Saturday, July 31, 2010

Shiki - 4



Things certainly aren't going well in little Sotoba. The body count grew impressively this episode, with Nao's husband kicking off among others, and her son possibly right behind. We're up to twenty now, and our intrepid Dr. Ozaki has finally decided it's time to do something more than monitor the victims as they slowly expire. An epidemic of some sort is suspected and he assembles his team of nurses and administrators to go to battle. Meanwhile the bishie author-monk has another encounter with creepy Sunako, out for a midnight stroll, in an abandoned church on the Buddhist temple grounds.

And then there's Natsuno, for whom things just seem to be getting worse. He isn't getting much sleep, and it shows. Visions of a lantern-eyed Megumi outside (and inside) his shoji screen plague him. Desperate for rest he stays over at pal Torou's place, but that doesn't turn out too well. Megumi and the Kirishiki son show up - whether in reality, Natsuno's dream or some combination of both we're not sure - and things start looking really bad for death flag Torou.

I stand by my belief that there's no major curve-ball headed our way. I think this story is going to turn out to be about exactly what it seems - a clan of very traditional vampires terrorizing a small village in rural Japan. Rather than a mystery like Higurashi, I think we're watching a tragedy, where everyone knows what's going on except the people it's happening to.

Admittedly, the clues seem almost too obvious to be taken at face value. The bite marks on the victims, Sunako's statement that she has a "disease" preventing her from going out at night, the implication that the Kirishikis need to be invited before they can enter a house, etc. So it's entirely possible that I could be wrong and this is a complete feint - but I don't think so. Rather than twists and turns, I think the creators are having fun with the cliches of the genre itself. The character designs are so over the top as to almost comical, yet oddly beautiful. The BGM is classic horror camp. I actually hope this is the case and I'm not giving them too much credit - because if they're playing this material straight, it's some of the heaviest and must humorless stuff I've seen in a long time.

Is it good anime? I think so - this episode was genuinely creepy, more so than any of the first three. The look is distinctive and production values excellent. The plot, while seemingly obvious, is interesting enough to keep me hooked in from week to week. This may be one of the few times I'm hoping for no major surprises - I'd like for Shiki to turn out to be a wry and witty riff on old-time vampire lore than a more traditional puzzle box of twists-and-turns anime horror. Time will tell.

Kuroshitsuji II - 5



One step closer to an answer, but the mystery still remains.

The return of Soma and Agni - and their curry-pan - brings pretty much the entire semi-regular cast of S1 back into the fold. With the exception of poor Madame Red, of course - she's not coming back, but Ciel doesn't even know she's dead. What sort of game is Sebastian weaving here? Apparently, in glaring defiance of what apparently happened at the end of season one, he's somehow brought Ciel back to life with a large gap in his memories. Why would he do such a thing, when his contract was very clear - what did he stand to gain by forestalling its execution? The writers of this anime-original season have set themselves a very high bar in coming up with a reasonable explanation for all that.

As for the narrative itself, we do indeed appear to be setting up a scenario where Ciel and Sebastian are the "good" pair, facing off against the evil pair of Alois and Claude. I have my doubts about that role for Sebby and Ciel, but no issues with the latter - Alois a ghastly little tramp, that's for certain. He's a sadist, especially when it comes to his buxom, monocular maid Hannah, who provides some distinct fanservice in this episode. The most provocative scenes by far, however, take place between Ciel and Alois, the latter in Hannah's maid outfit. Even in this mangaverse it's slightly shocking to see such moments play out between two adolescent males, but Kuroshitsuji has never been about acceptable barriers (anyone who has read the circus arc of the manga could tell you that) so it isn't inconsistent with the theme.

As for Claude, I still see him as a pale imitation of Sebby and find his "Yes, Your Highness" rather pathetic. And I prefer the antics of the incompetent Phantomhive servants (especially sweet, clueless Finny) to Claude's monkey-like triplets (are they human, demon or automaton?). Nevertheless, Alois and Claude are formidable and Alois definitely wants Ciel, in more ways than one. Of course the battles teased in the cliffhanger isn't going to be the decisive one, but it does appear to be the first skirmish in the central war of the season. This was a good episode, with a more serious tone than the first three and a real feeling of menace and sultry tension that was more common in the first season. With the war of the Boy/Butler duos and the central mystery still out there, there's enough here to generate a very solid season if it's executed well.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Nurarihyon no Mago - 4



Episode 4 of Nurarihyon is pretty much straight action all the way through. Kana and Yura are right where we left them, being menaced by the Kyuuso Clan of rat demons. Yura kicked some rat tail with her shikigami, but when Kana was threatened she let her guard down and the two of them are captured. This turns out to be yet another plan to get Rikuo to resign as heir to the Nura Clan - Kyuuso lures him to their hideout and threatens to kill the girls at dawn unless he issues an official letter stating his resignation to the heads of all the clans. Rikuo, naturally, seems only too willing to resign - since he professes to want out of the arrangement anyway - but he's entirely too trusting of Kyuuso's promise to release the girls if he complies. His grandfather gets Rikuo's dander up, however, and his fighting spirit calls forth Night Rikuo and our first real extended fight of the series, with the "Night March of a Hundred Demons" with Rikuo at their head.

Along the way, we get a nice dose of demon politics - the rat clan has apparently deposed the Bakaneko Cat Clan from their territory. We get a fair amount of action and some nice GAR moments from Night Rikuo. On the whole, though, the episode felt kind of empty to me. None of the conflict swept me up as much as the character stuff from the first three episodes. The villain was pretty much cookie-cutter and the action scenes were modest. One problem I'm having is the obvious dichotomy between the two Rikuos. Not only are they completely different in personality and outlook, but unlike in, say, DN Angel they never communicate with each other - they're like two different people sharing the same body. In Tetsuwan Birdy that was fun - the interplay in each others heads was one of the best parts of the series. But here there's no connection, no commonality - and it lessens the impact of their situation. I'd like to see some elements of his demon self manifest in Day Rikuo, or some sense of communication between the two halves of his being - I think that would add a lot of depth and complexity to the core drama of the series.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Major - 147



Now that was more like it.

I love the baseball themed eps of Major - the series does them exceptionally well, though I'd like to see Goro at bat more - but the last few have started to drag on me. The drama has gotten heavy and a little obvious, and the resolutions too convenient. Last week I asked for an episode focused on the Shimizu siblings and, while I only got a few moments, they were made to count.



What we did get was just as badly needed - a total change of pace. Things are going well on the field and the drama revolved around the greedy owner, Lance, wanting Goro to do some TV spots for a Japanese TV network. In truth, Japanese stars can mean big money for US teams, and a 20 year-old phenom doing what Goro is would be huge back home. Goro, naturally, isn't interested - so Lance's toady gets the very pretty Sophia Bell to try and persuade him. Sophia is a manager, nutritionist and conditioning coach all rolled into one, apparently. The image of the blonde Sophia sitting at a bar, sipping a Cosmopolitan, is every Japanese cliche of the American female rolled into one hilarious singularity.

What follows is pretty predictable - Goro is lovably clueless and stubborn, Sophia hates him, then realizes after watching him play that he's actually a GAR individual. But it's a great chance to show the Goro we know and love, and to lighten the mood of the series. Sophia shows herself to be a good coach as well as a true friend to the players, and in a hilarious conclusion Goro does the commercial with... Interesting results.

The only downer here is that Watts' hip is apparently getting worse, and he may not be able to finish the season. Again, I sure hope Goro doesn't return to the bullpen.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin - 4



Still great, this show - beautiful to look at, wonderfully acted and insanely clever. This ep might have been a very small step down from episode three, but it was still outstanding.

The episode picks up more or less where the last ended, with Kozue still missing and now Maya as well. Kobiyashi Yuu continues to have way too much fun as the Vice-Principal, now squarely a Bunemi groupie (she even writes love poetry about him). She sends Fumiaki off to search for them (he insists they split up to search) and his path crosses with Mikaze. After another harrowing ride in her sports car no Nagano and back, they end up near the old bunker where we last saw Maya. Through a secret passage in an old kofun they end up under the mountain, searching with the flashlights Mikaze conveniently (that word seems to follow her) brought with her.

It's at this point that we're treated to a fascinating mish-mash of mythological stuff - the Mothman Prophecies, pyramid theory, the tree of life... And Maya again shows that for a skeptic, she knows an awful lot about the occult. We also learn a little more about Fumiaki. First, that - as expected - his story about how he came to be in the past was a more or less total fabrication. Second that he's an abject coward, fleeing a cavern full of giant moths and leaving Maya and an unconscious Kozue to fend for themselves. Fortunately JK and Smile show up just in the nick of time and JK saves the day with his Yamaha keyboard.

We seem to be seeing a growing chasm in the viewership regarding Fumiaki. Some are dismissing him as a worthless character, a coward. And of course he is a coward - but I can't help but like him in spite of that. His facial expressions are a highlight in every episode and he's just plain funny. Fumiaki isn't a bad guy - just a schlemazel who can't buy a break. Maya is a bigger problem for me, to be honest - she's just a little too mean for me to really like her. She's had a tough life herself, of course, with her weird father and his occult obsessions - but it seems to have left her hard and cold to the point of brittleness. Of course that's as likely as not to change as she develops and (presumably) warms to Fumiaki. And then there's Mikaze. Her secrets aren't revealed yet but there's definitely something odd with her. She always seems to be appear at the right time to be in the middle of things, and always well-prepared. Obviously she knows who Fumiaki is and is tailing him - that seems indisputable at this point - but what is she? Is the girl a time traveler herself, or perhaps she's the old lady at the izakaya and has some sort of shape-shifting abilities (a youkai?). With pretty much every mythological system being fair game here nothing can ruled out - which is all part of the fun. Anything goes, and I'm looking forward to seeing it go.

Asobi ni Ikuyo! - 3



I haven't quite figured out if this series is intentionally mixing up an endless array of styles and tropes, or it's just really, really confused. Either way, it's certainly interesting to look at.

An amazing amount of stuff continues to happen every episode. Things get revealed left and right - they just sort of drop from the sky (like bombshells?) and boom, there you are. Because so little of it really makes sense the plot continues to be a muddle despite all the reveals, but this week we did learn

- Futaba has some sort of telekinetic power that caused her to be estranged from her family. She was (apparently) born human.

- Kio has interesting taste in porn

- A competing race of aliens - "Doggies" has been secretly working with Earth officials to establish relations. And they don't like the Kitties horning in on them one bit.

For me, the funniest part of the episode were the "Assisteroids" - Eris' little helpers who communicate via placard a la Kushinashi from "Needless". Their little antics and written communications were pretty hilarious, but the very best part was when the kidnapped #17 got strapped into a child seat in the kidnapper's vehicle.

We've pretty much get everything you need here for antics - a full-on harem has moved into Kio's house, and the naked jokes are already coming. Haruka Tomatsu is playing a big-time tsundere here that would put Aoba to shame, pretending at rooting for Futaba to win Kio but doing a bad job of it. Yet another new character and competing interest looks like its being introduced in the next episode. Asobi ni Ikuyo looks to be one of those series that logic simply doesn't apply to - weird things are going to happen and you just have to roll with the punches. So far, so good more or less - but I feel like I want crave something a little more substantive before it's all said and done.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Giant Killing - 17



Episode 17 continued to spin the saga of the three ETU forwards, Sera, Sakai and Natsuki. The nice thing about this has been that none of them are bad guys - just competitors who want to play. Sera has been the one at the center of the narrative and thus thus the most sympathetic, but all of them have had their moments.

The episode begins (after the usual extended recap footage) with Sera having been diagnosed with a sprained ankle, and out for a week. Not a big deal - but Sera knows that its a critical time, and mopes while watching the junior team scrimmage and eating potato chips. That's when Sakai gets his first extended time to shine. He reveals that he's old (31) and past his prime, and his resentment that Sera can mope around eating junk food just because he's young. Sakai doesn't feel he should have lost his job to Sera, never mind Natsu - and in his harsh way he encourages Sera not to give up the fight either. For Sera, though inspired by Sakai's samurai spirit, it's agony to watch ETU play without him - he wants them to win, but not look too good in his absence.

Of course his agony only gets worse when Natsu subs in for Sakai as striker - and ETU promptly surrenders a goal on a counterattack. However, the tables soon turn - Natsu scores a goal on a burst of brilliant creativity and ETU scrapes together a draw. The Edomae have grown to five, the players seem elated, but Murakoshi scolds them for celebrating a draw, and Tatsumi looks worried - clearly not satisfied with their progress.

I loved several moments of this episode, most especially Tatsumi's exasperated "Why can't he be normal?" when Natsu was engaged in his bizarre on-field antics. Natsu could easily be the villain here, but he's not - he has a wife and (incredibly goofy-looking) daughter he loves, and just wants to play and score goals. He's a simple guy, but obviously extremely talented. Sakai is classic conventional forward, by his own admission not as fast as Sera or strong as Natsuki, but smart and strong in the air. He sees his best days are behind him and desperately wants to hang on for as long as he can. And then there's Sera, young and fast and full of self-doubt, who sees that Natsumi brings elements to the game that he never will. You want all of them to play, which is a tribute to the writing here - but only one of them can be a starter, and Natsu is clearly that guy. I'll be very interested to see how this is finessed as we progress into the last arcs of the adaptation.

Kuroshitsuji II - 4



We're no closer to an explanation of just what's happening with Ciel after episode 4, but it least it was a step-up in terms of overall quality. And for the first time since the premiere, the paths of our two sets of boys & butlers crossed - but only with Claude, not Alois.

While fluffy, the episode premise was an excuse for a rather entertaining lark on a luxury train, something of a homage to "Murder on the Orient Express". In the process we get just about every Victorian cliche you can imagine - a mummy, bombs secretly planted on the train, a kidnapper, escaped mass murderer, a genki police inspector, and a train otaku. Even a pair of elderly Japanese tourists. And one bespectacled butler who doesn't have much to say but catches Sebby's eye in the dining car. It's a motley crew of eccentrics and a confusion of chaos that would do Baccanno proud.

The strongest moments in the episode involved Sebastian's ridiculous power-ups. Especially rewarding was the way he shot down the other passengers who were rallying together to fight all the evil (and suspected cholera) on the train) with a simple "No thanks - I can handle it myself". In the end, of course, he does - and the takeaway from the episode is an invitation for a ball at Alois' estate, which should prove interesting. The big questions remain - are we being set up for a "good" vs. evil battle with Sebby and Ciel against Alois and Claude? And just why the heck is Ciel still alive?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mitsudomoe - 4



The laughs continue with another strong episode of Mitsudomoe. We pick up right where #3 left off, with another show based around the themes of panties and misunderstandings, with a strong side of boobies. It's not quite as tightly constructed as the third episode and the laughs aren't quite as huge, but it's another solid effort and stamps this series as the funniest pure comedy of the summer season.

While we learn more about Yabe-chin this week, namely that he's a virgin who's never seen real breasts - even without his "Cherry" shirt this shouldn't have come as a big surprise - the big players this week are Futaba and Shin-chan. Futaba is emerging as perhaps the oddest among this very odd trio of sisters. The depths of her status as a breast otaku become clear, as she hilariously draws a sketch of Yabe-chin as a sultry model with an F-cup. Her follow-up drawing - just the breasts this time - earns her the praise of the 55 year-old Principal, Toda, and a place of honor in the school hallway. She and Chiba-kun seem to become comrades-in-breasts, comparing notes and ogling jiggly manga, when the series takes a (brief) serious turn when Futaba breaks Mitsuba's pencil case. Thus follows a fairly touching reminiscence about the origins of the case, and Futaba is consumed by guilt and hides out under Yabe-chin's desk - paying 100 yen rent to Hitoha for the privilege. Yabe lamely protests that the space between his legs is not for rent, and soon enough we're back to real comedy as Shin-chan and Chiba visit the triplets' room to work on a science fair project with Futaba. This leads to a revelation about Mitsuba's "dere" side, an impromptu soccer match, the second use of "Kuma!" in a series this week and the eventual stamping of poor Shinya - thanks to Chiba's meddling - as a pervert.

This is pretty wild stuff - utterly tasteless and borderline obscene in parts - but dammit, it usually works. Futaba is a riot - none too bright, extremely bizarre but fundamentally a sweet person (unless you're a frog). I'm enjoying seeing each sister get the opportunity to have their character fleshed-out in turn - and all of them are more than their rather unpleasant initial impressions would have had you believe. Chiba and Shinya are an excellent addition - Shinya's futile attempts to be a "good boy" are hilarious and sure to lead to much consternation for him in future episodes. I'd like to see a little more done to round out Yabe's character - perhaps a segment focusing on his background or personal life is on the way. But ultimately, this isn't serious stuff here - just outrageous comedy that swings for the fences and sometimes misses badly. So far, though, the hits have been more frequent than the whiffs and the percentage seems to be improving every week.

Shiki - 3



Let the wrong one in...




I continue to be entertained by Shiki, though certainly not for it's subtlety. The freakshow certainly was out in earnest in this episode. Not only did we finally meet the whole Kirishiki clan, but an extremely grotesque - though apparently human - teenager named Masou. He appears to be not much more than a creepy little social outcast, but there's no hiding what the Kirishikis are. The Dad has goth hair, the females have black holes for eyes, and the son has horn-hair. This is certainly not a mystery in the "Higurashi" vein, but a stylized anime version of a Greek tragedy - everyone knows what's happening except the people it's happening to.

We did have some exposition. The bishie monk is a writer, apparently of grisly tales about his village, and tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists. It was his essay that led the Kirishiki's to their new feasting ground - a fact revealed by their super-creepy daughter, Sunako. She's not as freaky as "normal" Masou, but a pretty delightful creation nonetheless. And the body count crept up by one (an off week) as Nao died of the same symptoms as Megumi. But this time, hunk Doctor noticed "insect" bites on her arm.

And then there's Natsuno. Is he a victim already, or just exhausted from being haunted by Megumi's restless spirit? His friend Torou was introduced, and death flags abounded for him - normal isn't a good plan in this show, and he invited the Kirshiki's son into his house (smart move, Guy). It's silly, but in a good way - over-the-top and proud of it. It should be fun to watch the Kirishikis as wolves among the lambs here, and the Doctor and Monk try to stop them.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Amagami SS - 4



The Haruka arc concludes with can only be described as a blisteringly fast-paced episode. I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed it nearly as much as the sweet and absurdly romantic episode 2, but it can't be accused of not tying up loose ends.

There was a lot revealed here - Haruka and Junichi actually met two years earler when both were depressed, he over being stood up at Christmas and she over the anniversary of the passing of her beloved dog. It just so happens that Junichi was sitting on said dog's favorite park bench and, although Haruka never knew Junichi's name, the meeting left a significant impression on both of them. We also learned that her grandfather is English, and that she's a pretty sneaky girl. She convinced Junichi that he was meeting her family for Christmas Eve, got him worked up with a swimming session at a hotel pool, and maneuvered him into a hotel room with no family - just the two of them, beds and a giant bathtub.

I must confess that things felt a bit rushed to me, which I suppose is to be expected when you have to cram an entire relationship into one four-episode arc. Haruka's insecurity over Junichi's failure to confess again seemed an overreaction to me - smart as she is, Haruka couldn't possibly have thought he wasn't crazy about her. The advance from knee-kissing to declarations of love happened a little too fast, and then we're treated to a ten-year time jump that finds the two of them married and apparently still engaging in kinky love games (well OK, that part was pretty cute).

I think this points up one of the major flaws of a premise like this, and why it often works better as a game than an anime - just when one arc is starting to get really interesting (this one clearly peaked in episode 3) we have to rush to a conclusion and get on with the next one. That said, I did enjoy this first arc a lot, and there were charming elements to the finale. The fated encounter at the park two years earlier was a nice touch, and added a layer of mystique to their relationship. I wish we could have seen it develop over a few more eps, but it's time to move on - and I am looking forward to the rest of the girls, starting with the osananajimi path, the Karou arc.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Nurarihyon no Mago - 3



Nurarihyon no Mago continues to settle into a nice rhythm, not spectacular in any one area but a nice mix of humor, action and character interaction. The pacing of this series continues to be as good as any this summer, each episode feeling well thought-out and conceived.

We briefly met Keikan Yura (Ai Maeda) at the close of episode two, but the last member of the main harem makes her meaningful entry this week. As hinted at last week, turns out she's an onmyouji, who specializes in the use of Shikaigami. When Rikuo's youkai otaku friend Kiyotsugu decides to hold the inaugural meeting of his Supernatural Squad meeting at Rikuo's house, he invites new student Yura along as she seems to possess a thorough knowledge of youkai - and trouble is on the way. What follows is a frequently hilarious comedy of errors as Rikuo desperately tries to hide the fact that his house is a den of demons of all stripes from his friends - and that's before he even knew Yura's true nature. All the while a clan of rat youkai are causing trouble, which Yura and Kana are destined to stumble into.

The central dynamic of the story - Rikuo's dual identity and the struggle to keep the two halves of his life separate - is hardly novel or original. But it's executed pretty well here - the tone is generally light-hearted, in a GeGeGe no Kitaro sort of way - but there's enough menace in the youkai world to give the story a little edge. I could have used more Yuki Onna here - I could always use more Yuki Onna - and it struck me as odd that despite being on a youkai hunt, no one in Rikuo's class made note of his grandfather's head except dimwit Shima, and he laughed it off. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable episode. This series has been remarkably consistent right from the beginning and I'm looking forward to seeing the layers of the demon world slowly revealed.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Major - 146



I must confess, the last couple of episodes have started to drag a bit for me. The emotional whipsaw of the Hornets is a bit much for me - they go from inspired and unbeatable to a team in disarray and back in a flash. Murdoch's presence was a good catalyst for some of it, but these last two eps the mood swings have felt more like plot devices. On the other hand, it is nicely realistic that the team is showing its stripes - a temperamental and volatile bunch that lives and dies on emotion. In that sense, they're taking their cue from their young inspirational leader, Goro.

I think we need a little more intercutting with the gang back home - if we don't touch base every few episodes the baseball side gets a bit repetitive. And while he was never among my favorite characters, I can't help but wonder what Toshii is up to - have we even checked in with him this season?

Finally, the teaser at the end of the up shows Watts is dealing with a hip injury and may not finish the season. Are we setting up for a return to the closer's role for Goro? I hope not - I like him better in the rotation...

Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin - 3



Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin continues to be the best series of the summer so far, the only one to offer three winners in three episodes.

Make no mistake, there was a definite change of tone here - this was a sort of "occult slice of life" interlude. But that's something this series is already proving itself good at. Our focus this week was definitely on Abe Minor/Bunmei/Fumiaki. We see that he lives in a rat-trap of an apartment with a frightening obaa-san for a landlay. We see, through flashbacks, that he loves curry and loved his mother even more (in a rather touching scene, he calls her but can't bring himself to speak). In loneliness, he steps into the little Izakaya across the way, only to find it's run by the landlady's twin sister. The service is slow, but the help is adorable - in the person of Mikaze (Chihara Minori), a moe waitress who Fumiaki decides is "just his type". As little Bunmei's spoon-bending exploits are shown on TV, Mikaze shocks Fumiaki by referring to the little boy as "Fumiaki-chan" - a name he'd thought only his mother knew.

What follows is a hilarious romp around the sights of town, courtesy of Mikaze's sports car. Her driving is as ugly as she is cute, but Fumiaki puts up with it and even gets an indirect kiss. All the while Maya is doing what Fumiaki was supposed to be doing - searching the town for a rumored tengu that is spiriting away the locals. Her path crosses theirs in an old bunker built at the close of WW II, and Mikaze gives us subtle hints that she may be a time-traveler herself.

So much worked well here - the subtle mystery surrounding Mikaze, which is left as a faint shading on the edge of the narrative. I could listen all day to Kobayashi Yuu hamming it up as the vice-principal - she's obviously having fun here and it's contagious. The art and animation continue to be wonderful, still putting me in mind of "Kamichu" in terms of the vivid color palette and gorgeous character designs. There's something of that series in the larger-than-life personalities of the characters too - they're outrageous, but in a likable way. And we're starting to get little hints about the plot now - not enough to spoil the mystery, but just to remind us that no matter how much fun the characters are, there's a larger story playing out, too.

Kuroshitsuji II - 3



Hmmm.

Well, I think I've read just about all the half-assed theories and wacky ideas about what's happening this season, and in the end - I really have no clue what's going on here.

There was one clue in episode three that leads me to believe the "lost memory" theory, rather than the dream theory or dreaded "reset button" theory. When Ciel mentioned keeping Madame Red in the dark about his trip to London, Sebastian's "I don't think that will be a problem" seems designed to carry a lot of weight. Either that, or it was an outstanding feint.

The larger question - do I like what's happening in season two? Well, I must confess that it falls short of S1 for me - so far. The humor seems slightly off and the storylines a little more forced, no doubt a reflection of the manga-ka's limited involvement in the day-to-day- writing process. It's almost like an imitation of the show - like a really good cover band. It looks and sounds almost the same, but it isn't quite right.

On the other hand, Sebastian and Ciel are such great characters that it's always good to have them around. Ciel's "I will dig up the truth and tear it from their rotting flesh" was a classic line, and typical of his character. And it will certainly be interesting to see how they interact with the new pair, Alois and Claude. I suppose it's all going to hinge on just how good a job they do with the actual explanation of the premise and how we got here. For now, the jury is still out.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Asobi ni Ikuyo! - 2



Well, that was a great big bowl of WTF. Rather enjoyable, but if anything I feel I know less about what's going on than I did last week.

Asobi ni Ikuyo! certainly doesn't hold back when it comes to reveals. There are no subtle hints or foreshadowing here - stuff pretty much just happens and we need to catch up. Apparently every person in Kio's circle except Kio himself is secretly working for somebody - be it the Japanese military, American military, CIA or some quasi-paramilitary group with a fetish for stylish E.T.'s. And then there's Futaba, who also appears to be either an alien or some sort of cyborg/robotic super-alien. And that's not even talking about Eris and her Lala-esque bag of tricks. Kio seems to have a target on his back when it comes to weirdness.

There are several things redeeming this above simple confusing nonsense. First, both Kio and Eris are more than they seem. He's quite level-headed and calm, and she much smarter than the typical airhead catgirl/alien. There's also some fairly clever political satire here, dealing with the alien freaks and the US military presence in Okinawa. And the harem aspect may be of above-average potential, based on the humor mined from it in episode 2.

Stylistically this is a bit of a muddle, too. This ep was much lighter in tone than the first one - leaning more towards the ToLoveRu side of the genome than the Darker than Black feel of episode 1. Where this is going I really have no idea - but the whole mess is such a narrative train wreck that I can't look away. Maybe we can really find something original in all these highly derivative elements - it should be interesting to find out.

Giant Killing - 16



Another week, another win for ETU - this time a hard-fought 1-0 league match over Yokohama. This was ETU's third win in a row but they really had to earn it - Yokohama marked Gino with two men and forced ETU - unsuccessfully - to find their creativity elsewhere. The goal came on a corner kick from Gino, with Murakoshi getting a rare tally. More to the point dramatically, Sera continues to struggle - eventually getting subbed out for Sakai, who nearly scored in the closing minutes.

Natsuki, meanwhile, was used a decoy by Tatsumi to play head games with Yokohama's coach - he wasn't even on the bench for the next match with Shimizu. But Sakai was, and Sera continued to press. Just when it appeared he would finally get his scoring chance, he injured himself and apparently had to leave the game.

That was a pretty dramatic episode - well-paced as we've come to expect from this series (other than the usual pre-OP recap clips). The dynamic among the strikers is quite interesting. Sera appears not to be a typical striker in the Rooney mold - big and strong and dangerous in the air - but a small guy who tries to get by on energy. Sakai appears to be a more traditional forward, slower but taller. And then there's Natsu - dynamic and a little nuts, but seemingly with the right mindset for a forward - gung-ho, score at all costs. Sera's self-doubt is unhealthy for any player but especially for a striker whose job it is to play fearlessly and score goals. And all of these guys have their psychological issues - Natsu's desire for attention, Sakai's simmering anger at being passed over, and Sera's constant mental fidgeting about his performances. I think it's a bad idea for a striker to think too much - and Natsu clearly doesn't have that problem.

I had thought perhaps Sera would rally and Tatsumi might switch to a 4-4-2, but for now his injury appears to have put that problem to rest. It looks from the preview as if Natsu will get the call - which will leave Sakai even more resentful, presumably.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mitsudomoe - 3



Mitsudomoe's multiple personality disorder continues this week, as the series takes a fairly radical tonal departure (for the better, IMO) from the second episode. This week's themes are panties and misunderstandings, and we return to the better elements of the first episode, where we get situation comedy based on some fairly clever writing.

This week, we spend a little more time with a couple of the boys - first, Shinra, a seemingly normal and responsible lad who's suitably horrified when Futaba tells him she's testing her theory of how much cooler it is in the summer without panties (and invites him to try it). Next, Chiba (the "69" boy) who's decided it's time to graduate from looking for pantsu shots in manga to real porn. Hitoha, of course, has what Chiba is looking for, but refuses to share. This leads to a pretty hilarious series of misunderstandings, as Chiba quests to procure the porn, Shinra assumes he's talking about panties, and finally - after Hitoha stashes a decoy porn mag in Shinra's satchel - Shinra thinks Chiba wants to get a look at his "thing".

Next, we meet another new classmate - the occult-obsessed and slightly insane Matsuoka. Yabe notices Hitoha is always walking home alone, and tries to push her to make a friend - with predictably disastrous results. A battle with a mosquito leads to misunderstanding #4, where Matsuoka concludes that Hitoha is some sort of medium who can see spirits, and Hitoha that Matsuoka is a lesbian in training. This leads to a night-time session at the school pool, where Hitoha thinks she's going to learn to swim and Matsuoka thinks a battle with evil spirits is about to occur. Hitoha nearly drowns, and we discover the following morning that...

Matsuoka has covered her entire body with spells - written in oil-based marker. And the triplets have all worn their swimsuits to school and forgotten their panties - a fact discovered by their father, Soujirou. Soujirou- an overweight blob of a fellow - heads for the school to deliver the goods. More misunderstandings follow - starting with Mitsuba's belief that their panties had been stolen. Futaba, none too bright, buys into it - and Hitoha, too embarrassed now to to admit the truth, clams up. Soujirou attempts to climb the school wall to deliver the panties, leading onlookers to assume he's a pervert and call the cops. Soujirou, meanwhile, sees Yabe with his pants down as Mitsuba has pantsed him to see if he's the thief (after already having done the same to her male classmates). Soujirou assumes Yabe is the pedo, the police come and neither Hitoha and Mitsuba, embarrassed, or Futaba - dumb as a stump - tell them he's their father, which gets him hauled off to the station. And later, Hitoha and Mitsuba locked in the shed as Dad and Futaba enjoy their dinner.

Get all that? In hindsight, while none of it was spectacularly hilarious in the moment it was ingeniously constructed. There were solid laughs in every segment - a first for this series for me. And gratifyingly, both the grossness and the meanness were toned way down. Hitoha had a great week (though she wouldn't have said so) - she seemed quite vulnerable in the middle segment, acutely aware of her social pariah status. Her embarrassment at every turn was charmingly human. In tone, this reminded me of an episode of Kyou no Go no Ni - which I consider high praise. This is what I hoped the series would be and what I hope it will be in the future - not the nasty, vile stuff of most of episode 2 but smart, screwball comedy based on the social oddities of sixth graders.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Amagami SS - 3



Puppies... And kittens.

I see a problem developing with this show for me. I'm liking this first relationship so much that it may close my mind to the other girls' arcs. It's a nice worry to have, but still a worry.

Junichi, proving himself the clever lad, has clearly learned two lessons I noted after the second ep. First, his path to Haruka's heart is by being a puppy. Second, that forehead kisses are extremely underrated. He's taken the first one a bit more literally than I expected, but hey - it's certainly working!

This week finds Junichi in a romantic euphoria, riding high off his eyebrow kiss from Haruka. Proving himself once again refreshingly bold and direct, he asks her for another. Not surprisingly she says no - as Junichi's eyebrows look more like a wolf's than a puppy's when he considers the possibility. However, she offers him an enticing alternative - he can kiss her, this time. Provided he can find a good spot and guide them there without meeting any of their friends. Enterprising, Junichi leads her to a small shed, private and spacious and altogether a naughty place if ever one existed. Haruka offers one stipulation - anywhere but the lips - and Junichi surprises her by choosing the back of the knee. Cleverly playing the puppy card, he says it's because that's where dogs kiss girls. And then, in one of the most romantic (and surprisingly erotic) scenes of the year, he proceeds to kiss her most enthusiastically, which Haruka appears to thoroughly enjoy - stopping Junichi only when he sets his sights (and lips) a little too high.

Haruka is now quite thoroughly smitten with her new puppy - with his cuteness but also his straightforward interest in her. On the advice of her friend, she decided to play the kitten to his puppy - to let her man spoil her, despite her reservations about his youth. And then, in yet another spectacularly romantic moment, they role-play kidnapper and prisoner with a bowl of shio ramen as a prop, to an audience of slack-jawed kids in the cafeteria.

That was really a wonderful episode all around. Again, I'm so pleased at how refreshingly straightforward the relationship between Junichi and Haruka is - he simply tells her exactly what he wants and what he thinks. Junichi is an excellent lead so far - unusually forceful and bold, while still being considerate of the girl. And Haruka - in addition to being rather sexy - is a joy to watch evolve. Junichi has slowly grown from an afterthought to a formidable figure to her - winning her over when she never would have thought he had a chance. She has her doubts - getting serious with anyone, never mind her junior, is the last thing she'd planned on. But Junichi is proving to be much more than she planned for.

I also want to call out that the knee-kissing scene and the ramen episode were probably the two most erotic scenes of the summer season - despite a minimal amount of fanservice. No jiggly boobs, sharing of spit, breast milk - just the half-innocent art of seduction. This is what romance should be - and no amount of skin and moaning and bodily fluids can make a scene romantic if the characters can't pull it off.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Shiki - 2



Two episodes in, and this one is solidly in the rotation for the summer. Not much new ground is being broken, but Shiki is succeeding thus far in the tradition of Higurashi, one of the better recent examples of its genre.

As expected, the body count continues to grow alarmingly in episode two. The first section deals mostly with reaction to Megumi's untimely death at the end of the first ep, especially that of her younger friend and admirer. She fiends a mid-summer greeting card (perhaps another Japanese tradition I was not aware of?) that Megumi had apparently written but but too scared to give to Natsuno. He continues to generally be a standoffish prick, attending Megumi's funeral but refusing to accept the letter as a memory of Megumi and complaining to the nurse at the Ozaki clinic that he dislikes small village life.

Meanwhile Dr. Ozaki, perhaps emerging as the hero figure of the story, suspects that something is seriously wrong in the little village of Sotoba. While Megumi's father refuses his request for an autopsy, Ozaki blames himself for misdiagnosing her (later confirmed by her blood test). Sotobans are dying off left and right, mostly but not exclusively the elderly, and all seeming to have similar reported symptoms - weakness, fatigue, walking about it a daze. Ozaki's contact at the government office confirms that ten have died in all, and Ozaki and the bishie monk suspect a possible epidemic. Meanwhile, Natsuno has started closing his shoji screen again - though even he isn't sure why...

What Shiki has accomplished so far, above anything, is to create an atmosphere. The stifling closeness of village life, where everyone knows (or tries to) everyone's business is so well-presented that we can almost feel Natsuno's frustration and paranoia. There was some quite interesting framing and camera work in this episode - the pan-outs to reveal the village surrounded by it's groves of fir trees and hills, the "map" of the various important spots in town, the quick pull-backs... All of it is interesting, and creates a sense of disjointed unease. The BGM is a little broad for my taste, but not unusual for the genre.

There's barely a drop of humor in this so far, and we haven't been made to feel too much for any of the characters yet, with the possible exception of Megumi. Still - it's early, and we're surely going to be dealing with a huge cast of characters here so deep focus on any one may not be a realistic expectation. The mystery is apparently going to be unraveled at a leisurely pace, with Dr. Ozaki in a critical role. I'm looking forward to seeing where the series goes from here - vampirism seems a likely bet based on the clues so far, but I've no doubt we'll get at least a few interesting twists on that theme.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

High School of the Dead - 2



This is obviously the most discussed series of the summer, so I don't think I need to add a whole lot in terms of recap. Frankly, I'm not sure how much can even be served by blogging a series so thoroughly covered already, but it's certainly an interesting series so far.

Episode 2, for me, revealed some major problems for the series. Conceptually, a traditional zombie horror riddled through with every anime cliche imaginable - jiggly boobs, panty shots, fat otaku in glasses, katana girl, airhead school nurse - is an interesting one. In practice, though, something about the tone in this ep just didn't strike a good balance for me. The light-hearted moments seemed forced and stilted. And really, how much longer can we see limitless gore before it simply begins to lose all shock effect?

I also had major issues with Takagi. Thoroughly obnoxious, completely and transparently artificial. And really, all this "Fatass" stuff - are we really that juvenile in this day and age to find that funny? If this intends to be a parody, HSotD needs to do a better job of satirizing the zombie genre itself. I feel right now as if the series doesn't know exactly what its trying to be.

I'll be watching it though, at least for a while - everyone else will, seemingly, so why be left out? It's Madhouse, and they're rarely less than interesting these last few years. But I'm worried about whether the first episode was so much better than the second because of writing quality, or simply because after two eps the series is already wearing thin.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Nurarihyon no Mago - 2



I have a confession to make - I'm in love with Horie Yui.

I guess I have been, ever since she gave one of my top-5 all-time seiyuu performances in "Kanon" (Uguu!). She certainly isn't all that I'm enjoying about Nurarihiyon no Mago, but her Yuki-onna ("call me Tsurara")is a delight to watch.

I'm liking the series itself, too. As I expected the focus of the series turned onto demon politics in the second episode. A couple of major new characters were introduced, the most important being Lord Zen. A childhood playmate of Rikuo's and head of a clan that serves the Nura. Robust-looking but frail, Zen - as are most of Rikuo's circle - is puzzled and frustrated over the boy's seeming disinterest in his demon heritage, yet remains fond of him nonetheless.

Upon leaving the mansion, Zen's snake-headed servant Hebidayu urges Zen to secede. When he refuses, Hebidayu reveals himself as an agent of the anti-Rikuo wing, and betrays him. Rikuo, chasing after Zen to apologize for his earlier behavior, arrives just in the nick of time, and we get our first extended introduction to Rikuo's "Night" persona. With hair resembling Madeline Khan in "Young Frankenstein" and a bishie appearance that looks much older than "Day" Rikuo, this version is clearly a badass - and he promptly guts Hebidayu in one stroke. Afterwards, he and Zen share sake in a manly yet sensitive declaration of brotherhood. Rikuo wakes the next morning with no recollection of prior events, and goes off to school - only to discover that Yuki-onna has come to school to protect him (and disrupt his flirting with Kana). Finally, another new character is introduced - the raven-haired schoolgirl Keikan Yura. She has a thing for origami and we know she's important, 'cause she's in the ED...

That was really good stuff - better than the first episode. The pacing of the first two eps has been excellent - never boring, but taking its time revealing chunks of the premise and new characters in measured doses. This appears to be the good DEEN in terms of animation - it's not I.G. quality, but DEEN's lovely backgrounds are in evidence. I'm not crazy for Fukuyama Jun's work as the "Day" Rikuo, but the rest of the cast is stellar. This looks to be solidly in the top half of this summer's releases.

Major - 144 & 145



A two-episode review this week, thanks to the subbing schedule. 144 deals mostly with the resolution of the Murdoch fiasco - at least for now. Goro, being a bit of a hothead himself, seems to understand "Mad Dog" better than any of his teammates. With the team struggling and badly needing a win, the Hornets' manager - against the wishes of the owner - gives Murdoch one more chance to prove himself. And indeed he does - against his old team, the Panthers (a thinly-veiled version of the LA Dodgers). His old mates seem to be enjoying his suffering, mockingly intentionally walking the hitter in front of him to bring Murdoch to the plate. His new mates pick him up, and Murdoch comes through with a winning 3-run homer in the 9th, sending the Hornets off on a 4-game winning streak.

The theme of old teams and bitterness continues as 145 bring the Salmons - Goro's first US organization - to town, complete with old "friends" Fox, Sanchez and Bolton. They know Goro's temper and look to get under skin, ignoring his friendly overtures before the game and mocking his rookie status. Thomas, the CF, has a Salmons connection as well - he was beaten out for a job by the Salmons Japanese import, Sakaeguchi. While the game gets off to a good start, the Salmons tire Goro out, the Hornets show their frustration, and pretty soon the whole team is tearing at each others throats. Can Keene manage to hold the team together?

All of this happened just a bit too fast, for me - both the "all better" resolution for Murdoch and the complete disintegration of the team thanks to the Salmons chippy tactics. Still, baseball is a 162-game season - there's an awful lot of stuff to fit into 26 episodes. It's easy to forget that Goro is only 20, we've been together so long. Professional baseball is still an education for him. The series has done a good job shifting the focus from season to season, and never allowing Goro's GAR and talent to elevate him to God status. He still screws up and gets beat sometimes.

I have to say a word about the new ED - and that word is "fantastic". Love the song itself, but the animation sequence is great. It's basically a time-travelogue of Goro and Shimizu's relationship, starting from their 9 year-old Mifune Dolphin selves. Paired with the retro OP, it makes a nice bookend for a series in it's sixth season adapting a manga that's about to finish it's long run in Japan.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

First Impressions - Asobi ni Ikuyo!



I went into this series without a lot of preconceptions, not having any familiarity with the source material and there having been relatively little buzz about the series. And on balance, I was pleasantly surprised.

There's a pretty impressive body count before the credits have finished rolling - mostly courtesy of Futaba, some sort of freakish secret agent or - bear with me here - contractor type who has the ability to phase weaponry out of thin air. After that we segue into a fairly peaceful domestic scene on Okinawa, and our male lead Kio. He meets a girl with cat ears and tail at a family gathering, the busty Eris. Next thing he knows he wakes up in bed next to her with a bump on the head - which she promptly heals with some sort of Star-Trek style tricorder. Eris is confirmed to be an alien - a sexy one, at that. We have the makings of a harem here - the neighbor/childhood friend, the sexy TILF, the bookish school friend - except no one is what they appear to be. Everyone is either a secret agent or deadly assassin of some sort and unassuming Kio appears to be caught in the middle of some very strange events.

This was an interesting pastiche. Elements reminded me of Darker Than Black - thus the contractor mention - including the pacing and the casual violence, as well as the animation style. There are obvious To Love Ru and Sora no Otoshimono elements in the premise, though they appear to be superficial, as this material appears to be much darker. I was even put in mind of Mahoromatic a little - the bespectacled and mild-mannered orphan hero, the sexy houseguest who's smarter than she first appears. I won't claim I know just where this is all going yet, but it's interesting nonetheless. I'm sticking around for a while at least.

Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin - 2



Episode two pretty much confirmed what I suspected after the first one - this is the best series of the summer.

Perfect? No - but we'll get to that in a minute. What Occult Gakuin has in droves is style. The animation, the BGM, the ED - this is clearly the work of major talents. The character designs are wonderful, and a delightfully perverse sense of humor pervades the show so far. Reaction shots (very difficult to pull off well) are hilarious.

The plot is still something of a muddle, but in a good way. With a little more clarity now, we see that Wells-ian aliens have invaded the Earth and in 2012, hold humans in slavery. Our naked friend from episode 1 is Fumiaki Ushida - a former "spoon-bender" boy and now a time agent, the sixth of his kind (clones). Mankind has obtained some alien technology and has been sending the time agents back to 1999 to try and change history, but unfortunately the previous five were all killed in the process. Ushida's job? To find "Nostradamus' Key", and snap a picture of it with the magic cell phone while thinking happy thoughts about the future. Preposterous - but it fits. And with that melding of "War of the Worlds" and "Terminator", we have our premise.

Turns out Maya's father also knew about Nostradamus' key, and was apparently killed in pursuit of it. He's left behind a diary for Maya in a secret compartment by a secret staircase behind a hidden door which Maya and Ushida used to escape what appears to be some sort of vengeful ghost with human form straight out of Japanese horror. This part of the story took on the tone of "Young Frankenstein", with elements of classic horror films and even a nod to "Psycho". It's a complete and utter hodge-podge, a mess - but all put together so artfully that it draws you gleefully along in its wake.

Maya is the weak point of the story for me, so far - her physical abuse of Ushida stopped being funny after about the 3rd time (of what felt like 20). Still, if they tone that side of the relationship down there's a bit of the Katherine Hepburn/Cary Grant chemistry between them, a sort of nod to the screwball comedies of the 30's and 40's. The rest of the gang at the school are mostly a cipher so far, with the exception of the Vice-Principal (and apparent murderer of Maya's father) Chihiro Kawashima, in a wonderful performance by the great Kobayashi Yu.

There are the seeds of greatness in this, no question. The writing is literate and smart and the production values top-shelf. If Maya emerges as a somewhat balanced and sympathetic character this could turn out to be something really special.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Kuroshitsuji II - 2



It appears that we were sold a bill of good with regards to this season of Kuroshitsuji. I give everyone involved a lot of credit - not only were they tight-lipped about what the future held and kept Sebby and Ciel out of all the previews and stills, they even produced a lavish OP for the first episode only - and that ain't cheap - just to convince us that this season would be Alois and Claude. And by all accounts, it worked.

Judging by the new OP and the ED, those two will still have some role in all this - villains, perhaps. But Ciel and Sebastian are clearly back in the spotlight. In a sense I'm relieved, as I was very skeptical (with good reason, apparently) of Kuroshitsuji without them. But I dearly hope we get some sort of explanation for why, after the ending if S1, Ciel is suddenly walking around as if nothing happened and all of his servants are apparently unharmed.

In fact, this entire episode was basically a slice-of-life excerpt from S1. A wafer-thin plot about an old dam and a white stag in the woods is an excuse to reintroduce pretty much the entire cast of S1 (bar Grell, who returns in episode 3). The servants act dumb, Lizzy is terribly annoying, Ciel is adorably tsundere and Sebastian is, well - Sebastian. It's perfectly fun and great to see the gang together again - but how? I've seen it theorized that this is all a dream world that's in Ciel's head - but that doesn't explain everything, since soulless little boys presumably don't dream. So just what the hell is going on, here?

I do enjoy these characters - Sebby and Ciel are a joy to watch interacting, and I'm happy enough to be able to do that for now. But if there's no exposition forthcoming it will start to strain my patience. I'm not ready to call BS just yet - I don't think this is a reset button situation. But I sure hope there's a reasonable explanation for all this.

