in the Northern Quarter (a district full of quirky and unique independent shops), the arcade boasts several little shops which offer a range of anime goods such as figurines, CD soundtracks, posters, cushions, bags, purses and more.



One shop I particularly love, and will undoubtedly continue to revisit is called Sunflower and is devoted to all things Studio Ghibli, with a huge range of quality merchandise that’s perfect for any fan or collector. Here’s a picture of my great haul below:

I particularly love this Kiki’s Delivery Service clutch bag I bought for myself which is an excellent quality. I expected the price to be at least £40 for such a good quality bag that’s also quite unique but it was only £18! The rose detailing is also on the back and I love the decoration on the front which resembles a Chinese comb.

If you’re looking for a good selection of anime merchandise, this is definitely a place worth checking out – and Forbidden Planet and Travelling Man are only a short walk away if you want to splurge even further!

Have you got any great UK anime shops to recommend? If so, leave a comment below!

Your Name (Kimi No Na Wa)

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Mitsuha is sick of her life out in the sticks, and not even having a cafe or bookstore in her little town. She passionately declares one night “Make me a Tokyo boy in my next life!” And then she wakes up the next morning…in a Tokyo boy’s body. Taki, the boy in question, is an average teen making the most of city life, enjoying fancy treats after school with his friends which he pays for via a waiter job at a nice restaurant.

Your Name immediately takes advantage of all of the comedic value of an unexpected body swap. Mitsuha and Taki are both in the throes of puberty and still discovering their own bodies, so waking up inside the opposite sex’s has an extra layer of hilarity. One of the film’s running gags features Mitsuha (sometimes herself, sometimes Taki) waking up each morning and fondling her own breasts.

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Body swapping ain’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Mitsuha and Taki’s friends tell them that they’ve noticed a change in their personalities, and once the pair discover that what they thought were incredibly realistic dreams is actually the two of them swopping bodies, they try to ensure their lives don’t become messier than needed, leaving notes for each other to read on their bodies, and sometimes on their phones. Unfortunately, the two of them never remember each other’s names when they wake up back in their own bodies, prolonging the suspense as they don’t know whose life it is that they keep finding themselves in the middle of.

The film doesn’t focus too deeply on the effects their swapping has on each other’s lives, but it does show the obvious awkwardness of them having to ask their friends questions like “Where do I work?”and having to juggle things that are completely foreign to them – Taki attempting a traditional weaving technique is contrasted against Mitsuha running around like a headless chicken in Taki’s job. In spite of their superficial differences, the universality of their adolescent feelings shines through – Mitsuha manages to get Taki a date with his long-time crush while inhabiting his body, but realises once she’s back in her own body that she’s actually quite jealous.

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“Dear Taki, stop feeling up my boobs, Yours, Mitsuha”

The second half of Your Name takes a more serious turn than I had expected, dealing with a thread about a comet set up from the beginning. The film uses this to further expand on its themes of family, duty, and love and open out the film to a grander scale, and build much higher stakes. There are a lot of very Japanese themes thrown into the second half (I won’t spoil them here) which is one of the things bound to help this film stand the test of time as a Makoto Shinkai classic.

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This is just one example of the astounding landscapes Your Name features

Your Name is visually spectacular. The contrast of city life to country life is stunningly illustrated. Taki’s hectic urban jungle is brilliantly showcased, each sharp angular line of the skyscrapers and twinkling city lights popping off the screen. Mitsuha’s verdant town is a lush delight, and I also really loved seeing the details of her traditional life, such as when she performs a traditional Japanese ritual in her family’s shrine. I also love that the film makes multiple references to the red string of fate, inserting the symbolism in a beautifully simple but striking way throughout the film.

A gorgeous anime needs a great soundtrack and this one does not disappoint! As well as some beautiful strings pieces that really evoke the nature scenes of Mitsuha’s beautiful rural town, RADWIMPS, a Japanese rock band, offer some furiously energetic pop tracks for the chaotic life-swapping scenes of Mitsuha and Taki’s teenage lives. I’ve included the trailer below which features one of the brilliant RADWIMPS tracks.

From Garden of Words and 5 Centimetres Per Second, to Your Name, Makoto Shinkai seems to be continually building on his work, with each anime offering a greater and greater emotional scope that extends into impressive far-reaching themes of the traditional against the modern, long distance love, and figuring out our place in the world.

I love everything about Your Name: its staggeringly beautiful animation, its expressive characters with deep hearts and its moving soundtrack. It’s Japan’s highest grossing movie of 2016, if you haven’t already watched it, what are you waiting for?

Shelter (Porter Robinson, Madeon, Toshifumi Akai)

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I’m all about my pretty anime, so when I saw the above image while browsing Crunchyroll, and read in the description that it involved a futuristic sci-fi storyline, I was sold. I didn’t realise until clicking on it that it was actually a music video, and not a full length anime!

Six minutes long, the story follows Rin who lives in an incredible simulated world. Through a tablet device, she can draw whatever landscape she wants, and it will be beautifully rendered before her eyes. But she is sad and lonely, continually checking her tablet which reveals it has been a long time since she received any messages.

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Is a limitless world really heaven when you have no one to share it with?

Pairing a vibrant electronic dance track with the endless visual wonders that anime can achieve is a match made in heaven and they fit so well together that if I had found the video elsewhere I would have thought the music was created especially for the animation. This is a gorgeous watch – Rin is delightfully drawn, with big sparkling eyes and an equally beautifully world she moulds at her fingertips, allowing us to marvel alongside her at the northern lights, cerulean blue skies with thick fluffy white clouds and impressive cliff tops. The cherry on the cake is the more humble but still beautiful Japan she came from, shown through an emotive family montage (as well as the classic cherry blossoms).

It’s such a shame that Shelter isn’t a full length movie, because it is a triumph. At 4 million views on Youtube already, I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so! Watch it below and experience the beauty yourself: