Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Oreimo - 9

There were several moments in that episode that left me almost stunned. Watching Kirino play that eroge was really... Something. I mean, no nudity, no foul language, but that was about as dirty as any anime episode I've seen in a long time. What a performance she put on! I don't know whether the worst (best?) moment was the constant squealing, the masturbating in the shower, or the lovemaking with the pillow on the bed - but wow. Just wow! It's easy enough to see why Kyounosuke was uncomfortable to say the least.


While you'll never convince me that the point - and what a point! - of the episode wasn't to see Kirino graphically act out her sexual fantasies, there were other points as well. We certainly got our longest look yet at Kuroneko's private life. And for every step Kirino takes towards being irredeemably a bitch, Kuroneko becomes that much more adorable. She's got an imouto of her own, who worships her, and we see them passing a very quiet afternoon watching Mereru, knitting, and - best of all - talking with Kyousuke on the phone. For you see it was Kuroneko that Kyou called when the porn fest got to be too much for his nerves. "Just to see what she'd been doing." Relationship flag, anyone? Kuroneko knew immediately what was happening in the background, even if Kyou wouldn't admit it. When she's not interacting with other denizens of the darkness, she's quite the normal girl.

Another major development - Saori is an Ojou-sama! Some predicted she was rich, but I didn't see that one coming - not only is she apparently wealthy as sin, but (this isn't so shocking) quite the hottie too. But then, I adored her in her otaku getup, so I didn't need any convincing. She's got something planned - some sort of cosplay party that Kirino & Kuroneko are to be invited to, complete with meido outfits. Will Kyou be there too? In full cosplay mode? We got a glimpse of stalker Ayase too, though mercifully brief. While Kirino turned off her phone to keep fragging herself in peace, Ayase convinced herself it was so Kirino could study without distraction. That relationship can't last.

While I still have the same fundamental problem with this show that I've had from the beginning - Kirino is a totally unsympathetic character - at least this week the writing staff showed they're on top of that, with the vicious self-mockery of Kirino's eroge ("She's 100% tsun, 0% dere!"). Kirino got a taste of her own medicine, but will it actually change her behavior? There were clear signs she thought the hints hit too close to home, but her only reaction was to act out even more and be a bigger bitch to Kyousuke. In a sense I almost admire the fact that the writers are staying the course here - they know she's awful and they're staying the course. But where does that lead to in terms of an ending?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Bakuman - 9

The see-saw this week goes back to the romance side of the ledger, as manga creation takes a back seat to awkward middle-school courtship. And at that, it's not Masahiro and Azuki but Takagi and Miyoshi who finally get center stage.

Takagi has been suspended a week for the fighting incident of the previous episode, while the prick who started it got off Scot-free. Some justice, there. But in any case, the upside is he has some time on his hands - which he of course uses to create a veritable avalanche of names, only the very best of which he plans to let Masahiro look at. He, meanwhile, is wrestling with his own demons, still thinking himself unworthy of Takagi's partnership and blaming himself for the suspension. However, he gets some midnight encouragement from Grandpa, who also spills the beans about how it's Masahiro's father that's paying the bills at the studio.

It's when he goes to Takagi's place to apologize that things start to get really interesting. Not only is Miyoshi already there, but so is another girl, Iwase. She finished second to Takagi in class rank in 7th grade and apparently thinks that, due to a handshake, he's now her romantic property. Quite the stud, Takagi, to have two girls fighting over him - but he's unfortunately completely in the soup about what to do. Proving that, he tells both girls he likes them - which even Masahiro knows is a dumb idea - and it's only when Iwase demands he quit manga that the quandary is settled. Alas, Takagi compounds his mistake by telling Miyoshi that he only spoke to her in the first place to help find about Azuki for Masahiro. This earns him four punches to the face and his first girlfriend. Finally, he confides to Masahiro that Hottori wants another meeting at Jack, and we see Niizuma for a frustratingly brief moment at Kichijoji station, apparently going crazy at the sight of a crow.
Falcon PUNCH!

One thing I really enjoy about this series is that it does a great job portraying just how clueless middle schoolers generally are about romance. Neither unrealistically sophisticated or prone to silly fanservice moments, these characters just interact awkwardly. Azuki and Masahiro can't even speak, and Takagi and Miyoshi interact by physical violence. Yet somehow you know things will progress - this is a manga, after all. I also enjoyed seeing Masahiro interact with his family again - I really enjoyed those man-to-man moments in the second episode and they've been absent since. As for Niizuma, if the creators intent was to rouse my curiosity about him it's been well-accomplished - but it's starting to border on frustration. He's an odd one, and these 30-second snippets with him and raising the level of expectation to perhaps unrealistic levels.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tegami Bachi Reverse - 9

What a truly wonderful episode to wrap up the Niche/Blue Notes Blues arc. It's a mystery to me why this series doesn't get more attention, on the English-language boards anyway. It's really quite special and unique.

What I'd thought was going to be a major step forward in the Gauche storyline ended up pretty much ignoring him, instead devoting the last two episodes almost entirely to Niche's backstory. Her sister really got the chance to shine this time - not least for the way she can manipulate her hair as a weapon. The difference in ability between she and Niche is truly enormous - she can wield her follicles as a giant bow and arrow, a piston, even a giant wrecking ball. But why? Apparently, it was her anguish at being separated from her sister after the evil Mayor (maybe he really was an ancestor and not the same guy) threw the two infants off a cliff and into the fjord. The emotional trauma caused her to grow up, while Niche stayed a little girl for 200 years.

As much as anything, the ep focused on Lag's unique ability to touch the hearts of those around him. When Onee-san decides to kill all the humans in the cave, and then - in disgust - Niche as well, Lag shoots a pair of shindan into her. Revealing first, his own heart - through a series of artful flashbacks of his meeting and bonding with Niche. And second, Onee-san's heart - cruelly broken at being torn apart from her only companion in a terribly lonely existence. Niche is wounded by her attacks, but Lag's innocence wins Onee-san's heart, and the Maka takes Niche to heal in a special lake deep in the cave. But that lake that lets humans live 1000 years? Doesn't exist - just an excuse for the villagers to be greedy and stupid. In the end, Lag is forced to say goodbye for a while, as Niche is to stay with the Maka and her sister until she recovers (Steak, too). How will our boy fare on his own - and for how long will he have to?

Lag in Drag
Lag is a pretty unique character, if you stop and think about it. He's truly good - he doesn't appear to have a selfish thought in his head, and he confronts any situation with courage (and tears, of course). He's a creature of pure empathy in a way, and that seems to have an impact on everyone he interacts with.  That, no doubt, will be what redeems Gauche in the end. In a follow-up to Onee-san's comment that he wasn't a human, the Maka calls him "Light" - or at least uses the word in some context to refer to Lag. We still don't know what he is, but Lag appears to be some kind of elemental force for good - somehow connected the "Becoming Spirit" no doubt. The Maka - who has a larger role to play in protecting the world then we were originally led to believe - is going to be keeping a close eye on him.

Next week: Little Lag Riding Hood?

To Aru Majutsu no Index II - 8

That was an altogether enjoyable episode of "Index" for me. The focus was on the comedy, with a bit of the religious/magic side of things, both of which are the modes I prefer for this show. It also featured some good Touma/Mikoto interplay, really for the first time this season. In short, a winner.

That's a well-placed - er...

Pretty much every major character of consequence had an appearance this week, with the focus on the school festival and the magicians trying to sneak into Academy City due to the reduced security it brought. The religious artifact of the week is the "Stab Sword", supposedly packed with all the power of the weapon used to kill Christ on the cross. Pretty heavy stuff for the context, if you ask me, but hey - I'm not offended. This item is the latest prize in the seemingly endless war between the Roman Catholics and the Church of England. If only real life was that exciting.

All this was more or less a vehicle to get us to the meat of the episode, Touma getting himself into awkward situations as only he can. There was an almost Sora no Otoshimono level of cleavage this week, from Fukiyose to Oriana, and an indirect kiss with Mikoto. My favorite moments, though, were when he stumbled across Komoe (also in her first appearance of the year I believe) dressing Index in the park. Bit of a moe overdose there, but in a good way. All I can say is, damn you Sphinx! You couldn't have jumped half a second later??

Sora no Otoshimono Forte - 9

This week represented something of the yin/yang of this series for me. The first segment was full of the elements I loathe - Chibi-Tomoki, Mikako, another of her interminably tedious "competitions". The second was wall-to-wall Ikaros being kawaii with a side of Nymph, which is a concoction I'll take every day and twice on Sunday.

Fortunately I didn't hate the first part as much as some of it's sister sketches. There were amusing moments - Nymph as a minnow Tomoko throws back, Sohara as the white whale, the death flag "proposal" for Tomoki. It even had some continuity - references to the last episode with Fate, the watermelon monster, etc. And once is started, Mikako's involvement was somewhat limited.

If he doesn't marry her, I will

The second part was pure win, though. Centered around the concept of Tomoki finally giving Ikaros and Nymph an allowance, what followed was an adorable and amusing look into the mind of my two favorite angeloids. Nymph, hilariously, decides to spend all her stash on snacks - which Astraea promptly starts mooching off of. The lovely and innocent Ikaros, OTOH, (after petting her money for a bit) goes on a quest to find something to buy that will make Master happy. After getting several bad pieces of advice, she finally gets some of the good from Sugata - who tells her to buy a watermelon. This initially disappoints and confuses Ikaros when she realizes that was what she wanted, not what Tomoki wanted - but the lesson is driven home when she realizes Tomoki is happy because she got something for herself. But is what she really wants...the proposal?

That was a nice little finish to the episode. Some good development between Tomoki and Ikaros - while the death flag bit was played for laughs, it was still Ikaros he thought of. Even Nymph had her moment, blushing furiously as she shared the caramel apple she bought for Tomoki. And we see Fate - to no one's surprise, still alive - trapped at the bottom of the ocean and ruminating on love and pain. She remains a very creepy little creature.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Amagami SS - 21

So begins our final arc. We've had a loli arc, a sexy senpai arc, not one but two osananajimi arcs, and the spunky athletic girl arc. At last, we wrap up with the tightly-wound class president/overachiever with the hidden dark side.

The right girl won...

One thing this episode did very nicely was to find a slot for all the girls to appear that felt natural to the plot. I must say, though, that Haruka absolutely wins. She steals every scene she's in and damn, whether she's in a Santa skirt or peeping at girls in bikinis, she's sexy. But at least with our new girl, Ayatsuji, we have a little spark - something that was totally missing in the tea club arc that had a girl named Rihoko in it.

Mind you, this was certainly full of cliches - not least of which was getting locked in the storeroom. It was handled pretty well, though - Ayatsuji was perfectly in character. Calm, cool and collected was she - always with a smile on her face. Poor Junichi only volunteered for the Founder's Day Committee to try and get over his morose loathing of Christmas, but in Ayatsuji may have gotten more than he bargained for. For when he happened upon her notebook, you see, her reaction was rather terrifying... What terrible secrets does our perfect girl have hidden in there?

Wherever this goes, it's certainly been an improvement based on one episode. At least there's some spark between the leads and this one feels like it will be about a real romantic relationship. I like seeing Junichi is the "seme" role in the relationship (heh!) where he hasn't really been since the Haruka arc.

Shiki - 17

Well, the bastards did it just like I expected - no resolution to the Akira cliffhanger. I personally still believe he's alive - there have to be a few humans left or the series seems to be just about over.

Which leads to the main question nagging at my mind at the close of another excellent episode of Shiki. By all accounts, this war seems to be about over. Toshio is certainly bitten, Seishin has delivered himself into the hands of the enemy (not that he was much use anyway), following in his father's footsteps. Almost all of the nurses are dealt with, Kaori is planning her own funeral... Jeebus, what are they going to do to fill those last five episodes?

What's that - Natsuno? Yes, he is still out there as some sort of werewolf or daywalker - we saw him a few times this episode, mostly running around and looking foppishly elegant. But what can one super-vampire do against an entire village of them? And the entire village is pretty much shiki now - they're living openly in the main village houses, picking off the last of the survivors at their leisure. I had thought Dr. Ozaki was the most annoyingly useless character on the show, but at least he showed some steel eventually. Seishin has taken that mantle from him. Seriously - how pathetic can one man be? He's absolving Tourhu for killing as if it were perfectly defensible. He loses his father, then walks right into the mansion for tea. Is he drugged, or already bitten? Frankly I don't much care at this point - he's no use to our side either way so they can have him. I suppose there's a small chance that this is a ruse, and he plans a counterattack from the inside. But I really doubt it. At least the Senior Monk went down trying to take a bullet for his family.

Talking of Ozaki, at least he's gone down with a little style. Having attempted to stake Chizuru - foiled by a sharpshooting Mr. Kirishiki - he's finally bitten as he goes off on a screed about just how stupid the villagers are and how they deserve their fate. Seeing Ritsuko taken was probably the last straw for him, but he was really the only human besides Akira to show any real fight. And then there's poor Kaori - still alive but in a terrible state. Her entire family dead (she thinks) she goes so far as to dig her own grave and ask the witless Seishin for a posthumous name. Her situation is a metaphor for the entire village at this point.

So what's left? That's the question. We did find out that Mr. K is indeed human, for what it's worth. We know that Tatsumi knows Natsuno is back, but not what actions he plans to take. Natsuno's one-man (or whatver he is) rebellion seems like thin gruel to stretch for five episodes. As good as this show is, I have to think there are a couple of surprises in store - but I can't see what they are yet, apart from Akira probably being alive. Dammit, I want a counter-attack - more scenes like the one in Ozaki's examination room, an eye for an eye. So far the balance sheet for this war is disgustingly one-sided.

kuragehime - 6

It seems almost pointless to keep harping on the same things Kuragehime does fantastically, though that would be easy enough to do week after week. Plainly, it's just straight-up quality - every aspect of the series is top-notch. Something I've really come to appreciate is that two elements that usually get discusses separately - plot and character development - are inseparable here. It's not a plot-heavy series like, say, Dennou Coil or Ghost Hound - but there's so much happening, all the time. The difference is that everything is connected to the interior lives of the characters, all of whom (especially the big three) are complex and thoroughly believable.

The star of the episode - and a rising star overall for me - is Shu. He's such a tragic character in so many ways. But what happened to him this week was really horrendous. Inari probably had no idea that Shu was a virgin, but the effect of her callous act was devastating for Shu. Blackmail is bad enough - and the impact on Shu's career could be grave - but to make it worse, he know believes his first experience was lost to a amnesiac fog with a woman he cares nothing about. The sad, gallant act of going over to shake Tsukimi's hand afterward speaks so much to who Shu is as a person.

Not that there wasn't plenty else going on here, too. Kuranosuke is thoroughly smitten with Tsukimi at this point, which is certainly going to lead to further complications between the brothers. He was true to himself this episode - I loved him in his "That Girl" look, and I loved how he brazenly improvised his motivational speech and admitted he had no idea how to fight the development project. If Shu is pure left-brain and completely inhibited, Kura is pure right-brain - an unfiltered rocket of ego and libido who lives completely in the moment. But his persistence and generosity seems to have finally worn down the Amars to some extent, and they finally got a name out of him (albeit a fake one). I suspect they will learn the truth fairly soon.

I also loved the cafe scene generally, and Banba calling Kura "Meat". The background Amars are finally starting to get fleshed out now, though they're still somewhat caricatures, which is probably the weakest part of the series overall. In an 11-episode cour, though, I'm just not sure there's enough time to meaningfully change that. Tsukimi and the brothers have an awful lot of story left to tell.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Nurarihyon no Mago - 21

One thing I really like about this show is the way it acts as a microcosm of the main character's dual life. We see whole episodes almost entirely dedicated to the demon half of the storyline, and other to the human. In some, these two streams cross and give us a sense of the overlap of the two very different worlds.

There wasn't much of the Supernatural Squad this week, as the youkai took control of the action. It seems we've reached a sort of reckoning point for Rikuo - he can no longer hope to command the Nura Clan in the passive way he has been. Members are being killed and his subordinates demand action.

The really interesting twist this week was that Rikuo needs to form his own Night Parade of 100 Demons, as the ones loyal to his grandfather (and we had tantalizing mentions of Rikuo's father this week) view him as an equal, not as their master. This notion seemed to finally shake Rikuo out of his indecision, and naturally the first batch of youkai to swear loyalty are Yuki-onna, Aotabo, Kurotabo and Kubinashi - in a rather somber ceremony involving underage drinking. I suspect that Shoei, once he recovers, will be one of the next roung, along with Gyuuki's two subordinates, Gozumaru and Mezumaru.

The most interesting elements for me were Yuki-onna's vision of Night Rikuo after drinking the sake - competition for Kana? - and Rikuo's conversation with himself. I don't know how that works exactly, but both halves of Rikuo seemed to quite literally seemed to be having a face to face discussion. I suppose it was meant to be symbolic - Day Rikuo pledging to protect the humans, Night Rikuo to deal with the demon side - but not having read the manga it's hard to tell.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Yosuga no Sora - 8

Thumpa Thumpa Thumpa

There's no question about it - the first two arcs were playland compared to this one.  Unlike those pleasant diversions, the Nao/Sora situation packs a lot of emotional weight.  And tempers and emotions are running high.

If Haruka bore any grudge against Nao for raping him when he was a child, he seems to have gotten over it.  Whatever happened back then, it's clear that there was a very real bond between the two.  When Haru left town, Nao apparently went into a tailspin - her personality completely changing (all this was according to annoying wingman Youhei, who has way too much screen time in this episode).
Nice melons

What we didn't see in that flashback last week was that Sora witnessed the incident - even if she didn't totally understand what she was seeing.  When she walks in on the pair now, there's no doubt in her mind what she's seeing, and it's a lot hotter than the curry on the stove.  Haru, pimp that he is, doesn't even break his rhythm when Sora walks in - but Nao is horrified. Sora kicks her out and begins a reign of terror against the pair of them, determined to keep them apart.  Unfortunately for her, Haru has other ideas.

This is where it gets a little complicated for me.  I gather we're supposed to generally sympathize with Sora, but I don't find her especially likable.  Besides the fact that she's a hikokomori, she's utterly self-centered and treats Haruka like crap.  He cooks for her, shops for her, watches out for her emotionally (most of the time) and generally acts as her punching bag.  And, lest we forget, she's his twin sister.  What right does she have to oppose his having a relationship with a girl who isn't his twin sister?  Clearly, this has been a confusing and disturbing adolescence for the both of them, but still.

On the other hand, she did see Nao practically rape her brother when he was probably twelve years old.  So in that sense, she has every right to be angry at Nao and consider him a bad influence on her brother.  There's no telling what impact that early experience had on Haru - though he seems to have come through it OK, and Nao seems to genuinely love him.  Sora didn't react this violently when Haru hooked up with Kazuha or Akira, which suggests that either she realizes Nao is a much more serious threat to her chances, or she just doesn't want Nao anywhere near her brother for his own sake.

I'll give Yosuga no Sora this - for all the comparisons it's inspired, it's quite unlike any other series I've seen.  We know that sibling kiss is going to return to prominence, and the incest route seems inevitable.  But I can't honestly say I know how this is going to end.

Shinryaku Ika Musume - 8

Gesoninmurobungo disease.  Spelling test later.

One of the many things I love about this series is that is has no hesitation in going completely bizarre, and when it does feels no compulsion to try and explain everything away. Just shut your left brain off and enjoy the ride and Ika Musume will make you very happy.

We had (as usual) three very different types of skits this week, starting with a riff on Ika getting sick. I wasn't sure where they were going with this - I thought maybe Ika was faking it as an excuse to get more shrimp. But a disease where you crave shrimp so much it kills you? Really, how bizarre an idea is that? But it totally works - and the premise allows for some nice opportunities for Eiko to show how Ika really is part of the family now. It also gives Sanae a chance to don the giant shrimp costume again and show us just how demented she really is.

I know Ika's castle is a turd - but that's better than a...

Second, we have a very silly story of sand castles. Ika stumbles upon Takeru and his ostentatious little friend building a castle and decides to do it one better, which leads to a rather bizarre construction Takeru-friend aptly labels a turd. This young fellow appears to be another future arch-enemy for Ika-chan, as she humiliates even his father - a professional sculptor - by secretly using her tentacles to help her turd destroy his spectacular construction. All this played out over a backdrop of Ika's new talent - those little flaps on the side of her hat. You can buy that hat at Cospa now, but I suspect it can't do what Ika's does - slap mosquitoes, slap people, cool off her friends... Everything but fly, apparently, much to her disappointment. Alas even Ika doesn't know what they're actually supposed to do - are they fins, or what?

Finally, we have the best sketch of the episode for sheer laughs as Ika-chan is introduced to the concept of the umbrella. A cheap vinyl umbrella they virtually give away in Japan it may be, but "Ika Mark One" is a thing of wonder to her. A weapon, a device for entertainment, a shield... Such power! She even dreams of defeating the fearsome Robo-Eiko with an upgraded version, "Ika Mark One - Excelsior". Sadly, Ika Mark One meets a terrible fate under the wheels of a truck - only to make a triumphant reappearance in the ED. Eiko and Ika walk off sharing Eiko's fancier umbrella, which Ika complains is too small to cover her completely. "Isn't a little bit all right? You're a squid, after all."

Be my right arm - my eleventh tentacle!

While I enjoyed all three parts this week, the last was my favorite because I just love seeing Ika obsess over some mundane aspect of human life and let her imagination run wild. I feel like that when I'm in Japan as a visitor, sometimes - the oddest things are utterly fascinating. But really, all three were excellent and felt original. And it it me, or did Nagisa seem less afraid of Ika this week?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Oreimo - 8

Wow, were the long knives ever out for this episode. A large portion of the audience seemed to turn on Oreimo after this one, but as usual I'm going to be a contrarian and say it was pretty damn good.

Taking a page from "Bakuman" a good chunk of the episode was given over to the formative stages of Kirino's LN "My City" being turned into an anime. Maybe anime is like sausage and laws - no one should have to see them being made - but I rather enjoyed it. The turtle-necked writer pissed me off (he was supposed to), the director appeared to be a creative cipher, and lots of dirt was spilled on just why a one-volume novel by a middle-schooler was being adapted in the first place. I thought the scenes in the conference room - both the first with Kirino and the second with Kyousuke - were very effective. Naturally when Kirno literally worked herself sick Kyou took it upon himself to take her place in the pre-production meeting and defend her interests.

For all that, there was a fundamental problem with the premise here, and to their credit the writers - through the person of Kuroneko - chose to face it head-on rather than ignore it. It really is blatantly unfair that a 14 year-old girl's novel - by all accounts a rather shallow and silly one - should be published at all, never mind turned into an anime while so many struggling artist with real talent can't get a sniff of success. The screenwriter feels it, Kuroneko feels it, and yes - Kyou feels it as well. All of them are jealous of her in their way. The writer shows it by trying to change all of her ideas, Kuroneko just blurts out what she thinks, but what of Kyousuke? He says he "hates" Kirino - to himself, of course - but all he says publicly about why he keeps helping her despite her behavior is "I'm her brother".

That's the elephant in the room this series has been ignoring, that question - and it's fitting that Kuroneko asked it, as she was the shining star of the episode. She exploded a massive truth bomb on everyone, not least herself - exposing all their jealousies and resentments, even admitting the novel was silly and boring. It was she who finally asked the question the audience has been asking - "Why the hell do you keep doing it, Kyousuke?" And in the he has no answer except the brother cop-out - for now.

Truth bomb!

Kirino is truly one of the more maddening characters in recent anime memory. She's absolutely talented and she works her ass off to accomplish what she has, but there's no question she's been lucky too - but the kicker is the brutal way she treats others, especially Kyousuke. At the close of the episode she tells Kyou that the next life counseling session will be the last - and so the ep ends on a rather ominous note. Naturally he asked Saori and Kuroneko not to say anything about the second meeting - but whether her agent Fate would have told her, we can't yet say. The implications of her statement are unclear, but the implications of the episode itself are that some sort of reckoning is coming. Isn't that we've all been asking for? Kyou admitted his resentment to himself, at least, and the first step is admitting you have a problem. Kuroneko, OTOH, had no problem voicing her feelings - she was positively GAR. It was fascinating that Saori clammed up at the meetings but Kuroneko had lots to say. She's more or less taken on the role of the audience proxy here - asking the questions and voicing opinions on our behalf. The only thing she leaves unclear is what her feelings about Kyousuke are. Is she jealous of Kirino for having such a loyal brother, or is she starting to fall for him, just a little? That last look on the train is sphinx-like and full of mystery.

We may find out more about that mystery next week, but the biggest looming question remains in Kyou's hands: just what is the real answer he's covering up with "Because I'm her brother"?

Tegami Bachi Reverse - 8

Steak is clearly shocked at this hug

A funny thing happened on the way to finding Gauche - we got an entire episode dedicated to Niche's back story. And a welcome diversion it was, too.

Mind you, there was some Gauche development this week. He was definitely seen in the village of Blue Notes Blues, entering their sacred cave accompanied by Roda. When Lag, in defiance of the villagers, enters the cave he finds not only a bunch of shindan casings, but a veritable gallery of unfamiliar Gaichu frozen in ice.

For God's sake, PUT SOME PANTS ON!

The main focus of the episode was definitely Niche. BNB is certainly the place where she was born, apparently two hundred years earlier. There's some dispute about the timing there, and Niche's mangling of Japanese doesn't help - but it seems like 200 is the number. She remembers a little despite the fact that she was a "babe" at the time. Lag and Niche eventually stumble on the legendary lake whose waters are supposed to grant a thousand years of life. Who should appear out of the water but the Maka herself (himself?) and what appears to be Niche's sister. She certainly looks older (in all the right ways), but it appears she's a twin - and none too happy to see her sister still looking like a little girl. The villagers soon arrive (so much for the cave being off limits) and Niche's sister starts to tell the story of how things got nasty between the Maka and the villagers, and the children of Maka were dragged into it. This is a story the (apparently) two-hundred year old mayor would rather not be told.

A tremendous amount of development there, for sure. Perhaps most interesting was the revelation from Niche's sister than Lag isn't human. Lots of exposition to come there, for sure. Lag's reaction to said sister's nude form - so very unlike Niche's - was pretty cute. And why does Niche's twin look like a grown woman? She implies that Niche simply forgot how to grow up - but we haven't even yet seen how the two sisters were separated. It does seem obvious that the Mayor is 200 years old, and certain that he tried to kill the twins, thinking them cursed. I suppose he drank the water of the lake to live that long, but somehow that strikes me as a little too simple for this show. Indeed, we're now getting a renewed sense for just how intricately plotted Letter Bee really is - and how artfully the plot threads are being woven together. As always the episode looked fantastic, full of brilliant examples of the unique visual style that makes this show so beautiful. The frozen Northern landscapes lend themselves perfectly to that style, and the Maka itself - a kind of golden dragon/sea worm - is a true work of art.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Picket Fence 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir

Here's another one of those interesting finds at TJ's. You can find this wine directly from the producer - for a mere $30 bucks. Meanwhile, Trader Joe's is selling the very same wine for $8.99. That's all well and good and enough to whet the appetite, but some $30 wines wouldn't be a bargain at any price. So how does the Picket Fence stand up?

The quest for a varietally correct Pinot for $10 is of course one of the holy grails of wine consumption. You can get some pretty decent cheap Pinots for under $10 but they tend to be of a kind - cherry-fruit forward, and often blended with small amounts of other grapes. The Picket Fence is a real Pinot - lighter in color, a bit challenging on the palate, and quite complex and interesting. I suspect not everyone will love it, but it delivers a fair amount of interest, especially for the price.

The nose is spice. A bit of fruit - blueberry, perhaps - but spice is predominant, with a hint of vanilla and forest. Freshly corked the spice was pretty predominant on the palate as well, with more sweet vanilla and just a hint of cherry in the mix. After decanting the character changes quite a bit - both in the nose and on the palate the wine becomes much earthier, with intense loamy, mushroom essences joining the party. The wine is heavier in body than it would appear visually, with a nice, silky texture and not much heat despite the 14.5% ABV. The finish allows the oak to shine through, with a nice hint of dark chocolate. There's a nice tannic structure here, with plenty of acidity and a medium finish.

I think this is a worthwhile find, mostly because the Picket Fence is so different in character than what we get in most cheap Pinots. It's a chance to drink a wine with some real Pinot personality and a bit of bottle age for under $10, which isn't something that comes along every day. There's not much (500 barrels in total) so snap up a few while you can.

Bakuman - 8

One in a Hundred Million

Bakuman continues to paint a picture of just how rough the life of a budding mangaka is. In addition to all of the other challenges we've already seen, Masahiro and Takagi are facing yet another one due to their situation. Because they're a team, they can only succeed if both of them are on their game at the same time. If either one is distracted, disinterested or just plain in a slump, they have zero chance of creaking something that can actually sell.

It's clear that this is a really hard path these kids have chosen. They slave for a month to create a work in time for submission for the Tezuka award, making it by the skin of their teeth - but not before Masahiro rejects a score of story ideas from Takagi. Finally they hit upon a winner, and devote almost all of their time to it, with Takagi even slumping from his accustomed #1 class ranking. But it's good - Hottori loves it and offers to submit it for the Tezuka. The guys are encouraged and spend the next month drifting through school without getting any writing done, dreaming about winning the award. Yet, for all that, they don't - it makes the final eight but not the final four.

This leads to a crisis of confidence for Masahiro. Hottori's "The story is especially great" comment - offered innocently enough - and the Tezuka panel's assessment that the art merited only a "3" while the story got a "4" leads him to believe he's just not good enough. This is compounded when another budding mangaka at school urges Takagi to dump Masahiro and pair with him. Takagi shows his loyalty by punching the kid in the face - which is all well and good, but the whole experience can't have done anything for Masahiro's shaken psyche.