Giant Killing - 15



Although the entire pre-OP sequence is yet another recap, the pacing continues to pick up somewhat. On the day of the World Cup final, we get a new episode of Giant Killing, and an easy win by ETU. Revenging their earlier defeat at the hands of Nagoya, our heroes net their first home win of the season score three goals - two by Gino. The only downside? Genki Sera - the forward - can't strike gold.

While Sera broods over his missed scoring chances, Tatsumi arrives at the field to find someone rolling about on the pitch, first laughing, then crying. Turns out it's Natsumi, who was the team's ace striker the previous season - before he blew out his knee and missed months of action. Not only that, but he delayed his own recovery for two months by trying to practice too soon. A new character, at last.

And boy, is he a character. Natsumi is refreshingly different than the other team members - brash yet totally insecure, a motormouth who can't shut up and has no sensitivity whatsoever. The conflict is being set up - likable Sera is starting only because Natsumi was injured. Assuming Natsumi fits in with ETU's new style, it seems only a matter of time before Sera joins the reserves again. And does that thought ever piss him off.

I'm enjoying how each episode of the series seems to be focusing on one slice of the ETU-niverse - the fans, or a specific player or players. It seems we're more or less being given spotlight moments for each of the players and even the front office staff, which is interesting - though it does make me wonder just how much the series is going to get accomplished. 15 eps in and we've only played 4 league matches and 3 cup matches, so there's lots of room left to cover. But in the meantime, I'm enjoying this series at every step.

And So it Ends



With all due respect to our friends in Espana, the real winner of this World Cup is a German, and English expatriate:

Paul the Octopus.

Our cephalopod sensation completed his perfect World Cup run by predicting Spain's win over Holland. Would that the Dutch could say the same - their run for perfection was ended by Spain in an ugly, disjointed affair marked by a record number of yellow cards (13) handed out by English referee Howard Webb. Webb also sent off Holland's Hietinga in the second extra period, leaving the Dutch a man down and eventually leading to the decisive goal by Iniesta. It would be hard to argue many of the yellows were not deserved - Netherlands played a chippy game all night - but Webb's reputation as a free hand with the cards proved true.

For Spain, the collective exhale as they finally won their first World Cup could be heard across the Iberian Peninsula. Clearly the better team, they nevertheless were frustrated by Holland's solid defending at the back and physical play. As usual, Cesc Fabergas did not start and made the Spanish side much more dangerous when he came on as a central midfielder in the 87th minute. This followed another clever substitution as Jesus Navas entered as a winger, spreading the field and exposing the Dutch at the center. Villa and the rest of the Spaniards missed some chances, but as has been their wont they were patient and relentless, finally wearing down a Dutch side clearly tired of chasing.

For Holland, it represents another bitter disappointment. Arjen Robben will be kicking himself for missing two breakaway chances, though he surely feels he was fouled on the second. The Dutch also felt Elia was fouled at the edge of the Spanish penalty area just before Iniesta's late winner. But in truth, they didn't do enough to win.

And so, an intermittently exciting but rather mediocre World Cup ends with a mediocre final. The vuvuzuelas, the Jabbulani ball, the horrendous officiating gaffes... Evidence of FIFA's corrupt and stupid stewardship was everywhere. But South Africa managed the pull the event itself off without many major glitches, and the best team probably won - ending a long drought for arguably the best soccer nation never to win the Cup (leaving Holland as undisputed title-holder now). And at least we had Paul the Octopus...

And the only undefeated team from the 2010 World Cup? I give you - New Zealand. Good on ya, Kiwis.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mitsudomoe - 2



This series has something of a split personality. As a sketch series, I suppose that makes sense - we've really had 7 mini-episodes in the first 2 weeks, and so far, we're batting about .500.

As with the premiere, the final sketch was far and away the best. Mitsuba's dilemma was hilarious - stuck in a tree showing her kindergartner's panties to her male classmates. And her tsundere concern for the cicada cast her character in a somewhat different light.

As for the rest of it - well, to be honest it was pretty grim to my eyes. The snot and urine gags had nothing of the wit and grace of the "Nipples" sketch in the first episode - it was just crude bodily function humor that was supposed to be funny for that reason alone. I admit, it had me wincing - but is that a good thing? And this week's Nipples sketch - while better than the first two this week - was more creepy and disturbing than funny.

Which leads into a problem I'm having here. None of these triplets is really likable. I had hopes that Hitoha was going to be something like a harsher version of Hiiragi from Hanamru Kindergarten, or Hotaru from Gakuen Alice. But so far she's downright nasty - other than the hamster, she seems to pretty much hate everyone. Futaba is just batshit-crazy - she seems nice enough, but peeling the skin off live frogs? I really disliked Mitsuba after the first week - but oddly, this time she came off as the most sympathetic. It seemed as if her belligerent facade cracked just a bit, revealing... Well - a tsundere anyway, if not a pussycat. And unlike either of her sisters she seems to have a small dash of common sense.

So what do we need here? Yabe isn't much help - he's nice enough, but too ineffectual to rally around. As others have said, if you want warm and fuzzy you're watching the wrong series. But I do want some rooting interest, and a little variety - if everyone is just plain hideous all the time, the welcome wears thin quickly. We've seen this material can be hilarious at its best - but how often are we going to get that? If it's going to be crude and slapstick humor, great - but it needs to be clever and not just gross for grossness' sake. No show has made me laugh as hard as the "Nipples" sketch this season, so I still have hopes for what Mitsudomoe can be.

Amagami SS - 2



I confess I was unsure about this series after the first episode - not turned off by anything especially, but no attachments to any of the characters and not especially hooked by the premise.

Well, the second episode was definitely better. In large part, I liked Junichi much better after this week. Not only was he thoroughly adorable in his pining for Haruka, but he showed a real sense of humor and quite a bit of intestinal fortitude in his continued pursuit of her. It's pretty much essential to like the male lead in a series such as this, because the focus is going to shift from girl to girl so often (Kanon is a perfect example of a successful variant). We sort of get a new definition of "puppy love" here - Haruka loves puppies, and Junichi gets further than his sempai had by resembling one in his longing for her. It's pretty charming stuff.

These adaptations of dating sims are tricky things. Often constrained by the rigid demands of the form, I find myself irritated when the focus shifts just as I'm getting interested in the relationship. And I do find myself getting quite interested in Haruka and in her relationship with Junichi. She's clearly out of his league, and seems to make quite a habit of turning down confessions. But Junichi seems to have gotten past her guard, just a little. I loved the scenes in the library and the walk home, and I love how Junichi is so straightforward and guileless in his feelings. That's what's weakening Haruka's resolve.

On the other hand, I don't especially find Miya interesting or likable, and I sincerely hope we don't see a true brocon situation developing there. And we don't know enough about any of the other girls to know if their arcs will be as interesting as this one - or more. Inevitably, even in a good example of this form, some will fare much better and some will lag and fritter away some of the series' momentum. On that note we'll just have to wait and see, but for now I'm liking what I'm seeing, It's refreshing to see a series where teenagers actually tell other how they feel about each other.

Obon Festival - San Jose, CA



One of the great things about living in the Bay Area is that one can get a little Japanese culture fix without jumping on a plane. I live smack dab between the only two recognized Japantowns in the US - San Francisco and San Jose. Periodically we have matsuri - the biggest and my favorite being the Cherry Blossom Festival in the spring. Nothing that can compare with a big Japanese festival like Asakusa, Tokyo's Sanja Matsuri (lots of pics and vids on my Picasa page), but another outstanding festival is San Jose's Obon.



The Bon festivals are a major part of Japanese life. They take place all over Japan during the summer, often prompting Japanese to return to their childhood homes to visit relatives here and departed. In simple terms, I think of it as an excuse to express gratitude to those who made it possible for us to live today. Obon Odori - dances - are a major part of these festivals, often quite elaborate and tourist attractions in their own right.

In San Jose, they dance, too - as well as set up food booths, games, and entertainments in their humble Nihonmachi. The local Buddhist temple - the main organizer - throws open their doors and offers "Buddhism 101" lectures. And then there's taiko - lots of taiko, with several groups from around California participating.


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The highlight of the festival are the performances by San Jose Taiko Dojo. Founded in 1972, this is the second-oldest and probably second most prestigious taiko organization in America. First, of course, is Seichi Tanaka's San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Tanaka practically invented taiko in the U.S.A., but San Jose Taiko wasn't too far behind. While SFTD focuses on power and virtuosity, SJTD is more about precision, with a healthy dollop of wit.

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I love taiko - I participate a bit, having taken some classes and worked with a local group headed by an alumnus of SFTD. But my meager efforts are nothing whatsoever to real taiko drummers and what they do. Taiko is an essential part of Japanese matsuri of all kinds, across the nation. There's nothing like it - the combination of sound and movement that makes taiko as much a martial art as a musical form. And SJTD is a wonderful practitioner of and ambassador for the art - accessible, open and generous in their style. They're a beloved part of the community in San Jose's Japantown, and their performances are a display of mutual affection.

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If you're in the Bay Area, try and check out one of our Nihonmachi - especially if there's a festival that weekend. It's not quite the same as being in Japan, but an experience quite different than any other you'll have in America.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

First Impressions - Shiki



Noitamina starts the new season with Shikki, and things are spelled out pretty clearly from the OP, a stylish pastiche of character introductions, skulls and a rain of blood. People are going to die here - lots of them. It's a small mountain village, and it's going to be a mystery. Something supernatural is going to be involved.

This is nothing new - it's been done with a wide range of success, from the pretty good (Higurashi) to the unintentionally hilarious and awful (Ookami Kakushi). This time the source material is a manga by Ryu Fujisaki, author of Soul Hunter and Hoshin Engi, among others. Animation production is from Daume, in something of a departure from their usual fluffier fare such as Minami-ke. And the animation looks fine, if not extravagant - something of a cross between "Reborn!" and Madhouse's "Ef" series. OP, ED and BGM are all pretty standard horror fare - faster-paced J-rock OP with the aforementioned stylish animation, reflective, somber ballad for an ED, and suitably creepy and minor-key BGM. It's anime horror 101.

As for the story itself, we don't learn too much just yet - except that it's a good thing the characters' names are shown on-screen as they're introduced, because there's obviously going to be a lot of them (contributing to the body count, one assumes). Megumi, a 10th grader who hates her life in the small village of Sotoba and dreams of the big city, is the nominal main character of the first ep (though I wouldn't get too attached). She pines for dreamy but stand-offish (and a bit suspicious) Natsuno, who ignores her every chance she gets. The most exciting thing to happen in ages - other than the cow giving less milk - is the strange death of three old people in an isolated section of the village, discovered by bishounen monk Seishin. Apparently they died of natural caues, but wild dogs (a big problem in small-town Japan, apparently) were involved. There's also an odd family that moves into a European-style castle on the hill, the hunky, town Doctor, local cop, more teenagers and a dog that looks eerily like Densuke from "Dennou Coil". In short, we're fully covered for archetypes.

All in all, Shiki manages to execute the formula well enough in the first episode to be pretty entertaining. The mood of sleepy but creepy village life is set pretty well, and the characters are snappy enough to show the potential of holding interest. Not many clues about the premise are given, though there are hints about possible lycanthropy and vampirism. There are even a few pretty good laugh lines. There are some oddities with Shinji Ochi's character designs, most notably that most of the boys' hair seems to grow into horns, but nothing so extreme as to provide a major distraction. In a lean summer so far, this one is above-average and looks to be a series to follow.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Ookami-san to Shichinin no Nakama-tachi - 2



Episode two, and Ookami-san still hasn't made a strong impression on me one way or the other. On the plus side, there are a few flashes of actual chemistry between the leads. Ryoushi shows that he can be pretty GAR when no one's looking, and even brave when someone is - refusing to leave Ryouko's side when they're ambushed by a gang of thugs from a rival school. He even challenges the leader of the gang to a one-on-one fight after decimating their ranks with his slingshot. Over the course of the episode we begin to see more of Ryouko's soft side - she loves cute animals (like Ryoushi's dogs) and even begins to appreciate the boy himself.

There are issues here. Lots of pretty derivative themes, though that isn't too surprising from a JC Staff series. Ryouko is shaping up as a pretty run-of-the-mill tsundere. Worst of all is Satomi Arai's grating narration, which grinds the pacing to a halt every time it happens (way too often). Narration shouldn't be intrusive, and this narration - worst of all - attempts to be funny and fails miserably. It's a major problem and I don't think its going away.

I'm on the fence with this one - one more episode to show me something more.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

First Impressions - Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin, Nurarihyon no Mago



Seikimatsu Occult Gakuin

A-1 Pictures continues to be an interesting studio. Most famous as the home of Yutaka Yamamoto, exiled from KyoAni and the helmer of the excellent Kannagi adaptation, A-1 has consistently produced good-looking series, and this one is no exception. Writer Seishi Minakami has worked with Satoshi Kon in the past, and his sensibilities are evident - both in the creepy visuals and the interesting ED, complete with live-action actions in Paranoia Agent style poses of repose/death. The animation style strongly reminded me of Madhouse's theatrical works - vibrant, bright, with richly detailed backgrounds. Character designs are by Gatou Asou, whose work on Seirei no Moribito is the stuff of legend.

Plot-wise, it's still a bit of a muddle - time-jumping between 2012 and 1999, doomsday prophecies and a girl named Maya (a pretty good gag, that). Most of the action takes place in 1999 at a school of the occult, dedicated to the works of "Gustav Waldstein". Maya's father was the principal of the school and has apparently passed away, victim of a summoning gone terribly wrong. Maya - who had not been back to the school in six years - has returned to attend her father's funeral. The principal's assistant plays a tape the professor made before his death, an evil spirit called a Lamie is summoned, and all hell literally breaks loose. What results is as reminiscent arkerof "Ghostbusters" as anything, with fanservice, a portly "Spirit Diviner" maya dubs Porco Rosso, and lots of ectoplasmic goo. Oh, and at the end a naked guy shows up in a beam of light. Catch all that?

None of it really added up - but it doesn't really have to. It was a fun thrill ride, sort of a darker, occult version of Kamichu - sharing that series' relentless energy, outlandish humor and gorgeous animation. Asou's character designs are superb and the writing promises to be a mix of dark humor and action that could be very successful. I look forward to more episodes of this one.




Nurarihyon no Mago

From Studio DEEN comes this manga adaptation, one of the series I've most been looking forward to in a lean summer. And the first ep was pleasant enough - mostly dealing with the introduction of the large cast and basic exposition of the premise. Echoes of DN Angel in that - our hero Rikuo is a 12 year-old middle schooler (voiced by Fukuyama Jun) who just happens to be next in line to rule the powerful Nura Demon Clan. This nets him a mansion, a grandfather with a football for a head and a squadron of demon subordinates - none of which the boy wants any part of. No, Rikuo would rather spend his life as a normal human boy - in fact, his demon incarnation (also voiced by a much more convincing Fukuyama Jun) has only showed itself once in four years. There are hints of GeGeGe no Kitaro in the kawaii demons that make up much of the clan,
and an all-star class of female seiyuu including Horie Yui and Hirano Aya. The BGM music is excellent, though yes - it does sound a bit like a "Harry Potter" ripoff.

The first episode was mostly a school-life comedy, really, though I suspect the demon politics side of things will become more prevalent. There's not too much original in this premise, but it seems refreshingly low-key for a shounen series. I enjoyed the banter between Rikuo and his demon underlings, and the interactions between they and the grandfather put me in mind of the underrated Shounen Onmyouji. The OP was forgettable, but the ED was adorable - a catchy GeGeGe-esque ballad sung by the trio of female seiyuu. This first episode went set the heart racing, but it was fun and certainly offers enough encouragement to bring me back for another.