The romance took a break this week (except for another of Masahiro's toga-wearing fantasies) and we didn't see anything of Eju Niizuma after the into. The former doesn't bother me so much but I would like to see more of Eji sooner rather than later. We know he's come to Tokyo, and we know he took both the first place and runner-up slot at the Tezukas. He's clearly got talent and he's clearly prolific - I'm curious to see more of him and whether he will rise above the bizarre caricature we've been given glimpses of so far.

To Aru Majutsu no Index II - 7

Mercifully brief, the two episode Railgun-hijack is over - though curiously, the second ep didn't even seem to have all that much Railgun in it. Kuroko's obnoxiousness level was tones down quite a bit as she spend most of the episode trapped under a table or bleeding out after being shot, though she did manage to spout a rather annoying and self-glorifying screed about right and wrong and slap Touma despite the fact that he saved her life.

The plot, such as it was, revolved around a plot to re-start the ugly experiments we heard so much about in the first season, so it was rather fitting that it was Misaka 10032 that led to Kouma's involvement and the eventual victory of the good guys, though it was Accelerator who actually ended things with Awaki, the villainess. Punching young girls in the face seems to be a growing theme of this season, and Accelerator gladly obliged. I continue to find his interactions with Misaka-Misaka highly amusing too - I hope we see more of Accel this season. He's more interesting as a weakened and fallible curmudgeon that an unbeatable beast.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru - 7

Episode 7 of Soredemo is all sorts of win. This is a series that has continued to grow in my esteem after a fairly slow start, to the point where it's now one of the shows I most look forward to every week.

Sanada (heretofore known as "Eroyuki") proves that last week's star performance was not a one-off. We got some real development in his relationship with Arashiyama this week, and an opportunity for Irinu Miyu to show why he's one of the best seiyuu in the business, drama or comedy. The entire first sketch was a joy to listen to as he and Chiaki Omigawa played off each other beautifully. That he's hot for her is obviously to everyone in town - including her 4th-grade brother Takeru (more from him later) - except Arashiyama. When she falls asleep on his shoulder on the bus, Sanada proves he's got some cajones by heeding his horoscope and taking a journey, intentionally missing their school stop and riding to the outskirts of town. He and Arashiyama then have a fun day cutting classes, as Sanada revels in a little hand-holding and Arashiyama reminds him why they stopped being playmates in the first place.

A great SHAFT moment

All that is just an appetizer, really, as the main course is another great mini-episode featuring Takeru. Kids on fun outings is the theme of the episode, as this chunk of it finds Takeru unable to sleep due to a disgusting energy drink Arashiyama gives him after dinner. Showing again that she really is a good sister who loves her younger sibs dearly, Arashiyama takes Takeru for a midnight stroll to burn off his energy so he can sleep. What follows is going to be familiar to anyone who remembers being a kid and realizing just how cool it was to have snuck out late at night, seeing a different side of the town you live in. Hotori affectionately shows her brother the town at night - Seaside as a hangout for the local merchants (complete with warning to stay away from it at that time of night), the ramen stand at the station, the convenience store, reveling in the awe these small things inspire in the lad. She even takes time to blow his mind with the concept of midnight ("It's zero o-clock! How can zero be a time?"). Finally, they sneak back into the house and share a bath before bed, the clever Takeru having figured out that Hotori has clearly done this before...

Honestly, for all the things I like about this show - which is a lot - the sibling moments are my favorite. The relationship between Hotori and Takeru is just right - adorable but not unnecessarily saccharine. She just simply, quietly loves him - becoming a different person in her "Onee-chan" role than she is the rest of the day. He annoys her sometimes and she him, but there's an acceptance and mutual dependence that's perfectly portrayed. Clearly Hotori takes her role as guide and teacher to her younger siblings very seriously, and that's a side of her character I really like. As for Takeru, he's one of the most interesting juvenile males this side of Prince Chagum - he's clever but patently innocent, energetic without being annoyingly hyperactive, caught up in the narrow fascinations of boyhood but slowly becoming aware of the strange world his older sister and the adults around him live in. It's a slightly idealized relationship between he and Hotori - as a guy with two older sisters I can attest to that - but it captures the feelings attached to the happier side of our relationship with eerie accuracy.

Amagami SS - 20

I give Amagami points for originality with the Rihoko arc, if nothing else. It was a romance with no romance. It wasn't so much an anti-climax as a non-event.

That was a curious choice, devoting four episodes to a relationship with no romantic advancement (and no chemistry). As part of something larger it would make some sense - but as part of a romance series, especially an omnibus format, it's baffling. At least the arc was consistent - a sexual encounter at the end would have been completely out of character with the rest of the arc. Really, in the end, this should have been called the "Tea Club Arc". I hope you cared about the future of the tea club, because if you're like me, you just spent 88 minutes watching episodes obsessed with it.

In a way, it's too bad - Rihoko is likable enough and Junichi wasn't obnoxious or anything. But there was just no there there. I don't really know anything about Tsukasa, the subject of the last arc, but given that she's been given that slot I can only assume she's a strong contender and that some real sexual tension is going to exist between her and Junichi. For my money, this series peaked with the first arc (especially the third ep) and has never reached that level since.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Kuragehime - 5

He's a virgin!

It's amazing just how much content Kuragehime has packed into just five episodes. There's been so much plot, so much character development and so many big comedy moments that it feels as if I've been watching the series for months. I think that's a testament to the fact that there's just no waste - no wasted episodes, no wasted scenes, no wasted moments. Every minute of every show is packed with quality.

I had been hoping that the redevelopment storyline would be downplayed, fearing a rather conventional David vs. Goliath morality play on tradition vs heartless modern sprawl. But I have to confess I rather liked the way they handled it - like everything else in this show, it was full of twists and leavened with smart humor. Chieko's mother having finally decided to sell out to the developer, Chieko persuades the Amars to attend the development meeting to speak out against the move. Problem is that, naturally, career women and being looked at are two more things the nuns just can't deal with. This scene has two key moments - first, the revelation that dense Shu still doesn't realize Tsukimi is the girl in the kimono. And second, the aptly named Inari, the vixen representing the development company that wants to build the hotel. She spots Shu in the audience, recognizes him immediately as a Minister's son, and undergoes a Superman-like transformation into a seductress intent on currying Shu's favor (and perhaps stealing his cherry in the process).

Meanwhile, Kuranosuke continues to be the most complex and unreadable character on the show. Not surprisingly he takes the Amars side in their dispute, though his reasons for showing so much passion for the cause could be many and varied. He certainly feels something for Tsukimi, and he doesn't mind the idea of crossing his father. But there also seems to be something of the crusader in him, the defender of lost causes. Having already transformed Tsukimi with mixed (from his perspective especially) results, he scolds the rain-soaked and dour Amars that they can't possibly fight the development looking like they do. Thus begins one of the more hilarious transformation sequences in recent anime, starting with Mayaya and Banba. And thus, the battle is truly joined.

This is one show that's mastered the art of combining absurd humor and complex emotional development. Tsukimi is such an easy character to identify with - her dream of being a jellyfish, floating peacefully in the current without all those ugly human complications, was beautifully presented. She's broken, as everyone in this cast is in some way, yet a beautiful soul just waiting to be brought out of her chrysalis. Shu is going to be dealing with some serious issues with Inari, by the look of things. Kura still won't be honest with himself about just how he feels about Tsukimi, and he hasn't even revealed his identity to the Amars. And they themselves must decide if saving their home is a worthy enough reason to abandon their cloistered fantasy life and confront the ugliness of adulthood and the surprises and delights of the world outside their walls. That's a lot of ground to cover in six episodes, but with the track record of the first five Kuragehime should have no trouble doing it brilliantly.

Sora no Otoshimono Forte - 8

So - what maketh a great Sora no Otoshimono episode? Let's review:

- Minimal or no chibis, especially Tomoki - check
- Minimal or no Taicho, Sugata and Sohara - check
- Jiggling Astraea boob shots - check
- GAR Tomoki - check
- And most of all: Ikaros actually involved in the freakin' plot - check!

The mix has been slowly shifting away from the 100% "canon filler" ecchi episodes towards more serious, plot-driven ones, and that culminated in episode 8 - pretty much 100% plot with nary a gag. It had the best action sequences of the series and seriously advanced the Tomoki/Angeloid harem storyline.

It really is as if this show has a dual-personality disorder. While I truly love the sex farce moments when they're good, the show just packs more weight when it focuses on the Angeloids and the whole theme of free will, and on Tomoki's serious side. The introduction of the second-generation angeloid Chaos has really been the kick in the rear SnO needed to shake it out of a rut of mediocre gag episodes - episodes that were starting to feel rather stale. Chaos is a creepy little loli, especially the eyes. While she keeps asking everyone what love is, she seems to have a special talent for finding the first-generation angeloids' weak spots and exploiting them. That's all in addition, of course, to her rather fearsome combat abilities - at long-distance, she clearly has the others outclassed. Fortunately, Ikaros still seems to have the best strategic sense of any of them - her improvisational tactics saved the day again, after she'd already saved Nymph from Chaos earlier.

Ah, Nymph. She as good as confessed to Tomoki in this episode - crying in his arms after her near-death experience. And Astraea confessed, too - to herself, anyway - as well as ripping off her chain. The most formidable close-combat fighter and the stupidest of the angeloids, she appears to have officially come over to Tomoki's side now. Best of all Ikaros, so long abandoned this season as a main character, really shone. She outwitted Chaos (who I'm assuming is obviously not dead yet), and showed a flash of strong emotion in pondering what Tomoki meant to her. Yes, she used the "L" word about him, even as she denied she knew what it meant.

For the first time in a while I'm really looking forward to seeing where the show goes from here, even as the season winds down. I doubt we'll get any serious romantic development but things certainly look more interesting in that department than they did a week ago. And I'm sure we'll get back to some outlandish ecchi comedy in those last few eps, but hopefully we'll continue to have a balance where both personalities get their chance to shine.